Monday October 31, 2005

I Heart Compact Discs.

It seems that, lately, the topic of jettisoning one’s physical music collection in favor of a digital library has crossed my path in a more conspicuous manner. First, I read a post by someone I don’t know on a website I can’t remember (how’s that for shoddy documentation?). This individual was selling his entire collection and switching to a digital music format. Then Randy chimed into my blogspace, entertaining notions of doing the same. A little late to the party, I stumbled upon Todd Dominey’s determined effort to go almost 100% digital (and, apparently, Aaron Feaver has done the same).

In Todd’s case, his choice was born from what I would consider a pretty unique situation. Most of us do not own, or will ever own, 1000+ CDs . I’ll be surprised if there are ever 1000 albums I like in my life, much less own. And Todd makes a good point about the accessibility caveats of digital libraries: With iTunes, an artist, album or song is always a search box away. On the shelves, I could spend thirty minutes with my head turned sideways looking for an album. It’s just not worth it. With such an expansive collection, Todd’s decision sort of makes sense; rather than retain objects which create such physical and visual clutter, it could be better to use an alternative storage method.

But there is a rapidly-growing market for digital-only music. Music that was downloaded at 128kbps AAC and will never be anything more. Music that has no chance of ever returning to CD quality. And that worries me.

I worry that with the increasing focus on digital media, music won’t be heard in the quality it was intended. All of the nuances that make music great on CD are often lost in digital format. Turn it up loud — you’ll see.

I worry that musicians in general may start creating music optimized for marginal quality digital formats, thus rendering the CD format no better than the digital. Silly? Maybe.

I worry that the experience is being stripped away from music purchasing. Click the ‘Buy’ button? How septic. I already see more and more artists scaling back their CD booklets; lyrics, photos, and even thank you’s get cut out. The omission of these things, even in digital formats, doesn’t make music sound any different, but I think it waters down the response fans have to music, and the relationship between artists and consumers.

I worry that the intangible nature of the digital format psychologically devalues music as a whole. When your Music folder sits alongside other folders full of browser history, Word docs, and pictures of last year’s trip to Wisconsin, does it become less valuable? I have the same theory about money; that it is much more effective to teach a child the value of money by giving them a cash allowance versus loading up a credit card (but that is another story).

I still cling to my CDs, jewel cases and all. Maybe it�s because I remember CDs as the shiny new symbol of audio clarity of my youth. I have come to understand and even sympathize with those old dinosaurs who bemoan the passing of the Age of Vinyl with it’s album art, hi-fidelity, and listening culture. I get it. Maybe it’s nostalgia or some sort of weird comfort zone, but I think I’ll always enjoy peeling open a new CD and giving the disc a spin while I hold and look at the packaging. Until they go the way of the cassette tape, of course.

In the end, I suppose I’m torn between formats; even before I became an iPod owner, I listened to a lot of MP3s. The nature of my job makes it more convenient to listen to music in iTunes than on CD. At reasonable levels, music sounds fine on headphones or broadcast from iTrip. It’s great to have all my music in the palm of my hand. But when I really want to get immersed in sound, there is no comparison: CD is better. I’m just not sold on lossless formats, either. They’re so big that it feels like I’d just be trading in physical bulk and clutter for digital bulk.

I have almost my entire music collection ripped to MP3, and I plan on continuing to maintain and add to that collection as I purchase new CDs. Yes, purchase CDs. I love digital music for its portability, but I love CDs for their experience, physical presence, effortless clarity, and archive qualities. Do jewel cases get to be cumbersome? Sure. So much that I’d consider getting rid of them? Not even close.


Abel Rios » 5804 days ago #

Don’t forget the cool album art. It seems this has become a forgotten art form nowadays. I remember going to the music store and soaking in all of the great art that was used over the years.

On the topic of quality. Remember, CD’s have had the longest life span of any format, and I don’t see that going away anytime soon. Although, UMD’s have become a popular format, but then again so was the mini-disc. Rest assured Jared, CD’s are here to stay. Where else will I be able to burn my mp3’s to? ;)

mat » 5804 days ago #

I too am clinging to my CDs (and DVDs). I spend a good portion of my week rummaging through record stores and like hell I’m going to give that up.

Mike Harding » 5804 days ago #

I agree with you on this one. Although there is definitely a case for going all-digital (as mentioned), and the majority of the time I am listening to MP3s because I’m working on a computer, I think that for me it will never replace physical media.

In terms of sound quality it is hard to beat the original recordings, unless you love large file sizes, but for me the biggest downer with digital formats is the lack of a tangible item. Holding the CD or LP, playing it, reading over all the liner notes, having printed artwork to look at (and feel, depending on the stock used)... and I really enjoy going hunting at the stores (though obviously not something everyone likes).

Also what I have noticed is that the readily-available nature of digital music can ‘cheapen’ it sometimes. It is easy to acquire a lot of music, which is good for diversifying your listening and discovering new artists, but at the same time you can easily end up with gigabytes of music that you aren’t even necessarily very passionate about. When you are forking out cash for a CD or LP it is an investment, and you tend to try and invest wisely (though it’s always good to take a gamble sometimes). In theory this leads to a higher quality-to-aqcuisition ratio, or at least it seems to work out that way in my music collection.

Chris Huff » 5804 days ago #

I completely agree. I listen to digital music for convenience, but I would never give up buying cds…unless of course something even better came along.

Jared Christensen » 5804 days ago #

Mike – Exactly. I think there are benefits to both ( I love my iPod and iTunes Audiocrobbler plugins that track and share my listening habits), but I simply can’t imagine owning a beloved album in only digital format. I can’t tell you how many CDs I own that link me back to an experience or phase in my life. I just don’t see music downloads forming those same bonds, since there’s basically no experience or activity involved besides clicking a button or two.

Randy » 5804 days ago #

I collected well over 5000 albums (vinyl) before the digital age of CD’s arrived. I gave away my entire album collection to a close friend when I went digital. I still miss album covers! And most audiophiles will tell you vinyl has a warmth that digital formats lack. In my audio rack right now is a highly modified DVD player (used exclusiving to play audio discs from CD’s to SACD’s to DVD-Audio). It has a tube output stage which puts warmth back into CD’s and makes them sound as good as the best vinyl ever made! The quality of music has only gotten better with time and technology.

The point? While I’d love to jettison jewel boxes (and I may) I won’t rid myself of the original CD’s for the same reasons you present here. My fear, like yours, is that the mainstream buying public doesn’t care as much about audio quality as I do (and frankly, I don’t expect them to). BUT, home theater and home audio are high growth industries forcing studios to focus on video/audio quality. Whatever the future format is (it won’t be CD’s) – I’m confident it will be high quality, taking every advantage of improved recording techniques and technology. The biggest temptation to short cut audio quality is because music is so much more portable today – and most people do their listening through headphones or car stereo speakers. We know disk space will be even cheaper as flash memory becomes the standard in portable devices. Downloadable video and audio is where we’re headed…so we’d best enjoy our physical collections while we can. I’m guessing they won’t last very long because delivery is simply too inexpensive compared to the distribution of physical merchandise. I certainly share your concern for the quality of the sound. And I don’t look forward to the day when I have to set aside my high dollar player…because it sounds incredible!

Alan » 5803 days ago #

I’ve had the same concerns before, largely because, like you, I value the audio quality. I don’t actually listen to my CDs extremely often, but in their CD form they are in absolutely perfect audio quality – no loss. I rip all my music in the extremely high quality LAME format, and, put simply, you can’t rip a 128kb AAC into a 320kbVBR mp3.

Anyway, yeah. Digital music won’t become the standard, largely because not enough people trust their details online for it to really take hold, and not everyone wants to have to go to the trouble of burning a CD to play the music they legally own in their car/stereo/etc (at horrid quality, too).

George » 5803 days ago #

Heres a link to a site that has iPod Ad Spoofs.

Take a look.

Feaverish » 5800 days ago #

This old review at Stereophile Magazine analyzes the various bit rates of MP3 and AAC, in an effort to determine if an iPod and iTunes can be taken seriously by a real audiophile. The conclusion, basically, is that while 320 Kbps AAC sounds pretty good, AIFF is still the best choice if you want true CD-quality sound.

Although the sound system the guy is running the iPod through is much higher-end than anything I’ll ever have, so…

Robert Wetzlmayr » 5797 days ago #

Two issues:

  1. Hearting CDs can be a dangerous endeavour, especially from Sony brands.
  2. Convenience adds quite a bit to my listening pleasure. I enjoy music even more since I can access my whole collection with the push of a button. In the majority of occasions I do not mind the trade-off on quality.

Jared Christensen » 5797 days ago #

Robert – WOW, I had no idea that such things were even legal. I am stunned that Sony has not been dragged into court and beaten with their own severed legs. Such practices are despicable and prey on the average computer user’s unfamiliarity with the high-level operations of their operating systems. I wonder if they can pull this crap on Macs…

Dylan » 5787 days ago #

Im the same as you. I love the feel of opening a new CD and listening to it for the first time. I don’t think any of my friends own as much music as I do. I really hope that I don’t see a poster or shirt depicting the evolution of music changing from a CD to an .MP3 icon, it just isn’t right.

btw, I am a fellow textpattern user :)

Brian » 5746 days ago #

I love the idea of ditching my CDs/DVDs. The less crap in my apartment, the better. However, I keep remembering my grandmother telling me not to put all of my eggs in the same basket. (So, yes, I still have many discs).

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