Hi-def Music

Time for another great TED talk, this one more about art than science and policy.

Ever since I tried out first the Bose Tri-port headphones, and later the Shure E5c‘s, I’ve been convinced that we would all come to regret our current obsession with low-bitrate, high-compression audio files. 128kbps mp3 is often called “CD quality,” which is a blatant lie. 128kbps AAC (.m4a files, as created by iTunes) comes closer but is still fairly high compression. 256-320kbps AAC files match CD quality and should be the default setting in all CD ripping software. (Of course, that would require Apple to cut the number of songs that they claim fits in an iPod by half, which is a big no-no.)

But in fact, even CD quality is nowhere near the limit of human perception. The end credits for the videogame Metal Gear Solid 2 feature a jazz piece titled Can’t Say Goodbye to Yesterday that is fairly good, but really, nothing special. The recording, however, was in Dolby Digital 5.1 channel audio, and on my surround sound system it was a stunning experience—you are literally placed in the middle of the band, surrounded by the instruments, with the singer right in front of you. Keeping all of our music in CD and CD-like formats is short-sighted. Neil Young recently lamented the dominance of CDs and mp3s in an era in which digital storage and powerful computers are increasingly cheap.

Which takes us to John Walker’s TED talk. Think of all the extraordinary music performances of the 50s, 60s, and 70s, before digital recording technology existed. John Walker has analysed those performances from analog recordings and (for piano only, so far) recreated them on a computer-controlled grand piano (built by Yamaha), to record with whatever new and sophisticated recording equipment is available currently. He has decoupled the performance and the recording.

Now, of course, this technology is limited to piano, and likely will be for a long time. It’s one thing to determine which piano keys were pressed from a recording, and another entirely to do the same for an entire orchestra, or, worse even, to reconstruct a singer’s vocal cords. Playback in those cases will also require some new technologies that are not quite ready for prime-time. But, for now, we can enjoy some timeless piano performances with arbitrarily good recordings.

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