Fascinating read for anyone who’s been a music enthusiast for any time at all, or spent more than a few bucks at Tower or Virgin over the years. StephFascinating read for anyone who’s been a music enthusiast for any time at all, or spent more than a few bucks at Tower or Virgin over the years. Stephen Witt’s book attempts to mesh the inside-the-biz story with the developments afforded by an evolving technological curve-- and how the human factor contributes or throws it all off. First up is how music got ABBREVIATED.
Researchers around the world, emboldened with the understanding that now that a full, luxurious musical waveform could be quantified, coded, expressed by numbers, set about finding realworld applications for this conversion. Once something natural can be ‘equated’ to numerical equations, it is vulnerable to processing along algorithmic lines.
Which is to say that your full twenty minute live take of ‘Stairway To Heaven’ or ‘Close To The Edge’ –popular pre-digital tracks that were too long for mixtapes, radioplay, or easy copying to a short, standard cassette-- could be subject to something much, much more powerful than simple editorial measures. It wouldn't reduce the playing time-- but it would reduce the storage space necessary to house the music itself.
What the researchers would find was much more than seamless fade-outs, dissolves, or clever cut & paste. Under the microscope of big science, music and human hearing have characteristics that make them accessible to manipulation (once the music end is rendered as raw data, that is). First, above or below the tonal range of the human voice— to which we have a pre-conditioned sensitivity—the contents of a musical signal need not be digitized at such a meticulous rate. So the highs like cymbal or fret clicks, and the lows like double-bass or kettle drum-- do not need such a high bit-rate to render them legible to the largely vocals-centered hearing of humans. And therefore, “that meant that you could assign fewer bits to the extreme ends of the spectrum”.
There were further places where the researchers found they could save bits. Tones in the same moment of the music that were close in pitch tended to either cancel out or override each other in the ears of the beholder, so that meant less individual bit use. Or in the author’s words “lower tones overrode higher ones, so if you were digitizing music with overlapping instrumentation—say a violin and a cello at the same time—you could assign fewer bits to the violin”.
Additionally, before or after a strong beat, the human auditory system routinely cancelled or de-emphasized the very next, adjacent sound, possibly as a safety mechanism. The science showed you could therefore “assign fewer bits to the first few milliseconds following the beat.”
As an added enticement to the digital algorithmists, old research from MIT in the fifties had shown that what saves bits is pattern recognition, something in the material that repeats, and something at which high powered computers excelled; with music, there are all sorts of patterns, repeating in layered, synched-up beauty, from the counterpoint of Bach to the formulaic repeats of Taylor Swift: “.. which meant that rather than assigning bits to the pattern every time it occurred, you just had to do it once, then refer back to those bits as needed. And from the perspective of information theory, that was all a violin solo was: a vibrating string, cutting predictable, repetitive patterns of sound in the air.”
For the scientists, this was all business as usual, extrapolating insights from theoretical research into practical real-world use. Their new codes could render information smaller, more portable and more modular, just overall less-encumbered. And the gear to process “less” and reproduce it --could inhabit less space, volume, weight, and go places it could never go before. For the music businessmen, the advances would seem to lead to obvious point-of-sale gains, as it was immediately obvious that “less” could more easily be produced and delivered to market --for less.
What science and business didn’t exactly count on, as author Witt describes carefully, is that this portable, modular, lightweight unit of sound-- the Mp3 soundfile, it would be called – could also be uploaded to the newly emerged Internet. And in the new parlance of the practice, shared, peer-to-peer.
Parents around the world in developed countries were now—mid 90s—sending their clever offspring away to colleges with a new aid to study and research, a new desktop computer. Universities competed with each other in offering high-bandwidth internet connections on campus, and eventually in the dormitories. Somewhat of a surprise to that well intentioned effort was the fact that the newly geared up students were learning how to pull music, motion pictures, software, computer games and all sorts of material from the net. And they uploaded what they had to offer, in the spirit of giving to receive. Transforming their new, study-&-research-aid computers into multifunctional electronic recreation centers. And with stolen (shared) software and media, an endless supply of media files.
For this reader, it is a nearly classical greek-tragic sort of fated outcome, that the teenager and college student of the era where popular culture (media) got adulterated, foreshortened and made into powdered Instant Tuneage – went on to destroy the very industry that did the adulterating, and destroy it from the ground up. The file-sharers compiled libraries, collections that the author compares to the scale and scope of the Smithsonian’s. The industry went into the red, the Cd format and the entire popular music Album concept were destroyed, the large manufacturing and distribution chains were shut down. The old, highly profitable record-biz game was really over. Tower, Borders and Virgin went from Megastore to invisible.
For me the conclusion that music or the business of music would now be mostly free, limited to giveaway tracks and promotional downloads that only support live acts or touring ones (for access to which they charge at the door in cold, reliable cash), doesn’t tell the whole story. I think the history here lends itself to the conclusion—not forwarded by the biz-and-growth-oriented author—that in the future the best of all eras of music can now be preserved under ‘conservation’ terms. Protecting an enormous collection of up-till-now works that need to be carefully guarded & transcribed—into whatever the next platform requires, without damage or abbreviation.
The downside of mass digitization is real, the fact is that in the case of the Mp3, the original material is reduced by a factor of 12 to 1. Twelve parts removed to one remaining, disguised by the best psycho-acoustic masking the late 8o’s had to offer. But the upside is that high resolution digitizing is not just feasible but happening everyday, though certainly not for most dumbed-down ‘consumer’ product. Ultra high-rez is limited to satellite mapping and the like, but very high-rez is available for music & films now. That high resolution files can be created and moved losslessly into the future is a great thing, and something we should try to have available for normal people, not just scientists, museums or corporate interests.
“How Music Got Free” doesn’t dwell unnecessarily, or delve any deeper than it needs to do to get the story across. In fact, the anecdotal, character-driven frame that Witt uses helps the story fly by, to its current, non-conclusive status today. Recommended. ...more
Short essay on what modern listeners knew intuitively for years: that recorded music for the last half-century has always been an elaborate sonic consShort essay on what modern listeners knew intuitively for years: that recorded music for the last half-century has always been an elaborate sonic construction, not just a musical composition or performance per se.
Probably one for the epicures, something that will miss the broad numbers of people who know the music so well... An exploration of what it looked likProbably one for the epicures, something that will miss the broad numbers of people who know the music so well... An exploration of what it looked like to stand across the soundproof glass in the Studio, across the board from Phil Spector, Tom Dowd, or Rudy van Gelder when the magic happened--- at Capitol, Stax, Atlantic, Sun Studios, several others .... the shadowy, subterranean vibe of making records.
Or, looking in the other direction through that same glass, seeing Aretha, Sinatra, Dylan or Tina Turner touching up a new "number" for a record. And the interesting thing is that there in the studio, with all glamor and 'Album Cover' swank stripped away, we're left with the essence of what made these voices & recordings so undeniably cool, raw, hot, dense, spare, or spellbinding.... After all, the hair & makeup, the latest threads, the choreographed pose-- had nothing to do with the sound, so it's generally not present in the casual atmosphere of the recording studio.
Nice backgrounds of the producers and artists, clear descriptions of the recording process as it evolved, stupendous photos, this book could have been six times longer as far as I was concerned. If you value the records, you owe yourself a browse of this book.