On the transformation of everyday culture in an era of liquid modernity

Mp3s and their supposed lack of magic

In art, mp3, music on February 11, 2008 at 1:57 pm

The physical carrier of music makes a difference: Compared to mp3, vinyl is more tactile, cumbersome, weighty, and lends itself to rarity rather than to instant duplicability – but therefore it is also more mystical, and indeed more magical, some people argue.
The Stool Pigeon is a healthy little music publication, withstanding the current celebrity culture and commodification of “authenticity” by sticking to a strict fanzine aesthetic, a peculiar fondness for 19th century font exorbitance and a deliberately haphazard web presence. In the most recent issue, someone with the alias ‘Bone Dagger’ writes about the ephemera of mp3s versus vinyl. An old debate you might say, and one that would have been more academically convincing if invoking Walter Benjamin, Friedrich Kittler and N. Katherine Hayles (I guess one could pull out more and more articles like this, for example). Anyhow, in taking its cue from Arthur C. Clarke’s recognition that any technology advanced enough is virtually indistinguishable from magic, the Dagger’s argument still makes for a cosy read for a materialist like me. After having spent far too many hours indexing my own vinyl collection on Discogs.com, I must say I generally agree with the sentiment.

You may be able to store “thousands of albums” on your shiny device, but no fucker cares. Has anyone ever been to your home, been sat down in front of your computer and shown a folder full of files and then remarked, “Wow, where do you get them all from?” Of course not, but when people see my records for the first time, they do. This doesn’t make me a greater person, you understand; my point is that old vinyl has magical appeal. Quite aside from the fact that it sounds better (your ears are not digitised processors — they hear analogue waves of sound), each and every single piece of my black plastic has a story to go with it. I can recall where almost all of them came from. Some were bought new. Some were pre-owned. Some were found abandoned. Some were traded. Some were inherited. Do any of your mp3 files have a tale attached? The best you could say is that some were emailed from a lover or Bluetoothed from a stranger. But you can take that file, copy and paste it over and over until your hard drive was full, and all you’d have was more identical files, precisely replicated. That’s not music; that’s a virus.
See, though I have records that were originally pressed in large quantity, each copy had its own destiny — particularly the copious seven-inch 45s. They’re the best. Those seven-inch fuckers are loud; they used to re-engineer tracks for single release so that sound spat from the grooves. They certainly don’t look imposing as albums when filed upright on a shelf (their colourful, labelled 12-inch spines teasing at the delights within), and most singles didn’t even come with picture sleeves, but it’s these small, highly-charged babies that are the most magical of all.
I pulled a 45 from a shelf just now; a sixties soul single from Ohio that would barely have been a local hit. It’s a little scuffed and has the word “Debbie” written in biro on the label. Who was she, I wonder? Which mom-and-pop corner store did she buy it from as a new release?

Such imaginative considerations are all but passé now. Could you ever steal a download from a torrent site and peruse the folder, wondering who encoded the mp3s inside? Nope. There’s no magic there.
Don’t get this twisted; I’m no misty-eyed nostalgic who shuns what passes for progress. I have countless mp3s. Their instant transferability in promotional purposes in particular is of great use to me. But they sound like shit. I have thousands of CDs, too — 95 per cent of them promos with great music on — but almost all of them played just once. They’re clinical and cold, and play like an unresponsive bedfellow. They never get a look-in at home, and why would they when I have a room full of fulsome black beauties who give it up like a good lover should, scars and all?
If you still think this is all old-fashioned, I can’t truly blame you. The only time you read much about vinyl in the general media today is when a middle-class hack pens an annual aside on something like the resurgence of the rockabilly scene, or northern soul die-hards still kicking it out in a Wakefield Miners’ Club after all these years. He or she will blithely call the old vinyl ‘dusty’, giving the impression that its devotees can be considered the same. We’re not. We just believe in magic.

Now, for some even more radical exoneration of analogue over digital, see the old “Shutov Assembly” diatribe that was written in 1994 as a response to CDs entirely taking over the phonogrammatic landscape. The essential argument here is that analogue-to-digital dubbing is not a one-to-one copy of numerical information, it is an approximation, which is only as good as the bitrate and frequency involved. Ask any studio engineer about dithering and he will tell you that what we hear when listening to digital music is the virtual vectors that are drawn between the ragged, squarial, stair-like steps of the digital approximation of a waveform that was originally round. The nature of digital information is in this sense always virtual, always an approximation, in fact closer to (virtual) verisimilitude than to the (actual) analogue of reality that vinyl is.
As John Shiga writes:

The MPEG group adopted an entirely different way of compressing data by allowing or injecting as much quantization noise as possible, that is, by associating the coding scheme with a perceptual model imported from psychoacoustics. By 1995, Rault et al. confidently asserted that “it is world-wide accepted that the more efficient audio compression algorithm is the one that introduces the maximum noise provided that it remains perceptually inaudible”. The bit-reduction techniques developed by MPEG were based on the psychoacoustic fact that a sound can be “masked” by a louder sound. The representation of human hearing in the psychoacoustic model was then shifted or inscribed into the codec (decoder/encoder) in order to “exploit the fallibility of the human ear”.

Illustration by Gary Yuan Gao. This is the first in a series of blog posts on the materiality of music in the digital era: the second one is focusing on songs, the third one will be on albums.

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