Thoughts on Sound Quality and Compression in Modern Music

The C Word

The omnipresence of streaming music (and video) comes with a hidden pitfall: Compression.

In audio recording, compression is a fairly simple concept. Pretend you have a sound engineer that adjusts the recording level while you sing. He is your compressor — as long as he stays on top of your voice’s volume changes and counter-adjusts them as needed. In this case, compression reduces the difference between high and low volumes.

Compression is also used in data. This employs a sort of short-cutting algorithm that shrinks data by using data pointers, multiplication, and division to lesson the footprint of the data, then expand it back to normal when needed. This may be just one example, and a shoddy one at that. But you get the idea.

The important point about digital compression is that it can be lossless (non-destructive compression) or lossy (destructive compression). Unfortunately, streaming music is built on our acceptance of lossy compression in our music, even when we’ve paid full price for it. With modern music being often heavily compressed in both regards — in data and within the song’s mix itself, much music becomes underwhelming under these fuzzy conditions.

As a musician, producer, and audiophile, I’m concerned with the compression of music in streaming services. Yes, it’s necessary! For now, but hopefully (and likely) not for too long. I treat streaming music like a preview for the real thing.

Let’s talk about digital audio compression for a moment.

Bitrates and Shitrates

When a YouTube video or Soundcloud track streams, I can almost always hear a dullness to the sound when compared to a proper studio recording (i.e. CD, 24-bit FLAC or WAV, or my favorite for casual listening and collecting: 320kbps MP3). In YouTube, Soundcloud, even Spotify and Pandora, the music can sound great. Until you know better. The highs lack sparkle, the mids sound muffled, and the lows seem sloppy. This is digital audio compression, and it’s subtly wreaking havoc on our true potential to connect with music. Hyper-tuned listeners like myself are conflicted about the convenience and reach of music streaming platforms, knowing that their sound quality isn’t quite giving the full picture.

I live for good headphones. My go-to headphones for listening to music and for recording are the Audio Technica AT-M50.

Luckily for most people, ignorance is bliss. The problems start when, like me, a person begins to invest into their music’s audio fidelity, only to have its resolution crushed in half (for example) by a streaming service… Often even when the conditions seem perfect for sonic precision. What gives? Well…

“F*** iTunes” -Me

Every time I’ve checked, Amazon Music and iTunes were swindling people into paying CD prices for albums that were compressed way beyond my personal and professional limits for such things. I made the mistake a few times, then moved all of my own music purchasing over to Bandcamp and physical releases.

Summary

If you love streaming your music on Spotify or YouTube, that’s okay. No hard feelings. Just remember that music has a purity to it that should be experienced as often as possible, and that purity requires high fidelity. Don’t listen to a portion of your favorite artists’ music. Don’t wait until you see a live concert to hear music fully. Buy the music in a way that guarantees studio quality. CD’s and vinyl sound great in most cases, but did you know many artists sell their original, maximum-resolution audio recordings (i.e. 24-bit WAV files) on sites like Bandcamp for a lower price than a CD? This is true for my music and for most of my friends who release music.

Compression has its place, but don’t let it hold back your experience with music!

Guitarist, producer, photographer, founder of The Adaptive and theadaptive.net.

Leave a Reply

Your email address will not be published. Required fields are marked *

Scroll to top