Before we get seduced by the technology of the internet, shouldn't we listen to what it sounds like first? Words: Jack Mottram


The brouhaha provoked by MP3 is more than a little reminiscent of the kerfuffle that met the launch of the compact disc in the early 1980s. But with sales of vinyl holding steady and a proliferation of novel formats, the consumer can no longer go out in search of a simple ‘stereo’. In the demonstration rooms of Glasgow’s Loud & Clear comfy replicas of the average sitting room expertly wired for sound we put the established formats to the test on affordable source equipment. The results may surprise you.

The music we chose to grace the turntable, drawer and slot was a version of Smog’s ‘Cold Blooded Old Times’, a solo voice accompanied by acoustic guitar. On 7“ vinyl, frontman Bill Callahan’s vocals took centre stage, almost enveloping the listener, and each and every twang of a fumbled chord change sang out.

So far. so good. When we repeated the same track on CD, it was immediately apparent that the supposedly superior media couldn’t hack it. The recording lacked depth and the system’s ability to render a convincing soundstage where instruments and voices appear to occupy different areas of a three dimensional space was severely limited. It was as if Callahan had been pressed between the two halves of a slide. Admittedly, the compact disc version gave a microscopic level of detail, but this was at the expense of the recordings soul. Clarity took the place of warmth. Apparent accuracy superseded realism.

If compact disc was a disappointment, MiniDisc, the latest solid state format to gain a foothold in the market, seemed almost pointless. When we made the switch from compact to mini, the music became even colder and less human.

Vinyl, then was a clear winner, but emotive terms like ‘soul‘ are hardly the stuff of cool scientific explanation. Nevertheless. the reason a recording provokes a response in such abstract phrases is rooted in the science of acoustics. Put simply, the sounds we can’t hear have as much to do with the way we respond to a piece of music as those we do. This is because high frequency harmonics, inaudible if isolated, have an impact on the sounds that fall within the range of human hearing.

It is not loving craftsmanship alone that sets a Gibson Les Paul apart from a cheap copy bought at the Barras. Its unique timbre is a result of an equally unique interaction between different frequencies. With this in mind, it is no surprise that the pecking order should run from the oldest technology to the most recent, rather than the other way around: a compact disc reproduces a frequency range of only 2()hz to 20khz, removing the inaudible registers and so removing the ‘soul’ of a given instrument. In order to squeeze information on to a MiniDisc, this process

is taken a step further, with recordings compressed, doing away with more ‘unnecessary’ information.

And MP3 goes further still: with each technological

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The sounds we can't hear have as much to do with the way we respond to a piece of music as those we do

advance accurate reproduction has suffered, and the need to squeeze information into as compact a form as possible has rendered digital formats akin to an abridgement of a novel. You get the general idea, but you can’t fall in love with a sketched-out plot in place of the heroine.

This is, however, set to change, with the new SuperAudio CD format’s increased frequency range and, as download speeds improve over the internet, a future successor to MP3 will "39:; ' doubtless emerge capable of faithful reproduction. For now, though, the digital great leap forward has only produced media that is more convenient to use, and the pressed plastic of yesteryear is still the only way to engage with your favourite artists.

The Music: Cold Blooded Old Times (Acoustic), available on 7" and CD single through Domino Records. Loud 8: Clear, 520 St Vincent Street, Finnieston, Glasgow G3 8X2 0141 221 0221

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30 Mar—13 Apr 2000 THE LIST 19