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Riffing on the highs and lows of the sonic landscape

Times pop critic Randall Roberts and classical critic Mark Swed discuss listening to music in the digital age, tackling issues such as quality of sound, streaming and Apple's long reach.

December 02, 2012|By Mark Swed and Randall Roberts, Los Angeles Times Music Critics
(Jimmy Turrell / For The Times )

The quirky violist known as Ljova, an ingratiating fixture on the New York new music scene, has just released a recording called "Melting River." You can purchase and download it for as little as $2 on the artist-friendly website Bandcamp as either an inferior MP3 file or an HD-resolution FLAC file. Ljova says that there will be no physical release.

"Unless we can find sponsorship for a vinyl release," he writes in an email, "the days of physical CDs are over. :)"

The days of CDs aren't quite over — thousands of new ones come out every month. But the way we listen to music is definitively changing. And the fact is Ljova's highly addictive viola and six-string fiddle music sounds great if you are willing to make the effort to get the right equipment on which to play it. Should that LP come out, you'll need to fuss with turntable and such.

Most people don't. Even people who make their living listening to music are trying to make sense of the new digital world. Consider this conversation between Times pop music critic Randall Roberts and classical music critic Mark Swed as they discuss — and sometimes disagree — about such issues as high fidelity, sampling, Apple as grand gatekeeper and new ways to share tastes; in short, the start of a conversation on How to Listen to Music Today.

Mark Swed: Randall, six months ago you wrote about your ambivalence, at best, with digital media and the deep attachment you maintain for vinyl, the power of an LP to connect a listener to the music. I'm not in disagreement with you, having just gone to considerable trouble upgrading my cartridge.

But I've also spent the past year attempting to fully come to terms with digital, which necessarily entails bypassing the Apple, Spotify, Pandora, et al. model of noticeably downgraded sound. It has proved quite a process, far more trouble and expense than I had anticipated. The results are also something I hadn't expected, which is a quality of sound that far surpasses in acoustical immediacy, in its living and breathing quality, anything I have ever experienced from a recorded medium.

The problem is that however lifelike digital's potential, the business models I've found are antithetical to music, and, as you've written, the emotional attachment to something physical can matter. What's to be done? What does it mean for music that digital is the future?

Randall Roberts: Mark, digital isn't just the future, it's the present and becomes more so each time a budding listener gets her first smartphone and downloads or streams a song. It's not my ideal present, but I find comfort in knowing that just because it's headed that way doesn't mean that other technologies are rendered moot. Someone looking to learn about, for example, Fela Kuti, can hear a sample on Spotify, which might prompt him to download a track from iTunes, which might persuade him to then buy the CD or LP — both currently available new or used.

As long as there's a desire or demand for analog sound, high-quality digital and medium-quality streaming, the multi-tiered, multi-platform model is a reality. Wine drinkers can get just as drunk from a bottle of Two Buck Chuck as from an 1811 Chateau d'Yquem.

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M.S.: Yes, but the process of upgrading to high-definition digital is no small thing. To do it right, that can entail hooking up a decent DAC (digital audio converter) between your stereo and computer, then getting the proper adapters because USB ports won't carry the highest frequencies. And then it means you can't use iTunes or other popular music programs because they are designed only for lower fidelity. (Don't get me started on Apple's misuse of the term "lossless," which still involves compression when you copy CDs.) Further on the downside is the need for gobs of storage space, the paucity of high-definition files and, finally, their expense, which can be as much as $24 for a half-hour of music on a site such as HD Tracks. It also takes forever and a day to download these files, given how slow our Internet speeds are in the U.S.

Under these circumstances, most people are going to opt for their iPods and other Two Buck Chuck devices, everything else be damned.

R.R.: The quest for perfect fidelity seems to me more a passion or hobby than an essential ingredient of music appreciation. Opera fanatics in the early 20th century unable to attend a performance were no doubt in awe when hearing Enrico Caruso's voice carried thinly through the speaker bell of a 78 player. AM radio helped make a star of Frank Sinatra. These days ears accustomed to streaming or MP3 fidelity might be missing a whole swath of the frequency spectrum, but most people either don't care or are willing to take that trade-off.

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