You may think that since you can have unlimited access to music via subscription services and carry that music around everywhere with you, it’s possibly greatest time in history to be a fan of great music. But according to a new documentary, you’d be dead wrong, and the music you’re listening to isn’t the same music recording artists set out to make.
In The Distortion of Sound, stars like Mike Shinoda, Steve Aoki, Snoop Dogg, Slash and Quincy Jones try to convince viewers that compression is taking the soul right out of music, whether or not you even notice. The film is available for free online, which is ironic, because to be ideologically constant, you should probably see it in IMAX with Dolby full-theater surround sound, or perhaps projected through 32mm film.
The film includes a nostalgic history of music recording that positions the MP3 file as the great destroyer of quality. The stars liken compressed music to a paragraph of text with a bunch of vowels removed — sure, you can still mostly read it, but it’s not the way we’re meant to experience poetry or a great novel.
“A lot of care is taken in putting all that together,” Linkin Park’s Mike Shinoda says in the doc, “and then somebody streams it in the worst possible compression format and listens to it on earbuds or their shitty laptop speakers. And then it’s like a lot of that work goes nowhere.”
It’s true that compressed music cuts out an enormous spectrum of recorded sound, usually on the edges of what the human ear can perceive. But the artists in the film insist that every bit of nuance at the far edges of the frequency spectrum counts when it comes to the integrity of their work.
Stripping down the music this way doesn’t just gut an album of its heart, the various stars argue. It’s eroding people’s taste in music, conditioning people to be perfectly fine with over-compressed audio through tinny headphones.
“We have a McDonald’s generation of music consumers,” Hans Zimmer, soundtrack composer for movies like Inception and The Dark Knight.
The documentary drips of a kind of audiophile pretension: artists whining that their music isn’t being consumed in exactly the way they want people to consume it. Their frustration is with companies and equipment that — though they make music easier to listen to, share and access than ever before in human history — don’t deliver the audio in the perfect, lossless format it was recorded in.
“Convenience equals more sales, and more sales equals shittier quality control,” says DJ Steve Aoki.
True, but convenience is also what allows us to actually find, digest and appreciate their music to begin with, and considering the film doesn’t offer a call to action beyond the idea that someone has to do something, convenience is going to remain king.
Still, the artists — and make no mistake, they are very clear about being artists — are genuinely concerned that their dedication to craft might as well be for nothing. The question, which the film poses woefully and which we sincerely wonder, is whether or not anyone cares about perfect, lossless audio.
Watch the full 22-minute documentary here, and choose your headphones wisely: