In the age of MP3s, sound quality is worse than ever
David Bendeth, a producer who works with rock bands like Hawthorne Heights and Paramore, knows that the albums he makes are often played through tiny computer speakers by fans who are busy surfing the Internet. So he's not surprised when record labels ask the mastering engineers who work on his CDs to crank up the sound levels so high that even the soft parts sound loud. 
Over the past decade and a half, a revolution in recording technology has changed the way albums are produced, mixed and mastered -almost always for the worse. "They make it loud to get [listeners'] attention," Bendeth says. Engineers do that by applying dynamic range compression, which reduces the difference between the loudest and softest sounds in a song. Like many of his peers, Bendeth believes that relying too much on this effect can obscure sonic detail, rob music of its emotional power and leave listeners with what engineers call ear fatigue.
To Guibert's disappointment, the remastered 2004 version failed to capture these details. So last year, when Guibert assembled the best-of collection So Real: Songs From Jeff Buckley, she insisted on an independent A&R consultant to oversee the reissue process and a mastering engineer who would reproduce the sound Buckley made in the studio. "You can hear the distinct instruments and the sound of the room," she says of the new release. "Compression smudges things together." Too much compression can be heard as musical clutter; on the Arctic Monkeys' debut, the band never seems to pause to catch its breath. By maintaining constant intensity, the album flattens out the emotional peaks that usually stand out in a song. "You lose the power of the chorus, because it's not louder than the verses," Bendeth says. "You lose emotion." The inner ear automatically compresses blasts of high volume to protect itself, so we associate compression with loudness, says Daniel Levitin, a professor of music and neuroscience at McGill University and author of 'This Is Your Brain on Music: 'The Science of a Human Obsession. Human brains have evolved to pay particular attention to loud nQises, so compressed sounds initially seem more exciting. But the effect doesn't last. "The excitement in music comes from variation in rhythm, timbre, pitch and loudness," Levitin says. "If you hold one of those constant, it can seem monotonous." After a few minutes, research shows, constant loudness grows fatiguing to the brain. Though few listeners realize this consciously, many feel an urge to skip to another song. "If you limit range, it's just an assault on the body," says Tom Coyne, a mastering engineer who has worked with Mary J. Blige and Nas. "When you're fifteen, it's the greatest thing - you're being hammered. But do you want that on a whole album?"
Much of the information left out is at the very high and low ends, which is why some MP3s sound flat. Cavallo says that MP3s don't reproduce reverb well, and the lack of high-end detail makes them sound brittle. Without enough low end, he says, "you don't get the punch anymore. It decreases the punch of the kick drum and how the speaker gets pushed when the guitarist plays a power chord." But not all digital music files are created equal. Levitin says that most people find MP3s ripped at a rate above 224 kbps virtually indistinguishable from CDs. (iTunes sells music as either 128 or 256 kbps AAC files -AAC is slightly superior to MP3 at an equivalent bit rate. Amazon sells MP3s at 256 kbps.) Still, "it's like going to the Louvre and instead of the Mona Lisa there's a 10 megapixel image of it," he says. "I always want to listen to music the way the artists wanted me to hear it. I wouldn't look at a Kandinsky painting with sunglasses on." Producers also now alter the way they mix albums to compensate for the limitations of MP3 sound. "You have to be aware of how people will hear music, and pretty much everyone is listening to MP3," says producer Butch Vig, a member of Garbage and the producer of Nirvana's Nevermind. "Some of the effects get lost. So you sometimes have to over-exaggerate things."
Get the Most of your iPod.
1. Increase the bit rate: Higher bit rates = better sound. Set your iTunes to rip at 192 kbps, or better - we recommend jacking it all the way to 320.
2. Ditch the white earbuds: For an upgrade. try higher-end earphones from Shure. Ultimate Ears or Etymotic. Bonus; fewer muggings!
3. Don't re-rip!!! Morality aside, it's a bad idea to re-rip a CD burned from MP3s - the sound will be noticeably worse.
4. Upgrade from MP3: Use iTunes' AAC format or windows Media Audio .
The MP3 Challenge
I HAVE NOTHING AGAINST MP3s – FOR ONE THING, IT would be like arguing with the wind, and the convenience of sorting through the 11,345 songs on my iTunes is unbeatable. All I have to do is think of something to hear it. But there's also no denying the compromise in fidelity caused by all that convenient compression.
Wondering just what gets lost in the format change, I spent a week listening to music on vinyl, CD and iTunes (AAC files at a low bit rate, 128- "kinda shitty," says the office iPod jockey).
I used a pair of Thiel CSI.6 tower speakers - great bass - but the results were similar with the bookshelf speakers I use every day. I started with one of my favorite records of the year, LCD Soundsystem's Sound of Silver.
It was the first time I'd played the vinyl, and at first I thought there wasn't much difference.
But then on "AllMy Friends" I noticed the drums - actual drums, not electronic - with a clarity that had never been there before.
The CD sounded good, though I was convinced the bass was warmer on the vinyl.
Neither I nor anyone else who listened could tell the difference between the CD and theAAC files. A rarely played vinyl copy of Pavement's Croo~ed Rain, Croo~ed Rain was a revelation.
It had never sounded so alive.
The presence vinyl fetishists always talk about was there - this was music made by people in a room, not on a computer.
Maybe it was because I know the album forward and backward, but the AAC files sounded terrible, with the compression pushing on the bottom end until it was like mud and squashing the top notes into something tinny and annoying.
Both the CD and the AAC files were like listening to a picture of this music, though unless you'd heard the real thing you might never notice. The biggest difference, surely a result of remastering, was with John Lennon's Imagine.
On vinyl, the title track was as I remembered it, with the focus on Lennon himself and lots of room for the instrumentation.
But the CD put me right inside the piano he was playing - great clarity, yet not what he and Phil Spector had intended.
Over to theAAC files, where the strings sounded like a synthesizer trying to replicate strings.
Was the song ruined, or even diminished? Not exactly, but I was uncomfortable with the changes both digital formats wrought.
This is the way this music will survive: like a color plate in an art book, with the original sound kept as a museum piece by those who still have turntables. Discouraged, I went back to LCD Soundsystem, letting iTunes play me through an album that embraced digital.
Maybe it's the power of suggestion, but I found myself wondering if the AAC files weren't inspiring the ear fatigue you can read about in Rob Levine's story.
On vinyl, I had to keep jumping up to flip album sides, but I was excited to do it.
Now I was just jumpy and eager for the sound to change.
So I pushed "shuffle." And suddenly everything was fine.