Thursday, November 06, 2008

The Impact of Technology on Music: How Has the Quality of Music Changed?

Guest Blog by Lauren
Lauren wrote this essay for a class she is taking. I thought it was interesting and wanted to share with you.
Copyright 2008 Lauren and LifetimeLearning

From the early twentieth century, music was listened to by many through the use of the record player. Through advancements in technology, the cassette tape was made available, then the Compact Disk. (CD) The switch was made to mostly digital recordings on cassette tapes and CD’s for convenience, but some of the quality of sound that record players have because of analog recording has been all but lost. Increasingly, the people of our modern-day culture have settled for less quality for the convenience of the newest gadgets and gizmos, though there still remain a few audiophiles that hold on to and strive for the perfect sound. The quality of music has also been impacted by wide availability of music on the Internet.

Analog vs. Digital. What’s the difference? In analog recording, the actual sound waves are carved into a surface of a vinyl record. Sound is produced when the needle of the record player vibrates, and the sound is amplified through speakers. So the sound coming from the record player is directly related to the original sound when it was recorded and every sound is recorded in its entirety. In digital recording, the sound is converted into a sequence of numbers. The numbers can be played back through a CD player, or another form of player that “reads” the numbers and sound is produced. One example to help understand the difference between analog and digital is the comparison of a film camera vs. a digital camera. In a film camera, the film is the exact light representation, what your eyes see, whereas a digital camera is a digital interpretation of the light sensor, converted into numbers just like making a CD.

Quality. What about it? When you think of the “quality” of music in general, there are two different ways to think of it. One is quality of sound, either by the way of recording (analog or digital) or hearing a certain range of notes with no scratching or static within it. The other way of thinking is the quality of musicianship of the actual musician performing the piece. Now, everyone has their own opinions about what is “good, quality music,” but if you were given the choice of listening to a recording by the London Philharmonic Orchestra or a recording by some town band performing the same piece, which would you choose? This question could be unfair in a way, because in some cases it would depend on the music education of the individual answering to be able to answer such a question. But regardless of the music education an individual has had, most people can pick out what sounds good, and what doesn’t, if given the opportunity to listen to the recordings side by side. Yet, in our modern day, most people have grown accustomed to the way things sound. For instance, I own an iPod, and I thought iPods had excellent sound quality. But in comparison to an analog recording, it doesn’t hold a candle to the sound produced by a record.

How has Technology Changed the Quality of Music? It used to be that everyone listened to music from a record player. But we traded in better sound for convenience for both recording and listening. There are certainly benefits of recording digitally, which music producer Robert DiFazio explained in an interview. Basically, when you’re recording digitally, it’s possible to fix any little mistake. You could pick any place in the entire piece and move things around and make them sound just “right.” Or if the artist messes up, he wouldn’t play the whole piece over again, you could just record over that spot. But is that necessarily good? DiFazio said, “…one can make the argument that digital recordings have lowered the artists’ expectations of themselves.”
This argument grows closer to the truth each day. If music artists record their music digitally, and do start to have lower expectations of themselves, will the ability for these artists to reproduce live music be something of the past?
The comparison to recording analogically is a little different. DiFazio spoke of what it’s like when recording by analog:

“When the clients know that the tape is running, they are on point. They are not expecting me to perform a miracle as soon as I hit stop. ‘Oh I was off key,’ ‘Oh I was out of time,’ ‘Oh can you move this snare drum around.’ No! This is a tape machine, this is no different than what you have in your cassette player. You can’t just cut those individual sounds out and move them around. You have to cut out the whole thing. If you all screw up, then maybe I can fix it. But if just you screw up, then maybe this isn’t a keeper.”

It’s easy to see that recording digitally has changed the way music is produced and the way it is heard. In an interview with Carl Beatty, he explained the difference of sound between digital and analog:
“…what digital doesn’t do well with is low level signals. In terms of ambience and all the things that make the reverb (reverberation) kind of incoherent and out of phase, that’s all low level detail. So if digital is not handling that, or doesn’t know how to handle that stuff, you can hear it in analog.”

He also explained that the average person just doesn’t care if the sound quality is not that great:

“I think it’s personal. I used to say to my students, ‘people don’t care what it sounds like, the average audience doesn’t care what it sounds like. It’s been proven…”

So how did we slide down this slippery slope of poorer quality music? Between the growing availability of music and the advancements in technology, which continue to provide convenience over quality, we have come to where we are today. Yes, the quality of music has changed. But the question remains, will the sound we have now remain the same? Or will technology continue to advance and recover the quality of sound we once had in analog recordings?


Robert DiFazio. December 2007. How Analog and Digital Recording Techniques Influence the Recording Process.

Carl Beatty. October 2007. Can Digital Recordings Sound as Good as Analog?


pita-woman said...

Wow, my little brain is on info-overload!
I can certainly agree about the pictures taken w/film vs. digital, the quality is better on film, but I think the ease of being able to see our pix instantly and (most importantly!) deleting the shoddy ones for do-overs is the big draw for most people and also the instant ease of sharing digital photos on-line.
As for music, I've never noticed the quality being different, but I reckon next time I pop in a cassette tape I'll be listening and comparing. As for my old LP's that are collecting dust, I no longer have a record player to listen to them on.

Seldom_Scene said...

Great essay!
I guess I'm a bit of an audiophile. I can tell the difference in the quality of the sound from my iPod vs. my CD. I rip them at the highest quality, but I still can tell the difference sometimes, specifically on my home stereo.
Thanks for sharing.

Junosmom said...

We actually got out an old turn table of dh's that was gathering dust for years. Lauren now can hear the difference.

PITA - Agape gets them now and again.

Seldom-Scene: I'll have to borrow Lauren's iPod and see if I can tell

Junosmom said...

Forgot to add: I recently asked a photography prof at university if there was an advantage/disadvantage to digital photography vs. film. He said that there was a correlation: the film is actual light hitting the film, vs. digital which is stored like digital music. But - in the case of photography, he saw no real advantage to film vs. digital, and digital obviously has lots of advantages. His opinion. I'd be curious to find if anyone finds a reason to continue to use film as the years go on.

Packsaddle said...

Anecdotal Evidence:

An incredibly attractive woman once told me that I "sound just like George Strait".

Sure, it was New Year's Eve and she had recently consumed about 14 beers, but, hey, it was still technically a compliment.

Later, she revised her compliment, saying I "sound just like George Strait, with asthma".

Anyway, I believe I can apply this new technology to essentially remove the "with asthma" part of my sound, thus leaving only the George Strait part.

Then, I can travel the country as a George Strait impersonator, making thousands of dollars per gig.

I will be posting an audio clip on my blog soon that will basically validate Lauren's theory - that digital manipulation and enhancement can make even the worst vocalists appear somewhat talented.

BTW, that was some excellent writing by Lauren.

beeguy said...

Nice paper. As far as quality, the example of digital verse film camera. Quality is obviously the biggest concern. A cheap digital camera is about as good as a cheap film camera with the low level of pixels etc. and thus quality. Also, from what I gather from a couple professional photographers I know, film cameras have a lot more an art form to them. The manipulation you can do with film camera exposure can be extremely hard but can also be much more rewarding and not as well duplicated by digital manipulation. Film will always be there for the photo-artist. I wonder if, as technology continues, the quality will not soon be equal in digital music as analog in all areas as well. When listening on an ipod or CD, remember that speakers have a lot to do with sound as well, ear buds won't sound as good as a high quality surround sound.

Junosmom said...

Pack: I look forward to the results of your "digital manipulation and enhancement". Mmm..that doesn't sound right. I look forward to buying your CD. How's that.

Beeguy: I think the professor assumed a high quality camera, but you are right, as with music, there are cheap versions of digital photography, which makes a difference. And headphones can make a huge difference, but cannot change the fact that sound waves on both ends are lost.

Anonymous said...

I have to take issue with your comparison of the London Phil to street music... More often than not, I'd choose the street musicians, even as an "educated" person with close to 4 degrees in music. Your use of 'quality' needs to have some "qualifiers".

Anonymous said...

Wow, this was very informative and helpful! I am actually going to do a presentation about how technology has changed music next week, so this is great! Thanks for sharing!

Anonymous said...

may I have the citation of this article? I'm using this as research for an assignment

Junosmom said...

Anonymous, not sure what you need. References are given at the bottom of the article. Please be more specific and I'll try to help.


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