Is your iPod fooling you?

April 18th 2010

In a word, yes. But it's not really the iPod, it's actually the mp3 format we've all become so fond of. It is indeed designed to fool you, and fool you it does. How so? Well, our ears and brains have a limited range of sound they can pick up and process. A high quality audio recording has a great deal of sound to it that is beyond our range of hearing. When you compress a CD track into an mp3, the mp3 encoder (that little part of iTunes that secretly works in the background when you add a song to your library) throws out a lot of sound data that you don't "hear" in any real sense. Once thrown out, the resulting file is much smaller and more will fit on a disk drive. A 1000 songs in your pocket is great, right?

As mp3s become the most common format for the dissemination of music it is important for musicians to understand how the recordings of their work are being manipulated. Ponder the implications carefully. Mp3s are wonderful but there is a cost. Consider the cost carefully as you send forth your labors of love--are they getting the best hearing possible?

Below is a link to download a paper by Jonathan Sterne, a professor at McGill University, that explains both the process and the implications of mp3 encoding and exchange. Not quite lite reading, but worth the effort. The mp3 is now, like it or not, a vital component of the career of every professional musician. Music lovers would do well to ponder the implications as well—how many layers of technical trickery lie between you and the music you love?

As Prof. Sterne elegantly puts it: "the mp3 plays its listener."

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