Is Digital Technology Ruining Music?

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Digital technology has changed the landscape of music in irreversible ways. Not only legally and financially--but also in the sound itself. Joseph Plambeck weighs this latter aspect in the New York Times, revisiting a thesis well-worn among music buffs and audiophiles. He argues that while the last decade has brought "an explosion in dazzling technological advances" in film and online media, these drastic improvements have not happened in music. Surveying sound engineers and music execs, Plambeck confirms that as music has gone more digital, high-quality sound has suffered:

In many ways, the quality of what people hear — how well the playback reflects the original sound— has taken a step back. To many expert ears, compressed music files produce a crackly, tinnier and thinner sound than music on CDs and certainly on vinyl. And to compete with other songs, tracks are engineered to be much louder as well.In one way, the music business has been the victim of its own technological success: the ease of loading songs onto a computer or an iPod has meant that a generation of fans has happily traded fidelity for portability and convenience. This is the obstacle the industry faces in any effort to create higher-quality — and more expensive — ways of listening.

“People used to sit and listen to music,” [Michael] Fremer [of] said, but the increased portability has altered the way people experience recorded music. “It was an activity. It is no longer consumed as an event that you pay attention to.” Instead, music is often carried from place to place, played in the background while the consumer does something else — exercising, commuting or cooking dinner.

While Plambeck cites several online companies devoted to crafting high-quality digital tracks, he laments that audio engineers "are often enlisted to increase the overall volume of a recording" rather than scrub tracks of aural blemishes. Plambeck's account of this shift raises the question: digital technology ruining music? Is there any way to reverse the trend away from high-quality sound?

This article is from the archive of our partner The Wire.