Choosing records to play at the Hare & Hounds this afternoon

I’m spending the evening listening to records. I’ve been doing that a fair bit recently. But these records I’m listening to aren’t from my shelves. I can’t hold them in my hands. I’m actually listening to digitised records, which is an interesting thing to do – or rather, I think it’s interesting – and here’s why…

I would like to be an audiophile. I say “I’d like to be”, rather than “I am” because I don’t have audiophile equipment. I have an okay stereo as home bookshelf stereos go, but it’s sort of overdue for an update and (more importantly) an upgrade. But I’d easily be looking at £1500-2000 for a step up of the kind I’d really be interested in. Turntable, amp and speakers alone. And that’s barely scratching the surface – and the bottom surface at that – of audiophile gear.

But I’ve started doing all the audiophile stuff. I sit in the sweet spot between the speakers and listen to records, marvelling at the recording quality, the performance, the presence and the space in the sound. All that sort of thing. And of course, mp3s don’t really cut it on that front.

Convenience versus quality
Don’t get me wrong. For most use cases, mp3s are great. They’re compact, portable, ubiquitous, easily shared and sound just fine. Until you’re sitting down between the speakers to really appreciate the recording itself… and then you really notice the difference. At least, you do if you’re listening for it.

But mp3s have become the defacto standard for digital files. And hard-core audiophiles are sort of uncomfortable with that fact. They’d have preferred that the dominant form would have been SACD or DVD-A – two high quality digital formats that were primed to supersede plain old CDs on the grounds of fidelity.

But they didn’t. They both failed. Consumer interest in convenience – and some interesting developments in the world of media technology – took things in another direction.

Digital downloads and streams
There’s a lot of talk about streams replacing downloads as ‘the way of the future’. That we’ll all pay a flat fee to have hot and cold running music. After all, streams can now sound every bit as good as the mp3s we have on our hard drives. Technology has caught up, don’t you know. Our broadband speeds allow for our music to now live “in the cloud”. How convenient.

But I’m not convinced. I don’t think music consumption is as simple as that. I’m not saying subscription services like Spotify aren’t important. It’s just that a) I’m deeply suspicious of the phrase “In the future, we will all…” – and b) I think what people do with music is far more complex than just ‘discover, purchase and listen’.

So let’s assume that for the moment, for the sake of argument, convenience had actually been more or less solved anyway. Nobody really needed to be working on that problem right now. Mp3s were the real advance in convenience most of us were looking for. So let’s turn our attention back to quality for a bit.

You can’t buy actual full-fat CD quality audio files on most online stores. There’s no good reason for that. There’s also no earthly reason for them to be priced any differently when they are, either.

Thanks to clever compression algorithms, mp3s were small, and thanks to increasing bandwidths, they were able to be transferred easily. But now we seem to be approaching an event horizon of file storage and data transfer.

Two terabytes of external hard drive cost £1500 just a few years ago. Now you can pick one up for £60. I downloaded my first mp3 on a 14.4k modem. My home internet speed is around 3,500 times that fast now.

So we’re at a moment in history now, I think, where the convenience of digital files can be supplemented by the quality of larger, high-fidelity files. Where lossy mp3s gave us approximations of CD quality audio with a few (usually) acceptable compromises here and there, in a way that we could afford (in terms of transfer and storage as well as in purchase price), now “CD quality” can be considered a mid-range point – not an unattainable, impractical or expensive high watermark of quality.

How the numbers stack up
Without trying to be too technical, CDs are mastered in 16-bit, 44.1kHz format. That means the audio is sampled once every 44,100th of a second, and each individual sample is described in a series of sixteen 1s and 0s. The audio is described by these millions of 16-bit words.

Now it’s fair to say that most studio recordings are higher quality than this. Older recordings tend to be analogue (and so don’t even have bitrates – or, if you prefer, are sampled at infinity kHz); newer recordings tend to be at a higher digital quality, and then ‘dithered down’ to the CD audio standard during the mastering process.

There are two things you can do to increase the fidelity: sample more often, or use more 1s and 0s to describe each sample. Most high-end formats do both. 24-bit, 96kHz files are increasingly common online (it’s significant that the filesharing communities are taking the lead on this) – and to be honest, the extra fidelity is mostly coming from the extra bits, rather than the super fast sample rate. If you use film as an analogy, it’s getting a clearer picture on each frame, rather than increasing the frames per second that would make the greater difference.

Selling us the same stuff one more time
So I think that even though we didn’t all replace our CDs with Super Audio CDs (SACDs) or DVD-Audio (DVD-A), but instead ripped our plain old ordinary CDs to low resolution mp3s for the sake of convenience – we might just be ready to start down the road of replacing those mp3s and iTunes AAC – especially the 128k ones – with higher resolution files.

I’ve begun that process by sourcing some good FLAC files (Free, Lossless Audio Codec) of albums I genuinely love the sound of. I’m a fan of sound, production and the recording arts as well as a fan of music performance.

I’m then converting those files to ALAC (Apple Lossless Audio Codec) because I happen to like using Apple’s iTunes, sending music via my Apple Airport Express and listening on my Apple iPod – none of which can handle the internet’s preferred lossless standard, FLAC (thanks a bunch, Steve Jobs…). But that transfer is, importantly, “lossless”. This is, technically speaking, at the precise same quality as its source material.

And I have to say – I really do notice the difference (like… REALLY notice) – especially when I’m “properly listening” (rather than just “having on”). But then, it’s fair to point out that I am also a jazz fan, and that carries its own cultural baggage with it when it comes to beard-stroking and ‘appreciating’ the music properly.

I do accept, of course, that most people don’t care enough about this sort of thing for it to matter to them (though I suspect most people could be at least shown the difference if they had five minutes to spare). But all the same, I do think there’s a market for high-end remasters of back catalogue albums. Another opportunity for the record labels to sell us the same stuff all over again. Or, in a more sane world, provide an ‘upgrade’ option.

We are, after all, the people who spend the most attention and money on recordings of music. The average annual spend on recorded music for most people is next to nothing. I am not close to that average.

And I suspect that while such an option would no doubt start out as a niche market (though, as I pointed out, a disproportionately lucrative one), it could theoretically experience a rapid uptake as low quality files began to be considered old hat and passé – the mark of someone who doesn’t really like music properly. At least, until they became retro in a few years time…

Didn’t we start by replacing these things with CDs?
But what I’m really especially enjoying are 24bit vinyl rips. People who have good quality pressings of great albums on vinyl and good quality hi-fi gear are recording high-end digital files and sharing them on the internet. And of course, they sound great.

They sound like records (as you might expect), and you can detect surface noise, which you might think would be a negative (it’s not – but that’s a much longer conversation) – but the really interesting bit is that records are mastered differently than CDs.

Ostensibly, the mastering differences account for a need to cater to the physical limitations and affordances of the medium, but there is also a different aesthetic brought to record mastering as a result of that, and actually, I kind of like it. And I’m not alone in that.

So, my first preference is the vinyl itself. I love the experience of vinyl. I won’t go into the psychology of that, but I’m sure you’ve experienced vinyl junkies, and the whole culture that incorporates. My second choice is a good vinyl rip in better-than-CD digital quality. Third is a lossless rip of a CD. CDs themselves don’t even make the list, actually. I don’t like them. They annoy me as a format. They are tolerated long enough to get the audio off into a more convenient (though no less high-fidelity) state.

So as nerdy as it might be, right now I’m listening to a 96kHz, 24-bit high-end recording of a vinyl album, which is as about close to the “real thing”* of listening to the actual record itself as I can get without actually having the vinyl record. And it sounds amazing. Even on my clapped-out old stereo… which I really must get replaced.

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*You might think that the “real thing” would be the performance, or the artist’s intentions, rather than its technological mediation. It’s not, but that’s another much longer story for another day. For now, let me just say this: no digital file gets you any closer to being ‘unmediated’ than any analogue format. We are listening to a recording. We’re hearing microphone placement and the mixing desk as much as we’re hearing pianos and guitars. And as mediation goes, I tend to prefer vinyl for aesthetic, emotional, phenomenological and intangible, psychological reasons.