the original soundtrack

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05/04/2006: ""

I just read "Imperfect Sound Forever," a fascinating, well-written article on music, dynamic range compression, and audiophilia (or lack thereof) by Nick Southall in Stylus, which I caught from a link on Blissblog.

I never had any patience for audiophiles, but I am simultaneously fascinated by them. I don't have a good system; I have a cheap and serviceable one--a Denon tape deck I picked up for 30 bucks, an old Onkyo receiver, and a cheap Technics belt-drive turntable and CD player, fed into a pair of speakers that closely approximate wet paper towels. I generally listen to music through a pair of reasonable headphones that I bought five years ago (Grado SR-80s, designed right here in Brooklyn) that cost me something like $75 and still work even after having had rum spilled on them (they actually soaked overnight in the rum, and one of the foam ear-snugglers got stiff and fell off, but the headphones still work!) When I want to hear music the way I want to experience it, I go to venues to listen to DJs spin records.

Film critics don't have glittering home cinema systems and projection booths in their homes; can we really expect broke music critics to have great systems in theirs? I imagine that by experiencing music through iPod Shuffles and tinny-sounding earbuds, or through our cell phones, or through mp3s, or on car stereos, we're actually being more realistic in our assessments; we're experiencing the music in exactly the same way that many listeners will. I'd also add that many publicists and labels are actually encouraging us to review albums based on mp3s alone, and a lot of the "promos" I get these days are mp3s. Labels that used to send beautifully-packaged vinyl 12"s now send passwords to internal mp3 download sites. No, it's not the same thing, and yes, it kind of sucks. But let's face it: As technology improves and the 21st century speeds forward, the quality of audio playback, at least as the average person experiences it, is going to be mediated more by cell phones than by sweet speakers. At the EMP Conference in Seattle this past weekend, Noriko Manabe of CUNY Graduate Center gave a really intriguing--if scarily dystopian--talk about the way things are heating up in the Japanese commercial market. Now, the iPod is a popular fetish object in much the same way as it is here, but iTunes Music Store Japan is not doing so well. This, she says, is partly because Sony Music Japan, the biggest Japanese label, refuses to do business with Apple, instead marketing their own proprietary music service called the Sony Mora. But downloading music onto your cell phone, and listening to it off of your cell phone (which I can't imagine sounds very good under the best of circumstances), trumps them all. The difference is that instead of downloading full songs, Manabe says, many people in Japan prefer to just download the choruses--30 seconds of the hit single. This is different from a polyphonic ringtone; this is more akin to downloading a song onto your iPod. Some would argue that a lot of J-pop, which tops the charts in these downloads, is pretty much all chorus to begin with. But it fascinates me that this is the same country that produced the 50-CD Merzbox, Les Rallizes Denudes, Acid Mothers Temple, and Hanatarash . . . that 30-minute extended bliss-jams by major-label act (in Japan, at least) Boredoms could coexist with 30-second downloads of major-label choruses. I'm not against it, but I am bemused by it. I have noticed that the tunes I listen to keep getting longer and longer--old disco like Tom Moulton and Patrick Cowley and Larry Levan extended mixes and steady forward-moving motorik pulses and weirdo 20-minute '70s prog epics and psychedelic jams and Phill Niblock drones and techno that keeps going and going and downloaded DJ mixes from random websites that go on for hours, shifting and drifting through endless ideas and genres and textures, and Fela and Sun Ra and Art Blakey and electric Miles and Alice Coltrane and Satie's Vexations and other kinds of music that never seem to want to end. I don't want music to ever stop; I want sounds to keep moving but not go away. Which brings us back to Eno: he wanted to make music that would stay where you left it, like a painting on a wall...


Replies: 11 Comments

GK, I agree with Geeta here. Since when is it hip not to be an audiophile? Depends on which circles you roll with, I'm sure. This debate has nothing to do with what's hip or fashionable. Assuming that you know what Geeta's motivation in feeling exasperated is bad form at best.

theNomadologist said @ 05/19/2006 05:46 PM EST

I've read a fair amount of your writing. And I've liked some of it a great deal. And while I suppose I was being contentious in my comments, I was addressing a tendency that I've detected in the critical arena for a long time (hence my "Rid of Me" reference) and offering my particular perspective on it. I wasn't attempting to give offense and am sorry if I did, but the sniggering, implied or otherwise, with which too many critics characterize technical issues is itself offensive and can lead to them making bad judgments. That said—wow. Some music bloggers (particularly the usually swaggering anti-rockist types) have even thinner skins than Richard Cohen! Who knew?
With that, I give up. I'm taking my ball and going to Cannes.

G.K. said @ 05/15/2006 04:36 PM EST

GK if you've read any of my writing (which you clearly haven't) you would know that i *do* make a big deal out of the quality of sound systems. also the "analogy to film criticism" was in response to the film crit comparisons made on other blogs.

geeta said @ 05/15/2006 12:28 PM EST

a little harsh there, GK, but some good points amidst the accusations.

Obviously we wouldn't want reviewers reviewing records based on, say, reports from other people of how it sounded, or playback through a staticky phone connection which keeps cutting off. In other words, there's probably some minimum quality we want there. Also, I think there's a decent case to be made for better quality stereos when listening to music that really isn't better in clubs (i.e. non-dance musik!).

shudder said @ 05/15/2006 04:13 AM EST

Your attempted analogy to film critics doesn't really hold up, as film critics evaluate movies based on screenings at venues that are at least theoretically in the business of providing optimum viewing conditions. If I'm reading a DVD review, on the other hand, I'm certainly going to hope that it wasn't based on a viewing of said DVD on a 13-inch-black and white set. I know it's the hip thing to be exasperated by audio nerdiness, and that music is by and large experienced under less than optimum conditions, but a little attention to tech stuff can yield more fully-informed evaluations (boy, the "Rid of Me" review debacle back in the day certainly proved that in the negative). Also, you know, equipment IS tax-deductible. But I imagine it's just more fun to act exasperated.

GK said @ 05/14/2006 08:53 PM EST

Huh? Japanese don't use computers for fun? *scratches head*

Also your aural (?) experience will always affect how you interpret the music. But does it make it better/worse if you play it on a spanking new stereo? No. Not really.

nathalie said @ 05/14/2006 05:20 AM EST

perhaps future technological innovation will make "sweet speakers" more affordable to the casual music listener? already roland are selling what amounts to a very affordable set of studio monitors specifically aimed at the bedroom/computer music producer. it’s too bad that enough people don’t mind listening to mp3s on crappy laptop speakers, etc., but i like to think there are enough music lovers in the world to warrant at least *decent* playback quality in a casual setting (at home vs. in the club).

liono said @ 05/08/2006 01:43 PM EST

Did you used to work at WXYC?

* said @ 05/08/2006 11:19 AM EST

just found your fantastic blog. i particularly love the food chat!

12AMmaternal said @ 05/05/2006 07:16 AM EST

I'll try again!

It doesn't surprise me that iTunes Japan is failing. Japan just doesn't use computers for fun and games like we do in the West, so people don't have a computer at home and aren't listening to mp3s.

Rule of thumb: Japanese are great at hardware and gizmos but really bad at making software (except for games). And most people don't have a credit card, and an even tinier slice of people would feel comfortable using it on the net.

Also the crossover between Bordoms fans and folks downloading 30-second tunes to their cellphones is zero! there is a big gap between music lovers and the mass consumers of the music on their latest gizmos. the former are but a tiny blip!

if you ever want to see AMT up close and personal come to Tokyo. there'll be like 25 people in the audience (and half of them will be gaijins)

Good Dog said @ 05/04/2006 11:15 AM EST

i posted a thing about Japan here but i think the site ate it up.

Good Dog said @ 05/04/2006 10:50 AM EST

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