Negative trends in the medium of recorded music

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Left Turn Left Turn's picture
Negative trends in the medium of recorded music

Left Turn Left Turn's picture

I've started this thread to discuss four trends in the medium of recorded music. All of which I find to have a negative influence on my consumption of recorded music. 

The first is digital locks. The second is the move to cardboard cd cases. The second is the phenomenon of record companies releasing “remastered” versions of old albums. The third is the rise to dominance of mp3s as a music format. All of which add up to not being able to buy and consume music the way I used to back in the 90s and earl 00s. 

Digital Locks

Between 1995 and 2006 I bought close to 100 albums on cd. Then the major labels decided to introduce “digital locks” on the products in 2007. Which meant that I'd no longer be able to burn any new CDs to MP3s.

So in 2007 I basically stopped buying music from the major labels, because I refused to spend money on either MP3s with inferior sound quality, or on albums that I couldn't convert to MP3s. 

Cardboard cd cases

In 2013 I decided that I'd be willing to buy some music from major labels despite the digital lock thing, only to find that all the major labels had switched to what I consider inferior cardboard cd packaging. I understand the arguments against plastic jewel cases and in favour of cardboard cases, but won't go into them here in order to keep this post from getting too long.

Most cardboard cd cases have a hinged cover, which wears down from opening it to get out the cd, and eventually breaks off. And it's much easier to damage the front cover image than on plastic cd jewel cases, where the front image on the insert booklet is protected from damage by the plastic cover. Which irks me as someone who enjoys collecting cd cover art.The other problem with cardboard cd cases is that they're different sizes, which makes it more awkward to store them. 

So needless to say, I still havn't bought any more major-label music that I would gladly buy in pre-2007 format.

"Remastered” albums

I'm also not a fan of the recent trend towards “remastering” albums. Now there's rematering albums to improve the sound quality, usually when releasing digital versions of albums originally recorded in analog. This reduces the tape hiss and other background noise that winds up on analog recordings, and improves the sound quality. I own albums produced in the pre-cd era that were remastered this way, and it's fine.

Then there's what the music indistry refers to as “remastered” versions of albums; by which they really mean new editions of albums where they went in and created new mixes of the original songs, and often include extra tracks from the album sessions.

An example of this is the remastered versions of The Beatles catalog that were released in 2009. On which they decided to lower the volume levels on the instruments in order to make the vocals more prominent. Which means that now the only Beatles recordings you can buy (unless you find used beatles recordings to buy) are different mixes than what The Beatles always sounded like up to that point.

MP3s

This is definitely a double edged sword. MP3s do allow us to listen to make portable playlists of songs without having to buy the albums that contain those songs. And innovations like podcasts and online video wouldn't be possible without MP3s.

But there's also a real downside to MP3s as well. Back when MP3s were invented in the late 90s, they made the decision to keep the file size down by cutting out the highest and lowest frequencies from the recordings. Thus MP3s lack the richness of other recording formats. And as MP3s have become the dominant format among young people, non-MP3 music sales have dropped precipitously.

Which means that there could come a day when MP3s, with their compromised sound quality, could become the only medium in which recorded music is available for sale.

Mr. Magoo Mr. Magoo's picture

Quote:
Back when MP3s were invented in the late 90s, they made the decision to keep the file size down by cutting out the highest and lowest frequencies from the recordings. Thus MP3s lack the richness of other recording formats.

Years ago -- like, 25 of them -- I and a couple friends fancied ourselves audiophiles, since we owned stereo systems that didn't have a handle on the top, and we were accustomed to spending too much money to get too little (e.g. chunky, oxygen-free copper speaker cables and the like).

One day one of my friends was gearing up to drop about $500 on a somewhat esoteric CD player, and my other friend and I accompanied him to our favourite stereo boutique, to witness this historic purchase.  When my friend announced his intention to the salesman, he asked to audition the CD player, and the salesman agreed to set this up, on the condition that he could set up something else as well, and he asked us to go grab a coffee and give him a half hour to set things up in the audition room.

When we returned, the salesman had set up the CD player that my friend was intending to buy, hooked up to a decent amp and speakers, but had also hooked up a turntable -- Revolver, as I recall -- that sold for about the same price as the CD player.  He produced a CD -- Aerosmith?  Supertramp?  something like that -- and also a vinyl recording of the same album.

First he played the CD.  Good and crisp, punchy, bass-heavy and bangin'.  We liked.  And we were ready to humour him.

Then the vinyl, through the same amp and speakers, and the difference was incredible.  Not quite as crisp, perhaps, and not quite as driving, but the overall richness and (for lack of a better word) thickness of the vinyl recording wiped the smug right off of our faces.  Hands down, the vinyl was the better listening experience, and we were humbled.

Not so humbled that my friend didn't buy the $500 CD player though. 

Left Turn Left Turn's picture

[url=https://www.youtube.com/watch?v=hh-23EUP-s8]Vinyl Vs. CD: Which One is Better?[/url]

 

ikosmos ikosmos's picture

fyi - The Vinyl Engine had, last time I checked, an enormous library of manuals, a discussion board, and some friendly denizens.

The Vinyl Engine - the home of the turntable

alan smithee alan smithee's picture

I still own a turntable and a hundred or more LP's.

They sound,to me, much better than CD. I also find cassette tapes to sound superior to CD.

My digital files are almost completely DVD-A. Neil Young will attest.

Mr. Magoo Mr. Magoo's picture

I recall reading, years ago (and not bookmarking) an interesting account of how Sony and Philips were in such a hurry to bring CDs to market that they basically didn't even try to future-proof them (e.g. through support for higher bitrates, higher sample rates, larger capacity discs, etc.).  Basically, CDs are digital technology from a time when monochrome monitors and 5.25" floppy drives were state-of-the-art.

And then MP3's came along, at a time when downloading a large file on the new interweb was still an onerous chore, and so their 5:1 compression ratio seemed like a great thing.  So who's going to go re-download their entire library as FLAC files now?

alan smithee alan smithee's picture

Mr. Magoo wrote:

 

And then MP3's came along, at a time when downloading a large file on the new interweb was still an onerous chore, and so their 5:1 compression ratio seemed like a great thing.  So who's going to go re-download their entire library as FLAC files now?

In terms of sound quality,MP3's are inferior to all other formats. FLAC files are the gold standard,CD or DVD quality.But having said that,older music before say 1987,were recorded on analogue tapes. So vinyl preserves the analogue sound which is fuller and heavier than CD's .

I say change your library to vinyl LP's and EP's.It's the best quality.

Mr. Magoo Mr. Magoo's picture

I'm too old to care now.  My idea of "music" is whatever's on the radio.

One downside of analog -- vinyl or cassette -- is that technically, the fidelity and quality of the recording degrades with each use.  I've actually heard tell of audiophiles who'll buy a new vinyl recording, play it to rip it to cassette, then listen to that cassette when they just want to hear (say) the White Album, and save the actual vinyl for either another cassette, or that day when they really want to get into the music.

That said, reel-to-reel.  Higher tape transit speed.  Discrete heads.  Discuss. 

alan smithee alan smithee's picture

You're right.Cassette tapes always ended up chewed,tangled or just dull.

Funny you bring up reel to reel.Had one many years ago,unfortunately it was mono. Some people think mono is superior to stereo.I beg to differ but to each their own.

Mr. Magoo Mr. Magoo's picture

Quote:
You're right.Cassette tapes always ended up chewed,tangled or just dull.

Well, it was surely a shitty-ass feeling when your deck or your walkman ended up pulling off yards of tape and bunging them up against the drive pin and you had to untie that Gordian knot and use a pencil to re-reel that tape that was always neatly folded like an accordion.  Them's the breaks!

As far as "mono vs. stereo" goes, I kind of have to agree that stereo wins.

Ever use a 4-track?  Cassette media, but you could only use the one side.  Well, you could use the other side too, but it played backward.  Sort of like a reel-to-reel, in that it had discrete heads and could record multiple tracks without erasing, but minus the hassle of reels.  I never owned one, but I rented one once and it was fun.

Slumberjack

I'm getting old too.  Today I listened to a CBC Radio program for the first time, instead of just moving past it with the seek button.  It was some guy talking about how he became interested in the structural properties of everyday items, such as steel, concrete, and plastic.  Remember chrome and metal cassette tapes.  They degrade just like the cheap memorex tapes did.

Mr. Magoo Mr. Magoo's picture

Quote:
Remember chrome and metal cassette tapes.  They degrade just like the cheap memorex tapes did.

I remember them fondly.  25 or so years ago, when I was living in Hamilton, I'd occasionally get the opportunity to come to Toronto for the afternoon or whatever, and I would always make sure I got to swing by one of those sketchy electronics stores on Yonge to pick up a box of Maxell chrome 90 minute blanks -- usually ten for ten bucks.  They were the "chrome" standard for mixed tapes back then.

6079_Smith_W

Cardboard cases are a vast improvement over mounds of plastic, IMO. And tapes may be clunky, but I bet the ones I have which are 25 years old will outlive most of my CDs. Can't splice one of them when they break. Also there is something to be said for the lost art of mixtape and homemade cover art. My medium of choice: vinyl, and not just because it sounds better.

 

milo204

LEFT TURN:

As a recording Engineer and someone who's played music for 20+ years i'll take a crack at this

LOCKS:

i think we all agree these are total bullshit...And also, they don't work.  If you can listen to it, you can copy it, so really the lock is just a myth.  Just get an RCA to mini adapter plug it into your computer and rerecord it.  it's digital so you won't lose much if any quality.

CARDBOARD CASES:

Honestly don't mind these as they're more enviro friendly, and as a musician they were always cheaper to make.   Sort of irrelevant now though because who still buys CD's??

REMASTERS:

Here's the thing.  Remaster is technically just a fine tuning of EQ and compression levels on the overall stereo mix, not individual instruments.  It's the reason all the cd's sounded like shit in the beginning, because they were mastering them the same way as they did for vinyl.  Thing is, different mediums need a different master--if only so they sound the same on different formats.  So for example if you wanted to release an album that has not been in mp3 yet, you would have to master it again so it works  and sounds good given the limitations of mp3.

remixing is what you're thinking and yes, it is total bullshit and really an affront to the artist if they're not in on the process (and often even if they are).  The Led Zeppelin 2 remix makes me want to freak out they sound so bad.  The problem here is engineers get a chance to use all the new toys on records that were made in a different era on different equipment and it usually ruins/drastically changes the original sound of the record.

But in all honesty "remixed" or "remastered" is just a way to sell the same record over and over again to record nerds who will want to own every version of a release.

MP3:

Amongst musicians, the big problem with MP3 isn't quality but longevity. 

You can take a record recorded 60-70 years ago and the master tapes still are fine, and work with any tape machine of any make and model(tons of these still around and will work for ages--built like tanks) no worry of "compatibility"

Digital however changes so rapidly and becomes obsolete so fast, it will be impossible to get a session from ten years ago to work let alone 70.  This means the aformentioned "remasters" will simply be impossible for all modern music.  So 10 years from now when a new medium comes out there will be no way to release all the older music on it, unless it was recorded on tape.

I worked with Steve Albini and we had great discussions on this.  He mentioned that the Nirvana record COULD be remastered while other records of the same era recorded on the new digital mediums were essentially "lost" unless you could find a still working computer with the right software versions of the same era (pretty much impossible,,, if he can't find it no one can!)

 

alan smithee alan smithee's picture

What do people think of MFSL and Japanese SHM remasters?

They're expensive but are they worth it?