Friday, June 19, 2009

Question of the Day - FIDELITY - June 19, 2009


Phlips asks:

Fidelity ♥♥♥♥ed? So with the creative process getting easier and cheaper, couldn't the music quality that is being produced be impacted? Cheap microphones and "garageband" don't have the quality that a high budget studio can produce. Is this downside contributing to the collapse of the status quo?

Hartmann responds:

Music in its purist form exists in the hearts and minds of the composers. What Mozart heard in his head could be transcribed onto paper in the written language of music but of course the "sound" he heard was missing. Each time the songwriter's vision was translated from one medium to another there was a loss of quality. What could be imagined perfectly could not be interpreted without flaws imposed by the translation and interpretive process. No musical reproduction is ever accomplished perfectly. Even the greatest musician is less than perfect.

Through all the technical changes that have evolved within the recording arts sound quality has always been a driving force. The transition from mono to stereophonic sound was a huge leap. Most audiophiles still consider a needle on vinyl to be the source of the highest fidelity. The postmodern record business was dependant on very expensive recording and playback equipment.

Long play albums often cost hundreds of thousands of dollars and involved incredibly sophisticated recording techniques. Home based sound systems achieved similar levels of excellence. The high cost of recording kept the process under the control of record companies who risked large capital investment to bring competitive "product" to the market place. Phonograph equipment achieved the ability to play music back with recording studio quality.

With the advent of the compact disc the entire process was drastically changed. Digital recording brought two significant changes to the game. First, reproduction was uniform and the zeroes and ones duplicated the music precisely the same every time. Secondly, the amount of time available on CDs virtually doubled. A Sony executive decided that the new format should be able to contain Beethoven's Ninth Symphony in its entirety. This made seventy four minutes of music possible.

Garageband and Pro Tools do not directly effect the quality of music itself. That is still controlled by the songwriters, composers, artists and producers. However, what makes a song great is the judgement of the fan base and the proof is in the competition. Only the public decides what is going to be popular and the control of that process is more in the hands of the fans than every before. The recording process is no longer "dollar" dependant; anybody can play and this has infused the game with a tremendous degree of mediocrity.

For the first time in the history of record production, fidelity is no longer the primary goal. An entire generation has decided that content is more important than sound value. Digital MP3 technology and the advent of the iPod has reversed the trend. Instant access to a particular song on demand and free of cost has changed the way music is used today. The listening mechanism is not dependant on expensive play back equipment and music heard through tiny little ear "buds" doesn't require the same degree of sophistication previously available on vinyl recordings.

All of these revolutionary changes are contributing to the demise of the major record companies. Expensive recording and high cost access to radio airplay for promotion kept the big four labels in power for decades. Today the fan base only uses radio by default and they don't want to be "told" what is good. They'll make that decision themselves and distribute what they like to their Internet communities directly.

The top recording engineers believe that digital sound quality will continue to evolve and in due course will rival the fidelity of the most sophisticated multi-track recording techniques. This does not bode well for the major record companies that built their infrastructure on the high cost of plastic and paper CD product. This format required fans to buy ten songs they didn't want in order to have the one they loved. With the advent of "free" music that is no longer necessary. Purchasing it has become a matter of choice; and who is going to steal something they don't want?

The record companies will continue to crash and burn and musicians and entrepreneurs must create new systems and protocols for the development of a business model that can survive in the digital age. There are numerous methods of distribution in play, including subscription and advertising based models. Survival in this environment will be precarious but one thing is certain, online file sharing is the mode of today and the future.

Ownership will become less important, than instant access to the song of choice, and Internet streaming systems will eventually make music free to all. Even the least tech savvy person will be able to "pirate" any song he wants at any time he chooses. The record labels will continuously struggle to survive, but it appears they missed their chance to control the digital market place when they decided to destroy Napster rather than embrace the system. The problem was further exacerbated when the RIAA decided to sue their customers for using the new technology. These were devastating choices proving there is nothing more powerful than an idea whose time has come. The old way died, the digital gates are wide open and the future is up for grabs.

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