Wednesday, December 05, 2007

Hi Fi

I have to admit, when I was first introduced to the iPod I thought it was a ridiculous invention. Compressed music files crammed onto what amounted to a small hard drive. People who really love music would never jump from CD's to MP3's. After accepting the MP3 format myself, the recent article in Slate on the Hi Fidelity vs MP3 debate strikes me as a desperate, last ditch effort to push back against a new recorded music standard.

The early days of the iPod and the proliferation of the MP3 format were a time when I was buying CD's like crazy. My collection rapidly outgrew existing shelves, covered multiple walls, and ended up in precariously staked piles on my floor.  This was how music was supposed to be.  It was supposed to sound glorious and be cumbersome.  I recoiled at anything to resembled an iPod or sounded like MP3.

However, while my music collection was growing exponentially, my audio equipment remained pretty stagnate. I was still using the same stereo I bought in law school. I knew I could spend more on an expensive stereo, but why? The sound was good enough and not investing in a high end stereo freed up money for more CD's, concerts, and music related trips around the country and the world.

After researching the MP3 format and MP3 players, I decided to give this new audio format a chance. I didn't buy an iPod. Something in me was still resisting Apple's juggernaut of cool.  Instead I bought a very large, very clunky and very Soviet looking Creative Labs player. It seemed like a good idea at the time. I abandoned the device after a few months. It was a pain to navigate and obviously un-cool.

My brief stint with Creative Labs convinced me the CD was king and would always be king. It took Emusic and iTunes to give the MP3 format a second chance.

I was still put off by Apple's device.  When I began downloading MP3's from the subscription based Emusic, iTunes was the best available software to organize and listen to the music on my PC. An investment in new computer speakers turned my computer into a close approximation to my aging stereo.  The sound wasn't perfect but it was pretty darn good.  One of my first downloads was the LSO Live/Bernard Haitink Beethoven Symphony cycle.  Whatever your opinion on the artistic merits of the cycle, the MP3's did not have the same range of sounds and depth as a CD.  There was, however, no mistaking the music for anything but Beethoven. 

After about six months of downloading and listening to music on my computer, I warmed to the MP3 format. Some files were bad but most were pretty good. Never having heard music on a Hi Fi system, what was coming out of my computer was perfectly acceptable. Better yet, MP3's were less expensive than CD's and the flexibility of the format allowed me to plug holes in my collection without having to buy a whole album. There is nothing more frustrating than buying a CD with 70 minutes of music for a seven minute piece.

The format and the mutable file tags allowed me to manipulate and organize my growing iTunes library in a way you can't do with physical CD's. Pieces could be organized independent of their albums. Searching for a particular work or album was as easy typing in the composer or work's name.

When I finally bought an iPod the portability of MP3's became a factor. I cannot live without my iPod. I am not exaggerating. I carry a stack of music with me every day.  Whole symphony cycles at my finger tips. At any given point in the day, I can pull out my iPod and listen. My iPod goes with me to lunch. If it's a long lunch I can cram in a few hours of music. Long Mahler symphonies can be listened to without having to change CD's.

Today, the MP3 is not equal in sound quality to the compact disk. That will change.  In the meantime, Bose headphones help improve the quality. What the MP3 lacks in sound quality it makes up for in its potential ability to change culture. Think about it.  The portability of the format enables people to easily music to their work day. The small size of compressed music files allows record companies like Chandos, Naxos, and now Deutsche Grammophone to make their entire catalog available. The cost, encourages experimentation with new genres, composers, and recordings of tried and true pieces.  Because of MP3's people have access to more music than ever before.  Classical music is doing surprisingly well with the new format.  The MP3 format might push classical music back into the mainstream.   

Recorded music has always been about approximating the live music experience. The Slate article concedes as much. But recordings also exist to preserve music. Each new recording technology improving on the one that came before it. MP3's are just the latest incarnation. Instead of groping for the past, music lovers should be looking forward to possibility of new formats. 

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