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Featured Question - October 9, 1999

Question Submitted by: Harvey Reid
Dear Guitar Talk,

There has been a lot of press about MP3 files, and they always talk as if they are indistinguishable from CD's. I have downloaded a couple encoders, and listened very carefully to a lot of compressed files, and do not find this to be the case, especially with acoustic music. I have not heard jazz and classical people talk excitedly about MP3, and am getting a feeling that this is less of an issue for those of us whose music is all about the tone and richness of the sound. It seems to me that most popular music consists of a computer drum machine, electronic effects and synths, electric bass and guitars; thus only the voice and rhythm guitar even started out as a real-life sound. Therefore there is less to lose, and the MP3 sound, with less richness of tone, is more satisfying to a pop music listener than an acoustic music fan who wants to hear the beauty of Mary Black's voice, for example. Add to this the fact that commercial music has been compressed heavily already in its dynamics, so it seems to me that it stands to lose less of its "life" by MP3 conversion from that standpoint also.

I am concerned about people listening to MP3 files, thinking they are identical to the original, and missing some vital elements of acoustic tone that they never knew were there. My question, then, is: do you agree with this viewpoint, and shouldn't we acoustic musicians be concerning ourselves with the 24-bit and other audiophile recording technologies instead of intentionally degrading our music with MP3?

Harvey Reid
Response by: Dr. Toby Mountain of Northeastern Digital Recording
Hi Harvey,

We agree wholeheartedly with your critical assessment of MP3's sound quality. If you're listening to heavily compressed "grunge" rock on small lo-fi computer speakers, then the distinction between CD and MP3 may not be very substantial. But if you were to hear those MP3 files on a decent home hifi, I don't think people would be so quick to say MP3 sounds as good as CDs (at least anyone with some critical listening ability). These differences are more apparent with well recorded, acoustic, dynamic music. On the other hand there are variables in MP3 encoding tools and parameters which can make a modest audible improvement.

Hopefully, listeners who enjoy acoustic music may also be well informed enough to judge an MP3 file in it's proper context. Most listeners can "overlook" mediocre audio quality if the song and the performance are compelling, esp if it's free. One never hears the statement, "wow that's an awful song, but it sure sounds good".

Our opinion on MP3, both with regard to sound quality and fair usage, is that it should be considered a new hi-tech, *democratized* form of radio airplay. MP3 can be an excellent vehicle for independent artists to provide exposure and build a rapport with current and potential fans. It also has the potential to attract professional interest from labels, booking agents, reviewers etc. As long as MP3 retains its "hot buzzword" status, it will be a useful marketing tool for the independent artist. The dubious sound quality may be an asset in this role, in that serious listeners will probably want to buy your CD. Marketing aside, we feel there is little risk that MP3 technology will replace CDs, especially for acoustic music.

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