Riffing on the highs and lows of the sonic landscape

(Jimmy Turrell / For The Times)

The quirky violist known as Ljova, an ingratiating fixture on the New York new music scene, has just released a recording called “Melting River.” You can purchase and download it for as little as $2 on the artist-friendly website Bandcamp as either an inferior MP3 file or an HD-resolution FLAC file. Ljova says that there will be no physical release.

“Unless we can find sponsorship for a vinyl release,” he writes in an email, “the days of physical CDs are over. :)”

The days of CDs aren’t quite over — thousands of new ones come out every month. But the way we listen to music is definitively changing. And the fact is Ljova’s highly addictive viola and six-string fiddle music sounds great if you are willing to make the effort to get the right equipment on which to play it. Should that LP come out, you’ll need to fuss with turntable and such.


Most people don’t. Even people who make their living listening to music are trying to make sense of the new digital world. Consider this conversation between Times pop music critic Randall Roberts and classical music critic Mark Swed as they discuss — and sometimes disagree — about such issues as high fidelity, sampling, Apple as grand gatekeeper and new ways to share tastes; in short, the start of a conversation on How to Listen to Music Today.

Mark Swed: Randall, six months ago you wrote about your ambivalence, at best, with digital media and the deep attachment you maintain for vinyl, the power of an LP to connect a listener to the music. I’m not in disagreement with you, having just gone to considerable trouble upgrading my cartridge.

But I’ve also spent the past year attempting to fully come to terms with digital, which necessarily entails bypassing the Apple, Spotify, Pandora, et al. model of noticeably downgraded sound. It has proved quite a process, far more trouble and expense than I had anticipated. The results are also something I hadn’t expected, which is a quality of sound that far surpasses in acoustical immediacy, in its living and breathing quality, anything I have ever experienced from a recorded medium.

The problem is that however lifelike digital’s potential, the business models I’ve found are antithetical to music, and, as you’ve written, the emotional attachment to something physical can matter. What’s to be done? What does it mean for music that digital is the future?

Randall Roberts: Mark, digital isn’t just the future, it’s the present and becomes more so each time a budding listener gets her first smartphone and downloads or streams a song. It’s not my ideal present, but I find comfort in knowing that just because it’s headed that way doesn’t mean that other technologies are rendered moot. Someone looking to learn about, for example, Fela Kuti, can hear a sample on Spotify, which might prompt him to download a track from iTunes, which might persuade him to then buy the CD or LP — both currently available new or used.

As long as there’s a desire or demand for analog sound, high-quality digital and medium-quality streaming, the multi-tiered, multi-platform model is a reality. Wine drinkers can get just as drunk from a bottle of Two Buck Chuck as from an 1811 Chateau d’Yquem.


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M.S.: Yes, but the process of upgrading to high-definition digital is no small thing. To do it right, that can entail hooking up a decent DAC (digital audio converter) between your stereo and computer, then getting the proper adapters because USB ports won’t carry the highest frequencies. And then it means you can’t use iTunes or other popular music programs because they are designed only for lower fidelity. (Don’t get me started on Apple’s misuse of the term “lossless,” which still involves compression when you copy CDs.) Further on the downside is the need for gobs of storage space, the paucity of high-definition files and, finally, their expense, which can be as much as $24 for a half-hour of music on a site such as HD Tracks. It also takes forever and a day to download these files, given how slow our Internet speeds are in the U.S.

Under these circumstances, most people are going to opt for their iPods and other Two Buck Chuck devices, everything else be damned.

R.R.: The quest for perfect fidelity seems to me more a passion or hobby than an essential ingredient of music appreciation. Opera fanatics in the early 20th century unable to attend a performance were no doubt in awe when hearing Enrico Caruso’s voice carried thinly through the speaker bell of a 78 player. AM radio helped make a star of Frank Sinatra. These days ears accustomed to streaming or MP3 fidelity might be missing a whole swath of the frequency spectrum, but most people either don’t care or are willing to take that trade-off.

This is especially true during a time when young adults who used to drive record sales are jobless and either living at home or with a few roommates. They need music more than ever as a salve. The notion of paying so much money for perfect sound ($24 for a half-hour of music!) is, for many, low on the list, when for $10 a month you can get good enough sound through Spotify and for free when you roam tastes via Pandora — or bum all the music you need from in-the-loop friends.

Don’t get me wrong: I do agree that achieving ultimate sound should be a goal, and I want to hear an artist’s creation in its purest state. I love my sound system — which includes a higher-end Pioneer receiver, a couple Technics SL-1200 turntables, and a decent mixer with turntables, CD player, laptop/iPad input and cassette deck running through it. Most important are four strategically placed Bowers & Wilkins speakers (600 series). It all sounds great. But the thrill for me isn’t in the quality of the fidelity.

My questions: To what extent does quality of sound affect your appreciation of a particular piece of music? Is your desire for perfect sound related to the type of music you write about? You most often experience live performance with the expectation that the concert hall will be completely silent; the expectation at club shows and concerts is the opposite. Is that relevant?

M.S.: I’m actually not seeking perfect sound. Perfection, I think, kills music. In fact, you could say that the very process of recording takes some of the life out of music. “Remove the records from Texas,” John Cage wrote in “Lecture on Nothing,” “and someone will learn to sing.”

But I do object to the way the digital model has been applied. Isn’t Apple, for instance, supposed to be about high quality, and wasn’t Steve Jobs a vinyl guy? But there is a dullness to the audio standards of iTunes downloads that makes them far inferior to LPs, CDs or even some cassette tapes. What that does is remove an enormous amount of information, to say nothing of the sensual, tactile experience of sound as vibration. And ultimately, it discourages the act of listening, of paying attention.

This is to me a different situation than the club or concert hall one, which is more cultural. It’s not that there is more noise in MP3s, it’s that there is less, less of everything. The bass is more restricted as well, and I would think that makes the music less, not more, danceable.

R.R.: The removal of so much sonic information in the average digital file can definitely lead to a dull listening experience. But I also think that, in the same way that engineers in the ‘60s and ‘70s adapted to stereo production and in the ‘80s started making digital recordings instead of analog, innovative producers have adapted by tweaking the mastering process to compensate for this deficiency.

Regarding your point about how digital compression discourages the act of listening, I disagree. It may not be ideal, but I’d argue that universal access via stream and iTunes, despite their relative sonic limitations, has done more good than harm to music.

If hard, intentional listening is on the decline, I’d argue that more culpability lies in how technology has allowed us to so easily change our minds. Smartphones and voluminous access to music have made us impatient, less mindful of our listening choices. We scroll through thousands of songs looking for quick sustenance. Once we find it and it tickles our frontal lobe, that rush of sonic serotonin needs replenishing, so we click to find something else among the files, hit the button for the morphine drip, and repeat.

Committing to put on a particular record or CD, however, is reinforced by energy and intent. In the same way that a bell is struck before a meditation session, the ritual of putting the needle to a record triggers excitable neurons in my brain. One must decide to touch the object, place it on the turntable or in the carriage. Hit play or drop the needle, then sit back down.

When the side or CD is over, you stand up, walk to the stereo and decide whether to commit to another chunk of listening or hunt down something else to put on. There’s a simple grace to the ritual, one for which all the shuffling in the world can’t compensate.

M.S.: Like you, I believe that quality of listening is the key. My first meaningful musical experiences were as a 7-year-old squawking away on the clarinet as well as exposure to an eclectic variety of LPs on pretty primitive record players. And, yes, in the ‘30s people thought radio and 78s were just swell — and they were. Believe it or not, there is a beneficial quality to surface noise and static, which acts like white noise. The ear can pick out missing frequencies from it.

Nor is the audiophile world the best place to look for musical taste. I remember the days when the magazine Absolute Sound used to hail the soundtrack from “Casino Royale” (the original 1967 film, that is) as perhaps the finest sounding, and thus most desirable, LP ever made. I don’t think Burt Bacharach’s score had anything to do with it.

You are certainly correct to point out that every new recording media has gone through significant improvements. As I said at the start, high-definition files can simply take your breath away. The difference this time, though, has been the pervasive influence of Apple’s brilliant business model, which manages to marginalize everything that doesn’t fit into its scheme. So when technical improvements become practical — as enhanced digital files now are — they aren’t adopted across the board, which had been the case with LPs, CDs and tape.

Even more troubling is the way the computer-commerce infrastructure has reduced all music to songs. Listeners may think that their horizons are expanded, but my sense is that we’ve entered a state of homogenization. As you noted, the inherent temptation to graze rather than devour is the dark side to the thrilling easy access to a panoply of music, namely. When we sample, everything starts to get mushed together. On the other hand, hybridization, which is how music like life evolves, takes time.

R.R.: Apple homogenization is real, and the way that iTunes’ interface flattens the experience of discovery is troubling indeed. I’m heartened, though, by what’s occurring outside its kingdom, where services such as Soundcloud and Bandcamp are redefining the notion of music scenes, schools and discovery. Soundcloud, especially, is evolving into a fascinating marriage of music and social media, with artists, labels and composers sharing work far removed from Apple’s domain in ways that encourage the kind of musical conversation that, ideally, breeds hybridization.

The sound quality? Decent, but not great, MP3 files or streams. Certainly good enough, however, to push the music into my brain’s long-term storage, where fidelity matters little as soundwaves transform into the platonic ideal of the song. The other day, for example, I was walking upstairs when Bob Dylan’s version of “World Gone Wrong” popped into my head. I don’t know what triggered it, but as it soundtracked my morning, the fidelity of the “recording” mattered little. Whether I’d internalized the song via low-quality MP3, compact disc, Spotify stream or super high-res digital file, it was there, every languid guitar stroke and Dylan moan. It sounded perfect.


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