In the Mix: Compression Blues - EMusician

In the Mix: Compression Blues

One thing that the history of the human race tells us is that, where technology is concerned, convenience will always win out over quality of experience. But ask yourself this question: If you had the choice, would you rather see the Mona Lisa in the flesh or look at a thumbnail jpeg of it on your mobile phone?
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One thing that the history of the human race tells us is that, where technology is concerned, convenience will always win out over quality of experience. But ask yourself this question: If you had the choice, would you rather see the Mona Lisa in the flesh or look at a thumbnail jpeg of it on your mobile phone? And if you''d only ever seen the virtual Mona Lisa, would you really feel honest saying you''d seen it at all?

As we enter the second decade of the MP3 era, it''s a good time to point out that fans of music face a similar dilemma as above. If you''ve only experienced an album as compressed audio files on your iPod, have you really experienced it?

The Internet and cheap computing power have given initiative back to artists by making the act of recording and distributing music available to all. However, the attendant danger is that with the ubiquity of MP3 players, convenience and portability will come to trump sound quality and aesthetic beauty as the measure of what is worth listening to. While the download culture means that perhaps more music is being listened to now than ever before, isn''t this just a hollow victory of quantity over quality? Isn''t there such a thing as an art to listening to music?

I believe so. Anybody who has heard a piece of music properly mixed, mastered, and played back at even standard CD resolution versus that same piece of music as an MP3 will appreciate the chasm between the relative quality of experience. Like making a photocopy of a priceless work of art and then mounting it in a dusty picture frame, compression of music flattens out the nuance and beauty of sound that we work so hard to achieve in our recordings.

More than that, the whole downloading phenomenon cheapens the music, reducing it to the level of mere software. As a teenager, I could only afford to buy one record per month with my pocket money, but you can bet that once I made that difficult decision about which record to invest in, I took it home and devoured it for days, pored over the lyrics and artwork, decoding it to get everything I could from it.

Now, because people can download an artist''s entire back catalog in minutes, they can dismiss it just as easily. If a kid wants to check out Pink Floyd or The Beatles, he or she simply downloads everything (which doesn''t cost a cent), listens to a few tracks, and, because there''s no investment in time, energy, or money, if it doesn''t connect immediately, it likely never gets another chance. But how many albums that you really love did you connect with the first time you heard them? I''m not alone in saying the albums I love the most are the ones that did not connect with me the first time through. But if I''d just downloaded this stuff for free, I probably would never have given any of it a second chance.

As well as a beautiful sonic experience, I want to see the artists carry their aesthetic through to the presentation—if music is art (which I think at least some of it is), then it should be presented as such—with beautiful cover designs, elaborate packaging, special limited editions, and so forth. Yes, these things are more expensive to make and sell, but one thing that experience has taught me is that if you give people something to treasure, they barely even notice the price tag, or that they could probably get the audio for nothing elsewhere if they wanted to.

Make the fans believe that you care about the art and quality, and it''s my belief that they will reciprocate in their buying and listening habits, the care and attention we ourselves have given to creating the music. Before we all lose the art of listening altogether.

Steven Wilson is the lead vocalist, guitarist, and founding member of the band Porcupine Tree. His most recent solo album, Insurgentes, was released in 2008. Go to swhq.co.uk for more info.