I Found this great little Video of Carl Beatty, a Professor of Composition at Berklee College of Music in Boston MA, discussing in brief the pros and cons of audio compression and it got me thinking about it again. Everyone, and I do mean everyone, has an opinion on this subject even if that opinion is of mild indifference. As relentless consumers of media we all have in our minds set parameters that a media source must meet in order for us to consider it acceptable. Anything falling outside these parameters is quickly discarded, trashed or left behind as we move onto the next source. This process repeats over and over as we go through our digital lives. It is important then for any media produced for user consumption to cover as many of these parameters as possible.
In the world of audio it is no secret that a .WAV file recorded at 96kHz 24bit will undoubtably sound better than the same file compressed to .MP3 format. Regardless of how much time and effort goes into the compression process there is an unavoidable loss of information which cannot be compensated for or reintroduced after the fact. Encoding standards such as MP3 are designed to compensate for this. I can only imagine the hundreds of man hours, beta tests and iterations that go into the production of formats such as MP3, and for what they are designed to do they often perform extremely well. However, despite using complex algorithms and anti aliasing filters in the production of MP3, there remains a reduction in quality which can be heard when directly compared to the original.
In an ideal world data storage would be unlimited, all devices would communicate in a singular language and inter-device communication would be instantaneous. In this technological nirvana there would simply be no need for file formats or compression. Why limit what is limitless? We, however, have not reached this stage….yet. So in the mean time we have a need to find ways of moving and distributing data in a timely and efficient manner with as little “perceived” loss as possible. And therein lies the problem. Do we sacrifice quality for speed and space OR sacrifice space and speed for quality?
As an engineer and musician myself, my opinion on the matter is biased and I am fully aware of this. Equally I feel that anyone who is skilled or knowledgable in the subject will also have a tendency towards quality. I have no problem with this and share the same tendencies myself.
Whilst quality is always preferable to industry professionals, the same may not always be said for consumers. Often the ‘preferred’ format is not the highest quality but the more affordable and commercially viable. Take Minidiscs and CompactDiscs in the mid to late 90’s. Sony’s Minidisc was a far superior format in almost every way. A 1GB miniature rewrite-able disc that was more reliable and, using the ATRAC encoding format, supposedly superior to .WAV. Audio Industry professionals instantly saw the potential of this new format and leapt at the opportunity to ditch their old field recorders and jump on the minidisc bandwagon. But in the consumer world it was a massive let down. Ultimately consumers found the format too expensive. CD’s were much easier to get hold of and CD-R was just beginning to take off. The final straw was the emergence of the Apple iPod and of P2P websites such as Napster allowing users to share MP3s between one another (albeit illegally). So despite Sony’s best efforts and investments ultimately the consumer chose the format and said ‘no thanks’ to the Minidisc.
In my own opinion I feel that, rather than risk alienating ourselves from the consumer, it is far more important to inform them of the differences so they can make make their own decisions. As Sony learnt with the Minidisc, trying to second guess or divert the course of the industry is expensive and ultimately pointless. We should be reacting to and embracing the course of the industry whilst endorsing (yet not imposing) our own views.
The end user always has the final word and so long as we work to towards the ultimate goal of ‘better sound quality for all,’ eventually we will get there.
Those are my opinions but I would love to hear yours. I’m really open to comments and discussion so feel free to contribute either by commenting below or sending me a tweet @ehm_music.
- Audio compression formats compared (hemprasad.wordpress.com)
- Lossy audio file formats explained (data compressed formats) (musicthinktank.com)