The Dark Side of the Tune Page 2

Years ago, a visit to a record store was a big deal for me. It was exciting to see the new releases and a treat to buy a few new discs. When going on a road trip, it was agonizing to choose which dozen or so CDs I would take with me. A mix of pop and rock? Or maybe an all-Beethoven session?

Today, music is coming out of my ears. Let me count the ways I have it stored at or delivered to my house: wax cylinder, 78, 45, LP, cassette, CD, DAT, DCC, MD, DVD, DVD-A, SACD, AM, FM, HD, XM, Sirius, PC streaming, PC downloading, DirecTV, flash, hard-disk drive. I probably missed a few, but that's most of them. The point is, music is no longer a big deal; it's just another ubiquitous thing in my life, something I take for granted. To use the cliché, familiarity breeds contempt. Backing that up, music researchers at the University of Leicester studied 346 listeners and their downloading/playback habits and concluded that technology is creating a generation of people who don't seriously appreciate songs and other music performances.

And that, I think, explains why music fidelity is an endangered species. Does a certain download of The Dark Side of the Moon sound poor because it's coded at a low bit rate? Well, who cares? It's disposable data anyway. Compare that scenario to the days when an analog audiophile would painstakingly set up his turntable and carefully clean his records, afraid that a click or pop would mar the sacred vinyl surface. Since then, music has become just another commodity. It's everywhere, easy to get, and readily replaceable. If a song sounds bad, I have 9,999 other songs to listen to. The convenience of having access to lots of music is more important than the sound quality of the music.

Maybe sound quality was overrated, or just another last-century marketing ploy. Few people bought lousy music just because it was well recorded. With this century's music, if it's got a great beat and you can dance to it, does limited frequency response, high noise floor, and a bunch of compression artifacts really make any difference? Well, call me old-fashioned, but I always thought that listening to a clean signal was like looking out a clean window: the view was just better. Today, I guess fewer and fewer people would agree with me.

Times change, and that's cool. I kind of like having 10,000 songs, too. But one thing's for sure. When you call me on my cellphone, and a pin drops, neither of us will hear it.

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