The Distortion of Sound: A Documentary and Declaration

We live in an amazing time, music-wise. For the first time in history, we can hear virtually any artist, living or deceased, perform for us on a whim, within seconds.

For perspective: if you lived in 1580, to even hear a professional musician you’d need to be a member of a royal court, or a very wealthy household like the Medici family. Fast forward two hundred years, and in 1780 you’d still need to travel great distances at great expense to hear Mozart play. In another two hundred years, 1980, hearing your favorite music meant a trip to the store, purchasing an album (if it was in stock!) and then carrying that album around when you wanted to listen. For four hundred years, access to music took money, effort, and determination.

Yet here we are now, a few clicks away from the stuff of riches and royalty. While on our couch, no less! One would think, at this pinnacle of technological accomplishment, that the recordings we enjoy would be of increasing quality. The better the technology gets, the better the sound, right? Nope.

I know, it doesn’t make sense. The whole idea of digital music is supposed to be that those ones and zeros are a perfect copy. They don’t get damaged the way a record can be scratched or a tape snapped. But here’s the thing: when you listen to music on Pandora, iTunes, YouTube, Spotify, etc you’re missing an incredible amount of the sound that your favorite artist recorded. In order to get that music to fit on your phone, or stream to your computer, these companies compress the data that is your music file so that it is easier for them to transfer. So even if you have the best speakers, headphones, receiver, amp and so on, you’re still hearing worse quality than you would if you bought a CD 15 years ago, or even a record 30 years ago.

Find all this hard to believe? Well you don’t have to take my word for it. In a new documentary called The Distortion of Sound, you can hear what Quincy Jones, Hans Zimmer, Snoop Dogg, Slash, Mike Shinoda, and other musicians as well as producers, mixers, and Harman audio engineers have to say on the subject. It’s an in-depth and yet approachable plea for full-fidelity music recordings. Concise (it’s less than half an hour), clear, and in a way a love note to both music and technology, The Distortion of Sound highlights not only the challenges of music consumption in the digital age, but also serves as a call to arms for us as consumers to demand change. Best of all, it’s free to watch in its entirety on YouTube, as well as the Sundance Channel and IFC Channel on July 23 at 6 p.m. ET and PT. Not to give too much away, but after viewing, you may have a tough time listening to an Mp3 ever again.

For hundreds of years, music was nothing more than sound waves on the air, powerful yet impermanent as time itself. How fortunate we are then, to live in an age where we can capture this most transient and intangible art and experience it indefinitely as we do with paintings or sculpture. Yet as anyone who has been to the Louvre can tell you, viewing the Mona Lisa through layers of foggy bullet-proof glass isn’t the same profound experience as leaning in close enough to see the lashes on her eyes, the ridges in the oils. While the Louvre impairs the view for security, listening to music through a haze is no longer a necessity. The Distortion of Sound forces us to wonder: If you had the chance to see a master work up close, why wouldn’t you?

BradleyP's picture

The "documentary" here is a slick and enjoyable video for us who like music reproduced well. It is not, however, a call for a return to selling full fidelity music recordings. The video is funded by Harman, who is performing market development for its "Clari Fi" technology that enhances playback of compressed music files via some equipment from JBL, the Harman-Kardon phone from Sprint, and, soon, Mark Levinson car audio. The demo on the Harman website is worthwhile. The Clari Fi effect seems to add ambience and top end to compressed music. Check it out. This technology might be a good thing, but just be aware of the true purpose of the video.

MatthewWeflen's picture

Yeah, this video was really frustrating. It contains a pretty thin case against compression, a bunch of navel gazing by various recording artists, and then NO proposed solutions. No recommendations for file formats, for bitrates, for recording media, nothing.

I want my 20 minutes back.

Lauren Dragan's picture
Good point, and I agree, unfortunately in this day and age, little gets done without a sponsor. So Harman gets their time in, and even Harman admits that Clari-Fi is a bandaid. What I think the real point is, and why so many artists got involved, is that we, as consumers, need to demand better. We also need to patronize better options as they become available, like the upcoming Omnifone MusicStation that PonoMusic is working on. If we create a marketplace where better fidelity music gets more consumers, then the music dissemination industry as a whole will change. The Distortion of Sound may not be really geared to Sound + Vision readers directly, as most of us know what the issues are. What is offers us is a tool for explaining to other why they should expect better, in in turn help us, through supply and demand, receive better digital music options. It has to go beyond audiophiles noticing the difference in quality. We need to have our kids, our parents, our neighbors want it as well, because sadly, we aren't enough to tip the iTunes scales.
Andy Wehmeyer's picture

The video is worse than a commercial for Clari-fi, it's a subtle and poorly constructed lie. The video confuses dynamic range compression and data compression and fails to tell the rest of the truth about the audibility of bit rate changes.

Streaming at 64k is nasty, but there's no similarity between that and an MP3 at 256k or 320k. The confusion of DNR with data compression is an even bigger problem and the fact that notable musicians and engineers sheepishly go along with the story strains credulity. The musicians and the producers DO HAVE CONTROL over their contribution to the loudness war and that's what saps the life out of modern recordings.

The real truth is more interesting and a much better story. It's sad that a company once a leader in bring science to the industry is now a huckster.

intermezzo's picture

In an attempt to market to a solution Harman is creating a problem. This is pure marketing spin from those who have bypassed engineering in favor of providing an opportunity to self-promote as a leader in the audio field.

We all realize this is a commercial for their software, and I for one am fine with that because it says they are working to solve a problem. However the problem that the software is designed to solve is not the one demonstrated by this commercial.

Dynamic compression is different from data compression. The artist that complains about the reproduction of the art needs to look at the guy behind the console and tell him to turn off the limiters and leave all the dynamic range in the final product...loudness wars be damned. Think back to Metallica’s release that got panned as sounding awful due in part to the production.

If the waveform is crushed to begin with and then data compression is applied in the creation and delivery systems the result is quite nasty.

The fact that Harman and their staff are aggressively pushing this distortion after they proclaimed everyone should hear the truth is flat out shameful.

Let’s remember the generation they are going for, grew out of compressed music formats thus they only know what is, not what was. Improving what is, is an admirable cause, but stop creating parties for the CEO to build up his ego.

There was a time when we would all look to the Harman brands as true leaders in the audio business with high ethical standards to go along with performance that stood the test of time and a legacy of true innovation. Now all we see are rebranded platforms, dying brands in need of help, and high profile marketing executions aimed at creating a false ideal of what the company is about.