Where Did All the Sound Go? Audio Files for Audiophiles for All - Part I

“Music is not a matter of life or death...It's much more important than that.” Unknown


The Birth of the Master Sound Recording

This quote captures the profound significance of music’s value to its creators and performers.  The sound recording team is a group comprised of artists, composers, music producers, and sound engineers, who come together with a singular goal of producing an artistic masterpiece embodied in the final sound recording.  Naturally, the team expends much labor, effort, and emotion in reaching a final product that ultimately brings utter pleasure to their listeners' ears. (Well, that’s the goal at the very least.) (Music Producer n.d.) (Pras and Guastavino 2011) Much detail is carved into the notes to be played and the sounds that will be produced from those notes. (Hanson 2011)  Then to craft the sound recording for the final product, the sound engineer goes through a process of called mixing wherein all the sounds, instruments, and voices are mixed down so that they fit harmoniously together on one track. (Tingen 2010)  It can be compared to an orchestra conductor rehearsing the orchestra with its multitude of instrumental parts. The conductor must ensure that all the musical sounds come together to produce a singular ensemble sound that is aesthetically pleasing to listeners’ ears. Like the process of mixing, the conductor must ensure that those leading instruments or voices that need to stand out, do stand out. Similarly, those instruments that are to provide the underlying musical support to the leads, do just that. (Hargreaves 2017) It is a balancing act that needs to be sculpted into the final sound recording.  Then at the final stage of production, a song is groomed with a ‘fine-tooth comb’ or mastered to give birth to the master sound recording with all the details of the music clearly audible and polished as the composer intended. Then and only is a master sound recording, representing the final product of its creators and performers, ready for distribution. (Shelvock 2012)  With all this finesse and attention to detail to reach such an exquisite aural experience, something happens to the sound once it gets into the stores. The first time we were listening to one of our sound recordings being streamed, we could not help but notice the stark difference in sound quality from the master sound recording to what was being streamed.  Similarly, the same could be said with the downloads.

When music creators have reached that joyous ‘aha’ moment of aesthetic finality in the master sound recording, the desire is to share that same joy with the rest of the world.  To share anything less than what was accomplished seems anticlimactic or even a misrepresentation of the actual final product.  When a customer goes to Starbucks expecting Starbucks quality coffee, does Starbucks serve instant coffee?  Of course not. Conversely, the makers of Starbucks coffee pride themselves on their products like any company with their own respective products. To substitute the true product with an inferior unreasonable facsimile is downright wrong and illegal in any other industry. (Curry 1996).  There is no reason for artists and their listeners to be treated differently. So, where did all the sound go?    

Where Did All the Sound Go?

The sound did not go far.  It actually did not go anywhere. With CDs now a thing of the past, streaming and portability of music have become of greater importance than lugging around cumbersome CDs. (Archer 2012) (Luckerson n.d.) Music service providers opted for the most economical route to sell music via mass producing low quality replicas of the original sound recording and distributing it on a global scale.   Because the standard of streaming music and downloading had been so low for many years, the master sound recordings had become the music industry’s best kept secret.  The true beauty and splendor of a song’s sound embodied in the master sound recordings were tightly locked in the owner’s vault, never heard by its listeners, or shared by its creators.  Rather, ‘instant coffee’ replicas of these sound recordings were in mass distribution.  Fortunately, some laudable companies recognized the deficiency that existed and rose to the challenge to make change. They were courageous enough to begin making change by procuring these valuable masters and facilitating their dissemination via high-fidelity streaming and downloads.  (7digital, 2008) (HDTracks 2008) (Quobuz 2008) (Gilbert, 2015) (Deezer n.d.) 

For those looking for the high-fidelity tracks of their favorite artist, look no further.  There are accessible options. (Phillips 2008) (Smith 2017) (Qobuz - Unlimited music and downloading in 24-Bit Hi-Res. n.d.)  To gain a full understanding of where all the sound goes, the author discusses in the next few articles: 1) the MP3; 2) the music industry’s response to ‘instant coffee’ distribution of music 3) what top music service companies offer high-fidelity audio and 4) what makes them unique and valuable for all listeners to benefit.

MP3: Does Size Matter?

Does size matter?  Granted, the subtitle is filled with sexual innuendo, but there is factual accuracy to this age-old question. (Jones 2012) The question has relevance depending on how the questioned is applied.  Size does matter.  The true question is bigger better?  At the risk of using another old saying “it’s not the size that matters, it’s how you use it.” (Metcalf 2017) Ironically, the well-established tiny MP3 audio file, despite its low-quality sound, has been exploited for its small package only to become the most commonly used audio file format in the digital music market. (Grassi 2007)  (D'Alessandro and Shi 2009)

MP3 Made Simple: How It Works

One can understand the practical issues with the use of the MP3 because of its substantial space saving advantages.  What does an MP3 do to have packed such a punch in the music industry? Jonathan Sterne, Professor of Culture and Technology in the Department of Art History and Communication Studies at McGill University, explains in an interview:

“My simplification of the official version goes something like this.  You start with a full size digital audio file in .wav or .aiff format.  It could be on a compact disc or already in your computer.  First, you tell the mp3 encoder how big you want the final file to be.  MP3s are measured in kilobits per second, which is essentially how much space they take up in a digital line or on your hard-drive.  With that information, the encoder goes to work.  First, it removes all the redundant data, and reorganizes things.  This is called Huffman coding, and it’s basically the same thing that happens with a .zip file.  That process yields a file about half the size of what you’d find on a CD.  So far so good.  No changes to the sound, just to how the computer handles the data.  Today, FLAC and Apple Lossless files are made with a technique like this.”  Jonathan Sterne (Lovink 2014)

However, the resulting size at this phase is still not sufficient for transmission - at least that was the case about 30 years ago. (Lovink 2014)

The next phase is what makes MP3, MP3.  Sterne calls it perceptual coding. This author calls it, trimming the fat out. (But later we’ll see how good that fat tastes if you leave it in.) Using the human ear as the basis for MP3 encoding – meaning what the human ear can or cannot hear within its audible spectrum – the MP3 slices and dices the audio file into tiny fragments that last only fractions of a second.  The MP3 is programmed to determine what the human hear can hear or cannot hear by the choices made when converting or encoding to MP3. If the desire for the final audio file is to have the smallest possible file, then the MP3 determines what the human ear can or cannot hear at its smallest possible spectrum.  The third phase, the MP3 determines points in the audio file where stereo sound should or should not be heard.  In the final stage, the MP3 removes the highest frequencies based solely on the assumption that 16khz is beyond the human audible spectrum. (Lovink 2014) Some view this assumption as flawed because in some instances there are benefits to recording above that threshold known as ultrasonic recording.  If a sound engineer were to record a musical ensemble from a distance with a mic in an environment conducive for sampling at the ultrasonic level, the mic could capture how the sounds emanating from the ensemble, can interact at the ultrasonic spectrum, to produce frequencies that shape and color the ensemble’s collective timbre – like a diamond cut perfectly to reveal its many glimmering facets.  (Alvarez and Elen n.d.)

With all this fat trimming, one can see how each subsequent conversion to MP3 results in even lower quality audio.  That same space saving advantage becomes its disadvantage because substantial loss of audio quality is always the consequential result (Lossy Audio Formats n.d.) The popularity of the MP3’s use reflects more on how society has evolved to a more mobile world and the value placed on music with its multifarious capacity to be shared.  Furthermore, MP3’s widespread use also reflects on how today’s societies and economies seek to monetize any or all digital content despite any technological restrictions by counting on the limitations of the human ear or listeners whose attention spans are so erratic given the sensory overloaded world that surrounds them. So, if the listener does not know better, and is only exposed to low quality audio, then the listener is essentially being taught was is reasonable, thus setting the bar low for expectations at its lowest common denominator. (Vélez 2015) (Hillagonda 2012)

All is not lost. Exposure to high-fidelity audio is the remedy to misguided expectations of low-quality audio.  (Lander, Norman Chesky of HDtracks and Chesky Records 2014) Those who do know better, specifically music creators and recording artists, seek or should be encouraged to get their true sound recordings heard – to stop ‘instant coffee’ replication of their music as an acceptable substitute for the true sound of their music embodied in high fidelity audio.  It is a paradoxical irony that the MP3, a low-quality audio file format, reproduces sound so far from the original recording, one could say that the MP3 is the antithesis of high-fidelity. Yet, the MP3 has managed to achieve such revolutionary ‘success’ in the music industry. (Vélez 2015), a perfectionist industry in constant pursuit of attaining artistic perfection with its production of sound recordings, that not until recent years were made available to the rest of the world.

Tito Abeleda

Stay tuned for Part 2 of "Where Did All the Sound Go?  Audio files for Audiophiles for All." In Part 2 we look at two notable players in high-fidelity arena of music downloads: HDTracks and 7digital.


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