I was interested in The Distortion Of Sound documentary as soon as I saw the trailer. Though I seem to have had the wrong idea about it. I’m somewhat of self-identifying audiophile, though constant awareness of all of the top of the line gear I can’t afford keeps me from being too smug about it. I’m easily drawn into impassioned half-drunk rants about the infanticide of dynamic range that has come out of the “loudness war,” and I have extensive collections of both vinyl records and 24-bit digital audio, versus a small stack of CDs off in a closet, that will surely eventually be given or thrown away. I dug very deeply into these topics with Sean Beavan awhile back.
So when I saw that The Distortion Of Sound documentary was available to watch on YouTube, I set aside 20 minutes. In the first quarter or so of the documentary, various musicians, ranging from virtuosos like Quincy Jones and Hans Zimmer, to middling hacks like Mike Shinoda and Steve Aoki, all earnestly assert how precious their music is to them, and snarky potshots aside, you can’t help but respect the fact that they all love their musical children, be they on the honor roll or short bus, equally and infinitely. And they just want what you hear to be what they hear.
And then at around the halfway mark, they present the evolution of music product, from vinyl, to tape, to CDs, and then to MP3s. And then I realize that’s what this is about. Not dynamic range compression that sacrifices nuance just to stand out in a crowd, but rather about plebs who don’t know or care or know how to change the fact that they’re listening to a shitty rip of their favorite song. I almost stop watching at this point. In that moment, I felt like a documentary about the waste treatment industry had arrived at the conclusion that it smells really bad. Right, no shit, Mike Shinoda. Your terrible music isn’t done any favors at 128kbps via mobile YouTube.
But I stuck with it, and there are some good points, at least implied, towards the end. Snoop claims that people don’t know. Maybe this is true to some extent. I’m not sure how many people who don’t know will now know after somehow finding and watching this documentary (at 320p with 128kbps audio on their iPhone), but if the number is greater than zero, I can’t knock the effort. But there is also an interesting comparison to the HD TV arms race, and how the two businesses are driven by very different metrics. For Sony to sell you a new TV, they have to convince you that you’re missing out on something. They show you the difference. They convince you that Blu-Ray makes your DVDs obsolete, that 4k is worth the money.
As music goes to all-online digital delivery, any improvement to the data bit rate directly sacrifices financial bottom line to impress consumers who may or may not know what they’re trading. There’s worse than no benefit to educating consumers; Today’s digital music providers are actually incentivized to keep consumers in the dark.
Hence Jimmy Iovine, co-founder of Beats Electronics, talking about 24-bit audio. As a hardware manufacturer, Beats can sell more expensive headphones, if consumers give a shit. But when services like Spotify and Pandora are selling convenience at increasingly competitive price points, there just isn’t a good enough reason to join the battle. Apple, arguably the most ubiquitous manufacturer of hardware that we play music on, is selling innovation. But they’re not losing any business over their shitty earbuds. Those that care have no problem upgrading, and those that don’t care have no problem lining up for new devices, sight unseen.
Ultimately, I’m happy that the documentary has inspired me to think about the economics of sound quality, even though that wasn’t really the main thrust. If there’s ever a sequel though, I hope it presents some ideas on how to move some of the business incentives away from cheaper, smaller, and easier, and closer to better. The problem as I see it isn’t that shitty audio is shitty. It’s that shitty audio is more profitable.