I’m not sure my feelings could be more mixed.
When people first sent me the trailer for a new documentary called The Distortion Of Sound, I was intrigued. Big names, high production standards, and a topic I care about.
But I immediately thought:
Well, now I’ve seen the full documentary, and – they did.
Don’t get me wrong, it’s a compelling film that makes some valid points, and just as with Neil Young’s Pono, in some ways I want to stand up and cheer that audio quality is being talked about so passionately !
The truth is though, this video is talking about lossy data-compression, as used in mp3 files, but the audio examples they use also feature heavy dynamic range compression.
These are two entirely separate things.
(For a non-technical analogy to try and explain the difference, click here.)
And while I whole-heartedly agree that poor or excessive data-compression is a bad thing – I even wrote a blog post about it, Why mp3 Sucks – I also believe that excessive dynamic range compression and limiting can have a massive detrimental effect on the music we listen to, too. That’s why I founded Dynamic Range Day, and developed my Perception plugin.
If you add the two together, you have a real car-crash – heavy dynamic compression (limiting & clipping) make mp3s sound much, much worse than material with a decent peak-to-average loudness ratio.
So what ?
Aren’t I being un-necessarily picky ? Does confusing the two types of compression in this way really matter ? Can’t it help people understand the issues and the problem anyway ?
The sound engineers who cried “wolf”
My concern is that people watching this documentary may go away to listen sceptically to their mp3s again, but not hear results as horrible as the examples featured in the video, and decide it’s all nonsense.
Which it isn’t.
Maybe I’m over-thinking – maybe anything that gets people thinking about audio quality is a Good Thing ?
As I said – I’m conflicted.
Watch the documentary yourself, here, and let me know what you think!
UPDATE – The Plot Thickens…
I wrote this post fast, earlier today – and since then, I’ve realised there’s much more to be said. The film is thick with irony and contradictions – and so is the way it’s being used by the company that made it.
Firstly as I mentioned earlier, despite using dynamic compression and even heavy distortion in it’s audio examples @ 11’47” and especially 12’07”, the film doesn’t even mention the loudness wars.
Perhaps this isn’t so surprising, though, since the video features Mike Shinoda from Linkin Park (whose new album is about as heavily dynamically compressed as they come) and the fantastically eloquent Andrew Scheps actually mixed Metallica’s “Death Magnetic”, arguably the most famous Loudness War casualty of all time.
Secondly, even though the film goes to great lengths to explain the problems lossy data-compression can cause – we’re watching it on YouTube ! Which uses… data-compressed audio. So when they’re contrasting great, emotional music with the data-compressed versions… it’s all data-compressed !
Thirdly, and most worryingly of all, the video is being used on this page:
If you scroll down to the bottom of the page – which I didn’t, when I originally watched the video – you’ll find two links. The first goes to a promotional page for Harman speakers, which is fair enough, since they made the film.
But the second goes to this page:
– and this is hypocrisy of the highest order.
Because “Clari-Fi” is a system that purports to “restore the artistic details lost in your digitally-compressed music”.
Firstly – it’s not possible.
As Harman’s 20-minute “documentary” goes to such great lengths to explain, once you’ve thrown 90% of the original data in a music file away to make a data-compressed version – you can’t get it back.
It’s gone – forever. That’s the problem that all the Big Names in the film are talking about.
And the same applies to dynamic range compression (and limiting) which the film mysteriously doesn’t mention, as we’ve seen.
At the very best, you can apply a little EQ and transient processing to try and make the data-compressed file sound a little more lively – which is presumably what Harman’s “Clari-Fi” does.
Most visitors to the site will never know though, because the demonstration they are given is so heavily biased. When the audio examples at the bottom of the page switch from “Clari-Fi Music” to “Compressed music” and back again, not only are they accompanied by ridiculously exaggerated graphics depicting the “compressed music” as simple flatlined blocks but “Clari-Fi” music as full waveforms, they also boost the volume of the “Clari-Fi” examples by a whopping 2 dB !
This is audio snake-oil of the most blatant kind. Even half a dB can completely change our perception of two identical pieces of audio, so realistic comparisons with a 2dB difference is completely impossible.
And of course all the music in the examples is still data-compressed as it streams to our computer ! I’ve seen some cack-handed audio demonstrations in my time, but this one takes the biscuit.
What’s the expression ? “You can’t polish a turd, but you can roll it in glitter” ? Hmm…
Are Harman deliberately making fun of us ?
It’s a brilliantly outrageous concept, when you think about it – present us with a romanticised, apparently passionate and sincere documentary about the way that data-compresion is sucking the emotion out of our music, and then try and fool us into buying an artificial, un-natural, after-the-fact sticking-plaster process to somehow make it all better again.
Is that really what Harman are trying to do ?
I don’t know – I hope not.
The thing is, I agree with the basic message of the film – music sounds better when it’s not data-compressed. I’ve even quoted Sean Olive’s research on this site before, when his work at Harman showed that young people really can hear the problems with mp3s.
But the fact that this ‘documentary’ completely ignores the loudness war – missing at least 50% of the reason why so much music sounds crappy these days – AND combining it with the bogus Clari-Fi “solution”, completely undermines the integrity and credibility of the film, in my opinion.
Did Andrew Scheps (who I know is genuinely passionate about the problems of lossy compression, whatever his role in the loudness war) know that this film was going to try and persuade people it’s actually OK to listen to data-compressed music after all, provided they use Harman’s “Clari-Fi” ? How about all the other contributors to the film ?
We’ll probably never know.
But one thing is certain. As the end of the film itself says, there really is something we can do about the problems of mp3 and it’s ilk – don’t buy data-compressed music in the first place.
(Even though 256 kbps AAC can actually sound pretty good, but that’s a whole other story…)
And if you do, accept the limitations of the format and try to enjoy the music anyway – don’t throw even more un-natural digital processing at it after the horse has already bolted over the horizon !
“The Distortion of Sound” really is an issue in 21st century music, and one I care passionately about – but I’m not sure this film, or the marketing that surrounds it, will do anything to help.