Tag Archives: MPEG

Portability Over Quality: The MP3 Scam

I happen to be a new fan of Alva Noto, whose minimalist bleeps and hisses may not be everyone’s cup of tea. (My wife thinks we have mice.) Anyway, I’m also testing headphones so I’m sitting outside by the communal pool taking in his second album with Ryuichi Sakamoto (my hero; I once interviewed him in such a grovelling fashion I couldn’t bring myself to watch the recording of it afterwards. I think my toughest question was “What do you think makes you so talented?”) with a pair of Logitech noise-cancellers (I’d have to take them off to tell you which make, and I’m not going to do that.)

But all this reminded me of an interview I read recently between Alva Noto (real name: Carsten Nicolai) and Robin Rimbaud, in which they discussed, among other things, how music is listened to, and treated, differently in the age of MP3. Rimbaud, himself a performing artist, asks Nicolai about the influence of “mobile listening” on him and his audience:

I listen to music more in a mobile situation because there isn’t much time to just sit down and listen anymore. I now have this obsession for headphones, which is probably born from this way of listening! I have a set for every situation!

Kind of interesting, I reckon. Reduced time available, and technology, has made music much more of a mobile activity now. I personally love listening to music or speech when I’m walking, hiking or jogging because I love the subliminal associations the mind makes between what one sees and what one is hearing. Views become associated with songs, or ideas expressed, with whatever you were listening to when you saw that view for the first time.

But there is a downside: Do we ever sit still and listen to music? Do we ever give it our full attention? Worse, perhaps, is that fact that the emphasis on portability has reduced the emphasis on quality — when was the last time sometime stressed the quality of a music device over its storage? As Rimbaud points out:

For digital cameras we are sold a machine that exploits quality — it’s sold on the strength of how many mega pixels each camera offers, whereas with MP3 players it’s never on the actual quality of the music but the quantity.

Nicolai agrees:

I think this shows a problem for our time — compression has taken over the quality in sound. Transmitting and distribution of the sound file is more important than the quality and I wonder if next year the industry will pick up on this and tell us “listen, last year you bought compressed audio, now you need to buy the real thing”. We’ve already re-bought our LPs as CDs, then as digital versions. Now quality will come back as a marketing strategy.

Could be. Perhaps as storage becomes meaningless — when your iPod can store your music collection many times over –  we’ll be told that 128 kbps is not enough and we need to buy all our MP3 files all over again. And so the circus continues.

The Hidden Channel on MP3s

Why don’t MP3 files contain ‘hidden’ channel like DVDs do? Or do they? It would be a great way to cater to the modern remix culture, the podcasting revolution, the audio commentary and soundseeing movement.

I wrote a few months back about podentaries, my ridiculous term for what I later found was already a thriving, if somewhat limited movement. The idea is basically to offer an audio accompaniment to more or less anything, not just confined to washed-up ex-directors pontificating on their old movies (parodied imperfectly by Rob Brydon), but also to music (take it to a Beethoven concert, an alternative to the stodgy guided tour, to TV series).

But surely it’s easy enough to add an extra channel to an MP3 file, that, with some software, can be released and mixed into the original music or sound? This would solve all sorts of problems of synchronization, and allow musicians, commentators or anyone who likes to include their tuppence worth to the recording. (“Now, if you listen carefully in the background a few bars ahead, you can hear me fluffing the first few notes of my ukelele solo”).

Of course, it needn’t stop there. You could capitalize on the already burgeoning Remix Culture by releasing songs that can have their drumtrack, say, removed by listeners to turn it into a bit of chilled out ambient fun, or have the voice track mutable so karaoke enthusiasts could have a go. I’m sure this kind of thing is already available in some format or other. I just haven’t seen any.

In short, when is the MP3 player, the iTunes of our age, going to become a mini mixer so we ordinary folk who might not want to remix from the bottom up can at least redesign songs to our tastes, and, perhaps more interestingly dig into some hidden channels that tell us more about what we’re listening to?

News: The End To Our Compression Woes?

 A Singapore company has just launched what they say is a technology that will change the way which we compress, store and distribute digital content. MatrixView says that, compared to existing compression solutions such as JPEG and MPEG that are based on complex and predictive techniques to eliminate redundant data (JPEG is a widely used format for storing pictures, MPEG for video), its Adaptive Binary Optimisation (ABO) does not eliminate data.  “On the contrary, it achieves significantly higher compression ratios by value-adding to data in such a way as to permit superior speed and security without data degradation.” 
The first product based on the new technology, EchoView, developed by MatrixView, enables ultrasound images to be compressed beyond 30 times compression ratios without any loss of data, meaning doctors can store, retrieve and transmit “diagnostic quality” images to anywhere in the world.