Digital Music and the Requisite Price of Evolution

After reading my recent post waxing on how listening to vinyl, CDs or cassettes simply does not equate neurologically the same way in my brain as streaming music does, AudioStream resident DJ and music expert Scott Eastlick penned a response to my call. Here it is. – Rafe Arnott

During the late nineties when digital sensors first emerged as the inevitable replacement of celluloid film, I had finally found a holy war I was willing to die for. I regarded the first generation of digital video compared with film akin to the difference between shoddy air conditioning and a proper breeze. Watching directors like Terrance Malick and Spike Lee make the switch from the format they had mastered was heartbreaking to a point that the innovative offerings from DV pioneers such as Lars Von Trier and Thomas Vinterberg were barely consoling. 

Since then, the virtues of digital production became undeniable, and the increased accessibility too pervasive to overlook. While I still prefer the look and feel of Blade Runner, The Godfather, or anything with Stanley Kubrick’s name on it, I eventually came to accept digital as a progression, albeit one that came at a cost. My take on digital music has followed a similar trajectory.  

I freely admit that I have rarely loved a digital album as much as the analog ones I would take an hour-long bus ride to find and then spend all of my money on to buy. Clicking on an album’s Discogs page doesn’t compare with thumbing through actual liner notes, just as pressing the play button on my Bluetooth headset doesn’t send the same chill up my spine as dropping a needle on wax.  As deeply as I lament this romantic lure, this selective purity shouldn’t nullify the value of having access to an infinite amount of music with a minimal amount of effort, or the extent to which the best music is now able to freely pollinate thanks to this digital world. 

The perspective is undoubtedly less potent within the pages of an audiophile publication. If your stereo system costs more than your car and your common listening experience involves you paying the same level of attention to sound as other people do to movies, then I would absolutely endorse analog media over digital, but the means by which the general public consumed music before the digital age often involved limitations that are easy to forget.

The algorithms used in most streaming services are better at predicting your taste and introducing you to new music than the mainstream radio stations that were once most people's main source for new music, which were often too comfortable playing “Careless Whisper” eight times a day, and no longer does the retail store or coffee shop worker have to listen to the same Cafe Del Mar chillout CD on shuffle for eight months. Online music-streaming services have also changed the music industry. Now people in rural towns or faraway countries have the same access to underground music as those in London, Berlin, or New York. The ability to explore the entire catalog of an intriguing record label, or source the seminal songs from a certain music scene, is now as accessible as tap water. 

Even as someone who has spent enough time in certain record shops that I should have paid rent, the range of music I have discovered since then absolutely dwarfs what I was able to consume as a music obsessive in the analog age. While I seldom have indelible experiences like my friend showing up on my doorstep with a component CD player to spin me Public Enemy for the first time, when I recently compiled the music that means the most of me in my life, more than half of it was discovered through digital means. This evolution is how I am able to share such selections on my website, how I was able to host a weekly radio show on a station that wouldn’t otherwise exist, and how I became a contributor to this magazine. 

With the advent of digital, the music industry itself became open-sourced. While it’s easy to lust after records that were made in the analog age, it’s impossible to appreciate the music that never made the light of day with that privilege being held by a handful of industry gatekeepers. There are still gates, but now you can go around them.

If you told the most hardened music purists from decades past that even a cheap computer would empower you to adequately replicate expensive production gear, release albums without studio interference, listen to any song ever recorded, and start a radio station in your kitchen that could broadcast worldwide, I expect few would consider the warmth of vinyl a suitable reason to fight this change. 

Evolution always involves some trade-offs. While humans evolving from monkeys was for the most part an improvement, we certainly lost something in no longer having feet that you can peel a banana with, or a tail you can hang off of a tree from. I’m personally comfortable trading these perks for the ability to drive, speak, and binge-watch television. I agree with every word written by my counterpart about the romanticism and superior quality of analog music, but against the boundless potential to create, distribute, and discover new music, I’m happy to make do peeling bananas with my hands. 

COMMENTS
nick's picture

Amen.

barrows's picture

But digital playback and recording is not a "trade of" at least not in sonic terms. While some may love the tactile experience of an LP (and I am one who grew up with LP playback and sympathize with this notion, no matter how quaint it may be) that does not make the actual playback sonics superior in any way.
Evidence of this is how many audiophiles appear to love their vinyl LPs, even those LP's which are produced from a digitally recorded source. There are problems with contemporary recordings, but these problems are not because the recordings are digital. These problems are down to mixing and mastering decisions (loudness wars, etc) and a general lack of full engagement in music by many in the industry these days. I would admit though, that really good digital playback is a bit tricky to achieve, but it is here now.
As to "streaming", let's first make the distinction between what I define as "streaming" (specifically, playback based on files stored somewhere else in the cloud, whether Tidal, Qobuz, etc) or serving up locally stored files, as meaning from a local Network based server or NAS. I use a good Ethernet Renderer, the Sonore Signature Rendu SEoptical to deliver my locally stored files to my DAC-this is why I use the Term "Renderer" to distinguish it from a "Streamer" as I am not using cloud based files here. This is an important distinction, as many have reported when they have tested locally stored files vs. "streamed" files, when the same file can be confirmed (difficult to do), the locally stored file appears to have better sonics in playback.
Of course I do not think anyone can argue with the potential for music exploration associated with "streaming", for the best playback fidelity, I would recommend sticking to locally stored files, at least until we discover what technical problems are with what the streaming services are doing (compression algos, whatever).
As to why we have problems with current digital recordings, the problems are many and not easy to sort out. I have strong belief that, for example, many DAWs are flawed. A lot of recording engineers admit that DAWs sound different, and that alone proves that there are problems inherent in them. So before you blame digital recording and playback itself for bad sound, take a look into the details. For example, I would herald the work of Jared Sachs with Channel Classics as an example of very. very good sounding digital. He records and mixes through an analog console, live, and captures to high rate DSD. Small fixes are done, occasionally, with the Merging Pyramix software, but there is no Protools in the path.
As another example, at the opposite end of the spectrum, my GF is a semi pro musician (not all of her income comes from music performance and sales). She generally records in digital, with simple signal path, to 24/88.2, sometimes in a home environment, end late at night, and sometimes in small friendly studios. I have heard many of her rough unmixed, unmolested tracks, and in their raw state they sound amazing. It is pretty clear to me, that digital itself is not to blame, it is how digital is used (abused) that results in poor sounding digital recordings.
On the playback side, if you want to get digital right, try a Mola Mola Tambaqui DAC, EMM Labs DV-2, or Playback Designs Dream DAC, and make sure you are not using a loudspeaker amplifier combination which emphasizes the upper midrange, as so many are won't to do these days to impress us with increased "detail" in the short term.
And finally, i have no problem with those who "like" their analog playback, as long as they do not make the mistake of suggesting that analog playback and recording is superior, generally than digital. Doing so, especially as advice to potential audiophiles, is doing a disservice to the those audiophiles and is basically akin to what we see too much these days: fake news.

mraudioguru's picture

...than Blade Runner and Bananas?

Longterm's picture

For those who weren't there, here are some of the devices and dilemmas we dealt with in the original vinyl days that so many people are now misremembering as the golden age: Cecil E. Watts Dust Bugs and Parastatik Disc Preeners; vertical tracking angles; anti-skating adjustments; tonearm head mass; wow, flutter, rumble, and hum; tracking force; speed controls; 45 rpm super-fi "LPs"; stylus geometry; moving-coil step-up transformers; sticky or stretched drive belts; turntable/preamp grounding and ground loops; groove pre-echo; pressings on vinyl regrind; record warping and ripples; and RCA Dynagroove. These things kept us so busy it was sometimes hard to find the time to listen to music!

CHFels's picture

You should make do with peeling your bananas by hand. Thanks for the great thoughts!

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