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Blog // Sounds
February 24, 2013

CD Is Dead To Me

Yesterday I ordered some music from Amazon. Although ordering music online is nothing new for most of us, this time the order was a little different, all four albums were on Vinyl. I’ve decided, from this day onwards, I won’t buy another CD. On Being A Late Adopter When CDs first came out I was […]

Yesterday I ordered some music from Amazon. Although ordering music online is nothing new for most of us, this time the order was a little different, all four albums were on Vinyl.

I’ve decided, from this day onwards, I won’t buy another CD.

On Being A Late Adopter

When CDs first came out I was not a fan. It was clear the lack of noise and increased dynamic range were attractive, especially for listening to classical music. But, every time I had the chance to compare the same recordings on CD and Vinyl through a good quality sound system, the difference was staggering, at least to my ears. The CDs sounded harsh, thin, metallic and often profoundly unrealistic.

Sadly, not everyone could hear the difference.

Of course, the quality of music on CD has improved a lot over the years and we now know a lot more about how music behaves in the digital realm than we did thirty years ago. But, truth be told, I never loved the format.

Shoehorned Into Digital

Throughout the early 90s consumers were soon given little choice but to switch over to CD, especially in Australia, where I lived at the time. Like many music fans the experience of being forced into an inferior and more expensive format left a sour taste in the mouth.

As bad as CDs were, MiniDisc (MD) was worse. An attempt at a digital version of cassettes, the format was eventually killed by its cost, poor sound, limited interest from consumers and the eventual rise of MP3.

And, while I was relatively quick to jump on the iPod trend, I was half-hearted about loading my whole catalogue into iTunes or buying music digitally. The original 128 kbit/s AAC sounded terrible to my ears and while the current 256 kbit/s on offer is much better, it’s still not all that great.

Today I have about 40% of my music library in iTunes, all of it ripped at 320 kbit/s AAC, which I consider to be the lowest acceptable quality for casual listening while travelling. Of course, it’s a compromise for the sake of saving some space and giving me a wide choice of music on my iPhone.

A Digital Future

While files compressed at 256 kbit/s or 320 kbit/s are OK for occasional listening, they still don’t match CD quality, which is why I’ve been very reluctant to buy digital downloads.

However, the new Mastered for iTunes standards can give us hope that in the future companies like Apple will be in a position to deliver files at far higher quality standards than current downloads, higher than CD in fact!

Moreover, it should be pointed out the music originally created for vinyl was engineered to work best on that format. Many of the bass and sub-bass heavy genres that have evolved in recent years were made possible (for better or worse) by the extended low end available on digital formats. And high quality digital may also continue to be the best format for some kinds of classical and ambient music as well as spoken word performances.

How I’m Listening Today

My studio monitors, the SE Munro Egg150 are specifically designed for music production. However, they also have inputs (and an EQ setting) for conventional HiFi equipment. So, I’m running a Pro-Ject Debut Carbon turntable as my primary listening device alongside my desk for audio work (I still have a CD player in my Mac Pro, if required).

One of the first things you learn, as you get into audio production is to to develop a good set of “reference” material. This means songs and albums that are not just personal favourites, but ones that are clearly exceptional in terms of production and sound quality.

Listening again and again to your reference material, trains your ear in terms of good sound and helps you make decisions about which gear to buy and how to adjust it in the studio. As acclaimed designer and engineer Rupert Neve puts it,

Inevitably our data bank of “natural” sound is built up on the basis of our personal experience and this must surely emphasize the importance of listening to “natural” sound, and high quality musical instruments within acoustic environments that is subjectively pleasing so as to develop keen awareness that will contribute to a reliable data bank…

…Memory and knowledge of real acoustic and musical events may be the biggest tool and advantage any recording engineer may possess.

Everything we are learning about music cognition suggests our brains rewire themselves over time, based on what we listen to and how we listen to it. If you love music and hope to make music, then you owe it to yourself to listen to music under the best conditions you can manage, because you are actually programming yourself for the moments when you will come to make music.

Music to me sounds best when it is warm, wide and focussed, like a good vinyl recording. Vinyl is my truth; a beautifully deceptive and imperfect truth.

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