October 21st 2017

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Articles from this issue:

COVER STORY Reality of family unit must underlie tax system

EDITORIAL Christianity today: the challenges ahead

CANBERRA OBSERVED Xenophon: a Mr Fixit or a political yo-yo?

DRUGS POLICY Science elbowed aside in rush for latest silver bullet: 'medical marijuana'

TRANSGENDER MARRIAGE Decoys to revolutionary laws redefining sex and marriage

FOREIGN AFFAIRS What is the way out of the Catalan crisis?

NATIONAL AFFAIRS Our barmy Army: all politically correct

FAMILY AND SOCIETY The child as weapon in Family Court process

FAMILY AND SOCIETY Faiths and the global future

KOREA Hermit Kingdom versus the Land of Morning Calm

MUSIC Hi-tech lo-fi: Resistance is futile

CINEMA Blade Runner 2049: A cypher unlocking a mystery

BOOK REVIEW The rebels

BOOK REVIEW An attempt to break through the fog


HUMOUR More excerpts from the forthcoming revision of Forget's Dictionary of Inaccurate Facts, Furphys and Falsehoods


EUTHANASIA Victoria's death bill: questions that need answers

TRANSGENDER MARRIAGE: George Christensen calls Parliament's attention to activists' end-game

EUTHANASIA Victoria mistakes killing for compassion

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Hi-tech lo-fi: Resistance is futile

by David James

News Weekly, October 21, 2017

Glance around the streets, or look at people travelling to work on the train, and you will notice something that has never before existed. Large numbers of people will be listening to music on headphones. Often, they are doing so in a way that will harm their long-term hearing, but that does not stop them from almost continuous listening.

The proliferation of music, which is the result of technological innovation, has profound implications for how we understand and experience music. For one thing, many of us no longer are willing to tolerate long periods of silence. That means that when we do go to a live performance it does not have the special quality that it once possessed.

Music, music everywhere

In effect, the oversupply of music has a deadening effect, which is probably one of the reasons why live performance has struggled commercially. The only live performances of music that are strong commercially, big pop concerts and musicals, really succeed because of their visuals rather than the aural component. And that aural dimension has to be enhanced with massive amplification to make it distinct from our everyday experience of music.

Another implication of the constant listening to music is that it accustoms us to low-quality sound reproduction. This writer can recall a demonstration in a recording studio of the difference between live music and what we are actually listening to in digital form.

The demonstration began with a singer-guitarist singing his songs in a room that had a perfect acoustic design so that the sound was unusually clear. This had all the rich qualities of live performance. The second step was to replay the performance, which had been recorded, through very high-quality speakers, which looked something like the jet engines on passenger aeroplanes. This reproduction, which was at the highest level of digital recording, was clear, although it was boxed in a little by the speakers.

Then the recording was played back as an mp3. An mp3 is rather like what a sketch is to a painting. Because full digital recordings are very large files, in order to play the music on devices like mobile phones and iPods, those files have to be reduced by sampling only some of it. It still “sounds” the same, but there is a large drop in quality.

The result was awful. Listeners in the audience, when they heard the mp3, could not bear to listen to it and began asking for it to be turned off. It sounded worse than the worst scratched record. Yet that is the quality of what we are listening to through our headphones.

At some point, the devices will be made powerful enough to play a full digital reproduction, but at the moment that is not even on the horizon. Horrible sound quality, at least for now, is the order of the day.

Poor quality reproduction is having implications. It is encouraging people to play music too loudly. Because low-quality reproduction tends to be unsatisfying, the response is to turn it up.

It is changing aesthetics. Younger people, accustomed to low-quality reproduction, actually come to like it. They also come to prefer the massive compression that flattens the highs and lows that occur in live music. Compression makes it possible to turn the music up loud. The technology is actually shaping taste.

The technology also changes the social function of music. Instead of it being something that is listened to closely and relished, it becomes just a sound, or perhaps a noise, that goes on in the background – a sort of sound track for the everyday.

The practice of listening closely to the music – something that was much more common when recordings were on vinyl – has become rarer. Instead, music has been turned into a sound track to partially alleviate the tedium of life – which, in turn, turns the music into an aspect of the tedium. That is pretty much guaranteed by the constant listening.

There are other implications, such as the greater likelihood of a constant interchange of genres. Listeners can move much more readily between, for example, classical, rock, jazz, country, folk, or other styles, than they could when access was more difficult and expensive. That also changes listening habits.

The result is that we listen to music in ways that have never happened before. It will eventually change music itself.

David James is a Melbourne writer and musician.

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