Saturday, September 7, 2013

Your music. Our music. The music.

How many tracks in your playlist? I'm around 38K--nothing impressive there. Size in megabytes? About 600GB. Pretty standard stuff. No videos; no pictures; just music.

mp3 nation

The mp3 was an advancement because of its "utility." Why? Because the mp3 shrunk the size of music files--the mp3 reduced sound quality drastically. CD-quality tracks, even for the latest one-hit-wonder garage band, often contain between 700-900 kilobytes of information per second (kbps). The mp3 reduced this to 128kbps. If you're not much of a mathematician, that's around an 80% reduction in information. Later, more "advanced" mp3s--what you're probably using now, if you have the hard drive space--went "up" to 256kbps, reducing sound quality by only around 50-60%.

What makes up the difference, then? Why do mp3s sound the same to most people? Well, mp3 players have standardized formulas that fill in the gaps caused by the mp3 storage process. mp3 players are programmed to double certain sounds, triple others, add stock background noise, and even complexify chords or voices.

That's not so much of a problem when the targets for mp3 sound are people unaccustomed to (1) using actual, physical instruments for a sustained period of time; (2) listening to music through quality speakers, rather than tinny and/or incomplete ones; or, (3) understanding much about music in general. From a political perspective, what makes the mp3 interesting is that it has almost wholly replaced "real" music: most of the music listened to now, in the postindustrial society, is not the music that was created by the named artist, but instead, by the mp3 coding programs themselves. I.e., music has been centralized around the mp3: the technological format "mp3" defines the sound we think of as "music."

All the old western names can turn over in their graves, if necessary. Bach, Beethoven, Mozart--and the finest modern un-canned re-performances of all of the above--are translated through the mp3. The mp3 coding programs are, to many people on the planet, the only real musicians left.

The coding programs do a good job, of course. Most people can't tell the difference, particularly on bad speakers, and there are all sorts of cute games you can play where you multiple-choice test if someone can discern a 256kbps mp3 from a record/tape/CD/lossless format.

Data Savings & Prosecution

The mp3 took over so easily because of its convenience--reducing storage space and standardizing playback were big bonuses, and with inconsiderate westerners filling the air with constant noise, and low-quality speakers crowding out the marketplace, why would quality matter, anyway? The mp3 encoders filled a void that people wanted: they dumbed-down for your own good, so that you no longer needed to lament the loss of something precious you didn't understand anyway.

Public safety will follow this trend. The colossal pieces of voice, text, and image data stored on the citizenry will, through search volumes alone, prove daunting for early postindustrial governments. The natural solution? Let encoders handle it. Like mp3 encoders tearing apart lossless sound versions into a standardized version of a song, security storage encoders will reduce storage size and search times for subversive written and spoken content. (As though they aren't already, depending on your criminal law perspective,) [F]uture prosecutions and sentences will be based on the security encoding programs that enable governments to store and study data on target populations.

In much simpler terms, imagine an mp3 encoder eliminating a third on one of the French Horns in Beethoven's Fifth Symphony, trusting that, during later playback, the missing note will be pretty much duplicated by a third-matching chord program in the end user's mp3 player of choice.

Then, imagine a security encoder eliminating conversational pauses, inflections, and verbal components in a conversation between several people, trusting that, during later playback, the missing few words here and there will be pretty much duplicated by a language-matching program in the end user's player of choice. Replacing, say, "cantaloupe" with "grenade."

Too farfetched to imagine? Well, guess how your telephone conversations are being stored in case they need to be searched through, later, for important information. That's right--mp3. This is not futurism so much as now-ism. Blame the coders.


  1. I used to be a big music fan (not to mention a somewhat accomplished guitarist) who spent a fair amount of coin on recorded music. I got disillusioned with music for two basic reasons: (1) I felt that fewer and fewer creative things were happening; and (2) music was becoming a lie via technical "improvements" that were doing to music what air brushing was doing to photography.

    The recording of Led Zeppelin's Stairway to Heaven, arguably the best rock tune ever recorded, contains, horror of horrors, a blown guitar note. (If memory serves me correctly, it's at the "And it's whispered that soon" line.) I love that blown note, and I listen for it every time. It tells me that we're human - subject to imperfection regardless of the level of our expertise.

    Blown notes simply aren't possible in today's environment. Such blemishes need to be air brushed - to the extent that the original notes were actually "played" by a musician at all. Garage Band and its digital successors have become socially approved substitutes for musicianship, creating a world where errors (not to mention successes) have become phantoms of the past.

    Likewise with computer-spying. The oft-touted point that they're not actually listening is a red herring. The important point is that they've created a directorate that can be used to reward and/or destroy people whenever those who've been surveilled show up on the radars of those who occupy positions of social power.

    Although such systems have always existed in the forms of character references, rumor mills, etc., the extent to which they now exist is nearly that of omniscience, that is, an extent that had previously been the preserve only of deities and of the private conscience.

    How normal people can even think that such a state of affairs can be acceptable simply baffles me.

    1. There's an interesting and delightful tension ("in the artistic world," shudder) between digital and, shall we say, acoustic creation. At first blush, this one shares your perception of, say, Garage Band--but then, isn't a novel just as much an affront to a live storyteller?

      As someone who can actually pull some of the latter off, this one takes understandable offense at the averbal misunderstander-ers of modern prose, who need copy editors, supervising editors, and 24 months of hand-wringing effort in order to produce not even a novel, but the same 1960s dramatic formula, with postwar tropes replaced by postindustrial ones. Nonetheless, I don't end up concluding that the idea of an edited, perfected novel is a wholly bad thing. Nor digital music, as long as we apply the same critical standards that we should, theoretically, be applying to all entertainment.

      Naturally, most everything would come up painfully short, but the same criticisms could've been leveled at the extensively-(un)groomed, over-hyped, over-prepped musicians of ages past.

      (I mean, Amadeus, right? And for how many decades did we need to listen to major chord progressions and scales being run off by dime-a-dozen virtuosi before a Pole got allowed to be a little Romantic about things?)