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The brave -- and complex -- new world of digital music

Illustration for Mark Swed story on digital music. Illustration by Dan Page/For The Times.
Illustration for Mark Swed story on digital music. Illustration by Dan Page/For The Times.
(Dan Page / For The Times)
Los Angeles Times Music Critic

I have just downloaded and am playing a newly remastered recording in high-resolution audio of Mozart’s Piano Concerto No. 24 with Glenn Gould as soloist. It was recorded in 1962. It sounds utterly fresh and immediate, as though it were the audio equivalent of Doctor Who’s time machine.

I never heard Gould play live, but I have listened to his recordings all my life with awe and admiration. I fell in love with them as a kid via old mono LPs heard over a cheap record player in my bedroom. I listened to them all through college on various formats, including worn-down records through crummy headphones in my college music library. I had them on early, awful cassette tape. There were the harsh digital transfers of the early CD era and then the better ones.

In fact, many of my early music enthusiasms were fostered by recordings of dubious fidelity, such as faint pirated European opera recordings barely better than what might be found on an Edison cylinder of a century earlier. The ear can work wonders when it wants to.

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Yet as I write this with Gould playing in hi-res, I feel as if I’m hearing for the first time what he really sounded like in the flesh, and it’s giving me goose bumps.

The Gould download, which also includes his revelatory account of Schoenberg’s Piano Concerto, was cheap. Purchased from a French website in euros, it came to something like $1.41. That’s less than half the list price of the original LP in 1962 and a fraction of that cost in 2015 dollars. The same recording on iTunes is double that price and in dulling low-fi (with less than a thousand times the sonic resolution), sounding less sonically animated than on any format I have ever used.

I found the hi-res Gould at the greatest record store that has ever existed. Qobuz, a Paris-based download and streaming site, handles only CD quality and above (way above). The only problem is that access is blocked in the U.S. for reasons I can’t possibly fathom other than the self-destructive pathology of the recording industry. When you are in Britain or several other countries in Europe, you can access Qobuz, or you can try to find a French portal for computers on this side of the pond (Hint: Get a 10-year-old to figure it out).

There is more than one reason why recordings aren’t doing so hot these days. But as this Glenn Gould example shows, the bungling of digital by music and audio industries hoodwinked by Silicon Valley could be the decisive one. Then again, a medium brilliantly able to resurrect Gould could mean new life for recordings.

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CDs have been dying a ruinous, slow death for more than a decade, as the iPod, iTunes, file sharing, YouTube, streaming and all the other alternatives have hammered inevitable nail after nail into the coffins of physical music media. All formats have their life span. The LP had a three-decade run, and so now has the CD.

Apple, Amazon and Google are the big winners by putting what feels like the entire universe of music — music through all ages, of all genres, from all cultures — readily at our fingertips. Music appears to be instantly available in all ways, means and dimensions. Only a musical troglodyte can — or should! — resist that. On top of that, you have access to practically everything musical on the smartphone you carry in your pocket or purse.

The key to all this is sonic compression, particularly in the standards developed for MP3 files, which is what made the iPod possible and hence the digital music revolution. To make musical files small enough so they could be easily shared and stored, the rate in which analog sound was sampled was reduced by around 11 times from what was found on a CD to create the standard first used on iTunes (now a measly double that).

The justification for MP3 compression is that the ear can be tricked through psycho-acoustics. I can attest to that. As a student, I had a friend who was an organist, and I would walk by the chapel on campus and listen for the organ to see if she was there. Time and again, I thought I heard the sound of organ pipes faintly in the distance, but when I peeked in, the organ loft would be empty. It turned out that a nearby hissing steam generator produced white noise containing all frequencies and that my ear picked out the organ frequencies I had been listening for.

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Something similar occurs when you compare the newly remastered Gould recordings on MP3 and hi-res. There is too little there with severe compression. Missing is the palpable sonic presence to draw a listener in. Suitable for background, the shallow MP3 encourages grazing and has undoubtedly contributed to the shortening of musical attention spans.

Even so, it was to iTunes and Google Play that the recording business gravitated, not wanting to miss the commercial boat. Finally, though, there are indications that things may be changing.

The fad for a return to vinyl has helped, but that is for niche enthusiasts. So in desperation, the recording industry has begun to turn its attention to hi-res, which has been around for a while, and the audio industry is now making less esoteric equipment on which to play it. Europe and Asia, however, remain far ahead of the U.S.

On the trail of hi-res while in Tokyo last spring, I roamed Sony’s posh multi-story showroom, nestled among high-end designer stores in the Ginza district. There I found a suitably luxurious portable digital audio player with glorious sound that made it seem as though Sony had recaptured its long-lost Walkman. It was not yet available in the States, but a company spokesman told me that Sony was putting its full resources behind hi-res audio, just as it had with high-definition video a decade earlier, helping propel that into the mainstream.

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In desperation, the recording industry begun to turn its attention to high-resolution audio. Europe and Asia, however, remain far ahead of the U.S.

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As it turned out, Sony released the $1,200 Walkman NW-ZX2 in the U.S. in April without prominent advertising or even giving it a decent name. Perhaps Sony was afraid of the publicity that had surrounded Neil Young’s new Pono, an excellent $400 digital audio player, which the popular press then set out to boorishly debunk with sometimes bogus testing. The addiction to cheap music and Silicon Valley is hard for tin-eared tech writers to break.

Typically, these players, running from $200 to $3,500, come from Korea, China or Japan. The sound of even the cheapest is in a whole new class. Good headphones are a must. Most can be connected to a hi-fi component system or used as an external DAC (or digital audio converter) to improve the sound of music played over a computer.

There are other alternatives, but no one is doing enough to simplify matters. The key element is the digital conversion, and outboard DACs (the soundcards in computers and an essential component in all digital disc players) are now commonplace. Again, the price range is enormous — from less than $100 to $60,000 — and again, an inexpensive one will significantly improve any sound that comes out of your computer.

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There are new component digital players for home sound systems coming out weekly (most are still in the $1,000+ range, but prices should drop soon). At last, there are also portable DACs that will attach to smartphones and tablets, which will improve even MP3s and make the better streaming sites sound impressive, but they are a hassle. The one I have, from a Canadian firm called Resonessence Labs, has exceptional sound, but it is chunky and must be connected with a string of adapters and cables that you need to keep track of, making portability a pain.

The bigger problem is the limited availability of hi-res music and the ever-expanding panoply of different kinds of files, which cause DACs and players to quickly go out of date. There is now hi-res and higher-res and still-higher-res. As you rise up the digital ladder, the differences become increasingly subtle and require more expensive equipment. .

It is enough to make you wonder whether hi-res is really worth the expense and trouble. It is when well-made analog recordings from the ‘50s and ‘60s can sound astonishingly lifelike. Gould treated recording as an art form in its own right, and with hi-res you can really hear what he was up to, say, in his compositional way of manipulating reverberation to create a chilly Northern atmosphere for Sibelius’ solo piano music.

But just as hi-def video mercilessly exposes blemishes, so too with hi-res, which can make poor recordings sound worse rather than better. There is still a fine art to recording, and the premium labels often are less demanding than such smaller labels as the L.A.-based Yarlung or the French Canadian label Analekta.

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Finally, access to hi-res recording is a mess. For whatever entrepreneurial reason, U.S. sites for download have but a small fraction of what can be found globally. Prices are literally all over the map, with European sites often but not always substantially cheaper than American ones.

The remastered Gould recordings were recently issued as an 81-CD set on Sony that sells for $168.79 on Amazon. The compressed MP3 version on iTunes, without the 416-page booklet, is $199.98. The superior hi-res offering on Qobuz is 99.99 euros (around $107.50) and includes a PDF of the booklet. The only hi-res availability I can find in the U.S. is on HD Tracks (the largest U.S. site for hi-res), where only six individual titles are offered; the Mozart-Schoenberg concerto recording is $17.99 by itself.

The major labels are of practically no help. Few do anything to promote their hi-res releases or make them available for review, but a couple are taking the lead.

Naxos is on the cutting edge with ClassicsOnline, a website unveiled over the summer that not only makes its hi-res recordings readily available and reasonably priced but is also the first to offer hi-res streaming. The catch is that few in the U.S. have access to the degree of high-speed Internet needed to make the streaming work. We are so backward that I’ve had better luck streaming hi-res at a Starbucks in Lucerne, Switzerland, than one in Silicon Valley.

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By the way, downloading the Gould set at Silicon Beach Internet speeds means that I started two days ago and that I am almost there. Getting the CD set from Amazon Prime would have been faster and much easier. The physical box, moreover, makes an exciting Christmas present. Sitting impressively on a shelf, it may even entice a kid to pull out one of the cute miniature LP jackets and play the CD — and be as bowled over as I first was.

mark.swed@latimes.com


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