Saturday, 11 June 2011

Cloud myths.

http://www.pulsarwallpapers.com/data/media/842/Old%20Record%20Vinyl.jpg

If you are reading this, you are aware of the cloud. The cloud, that nebulous assemblage of interconnected servers, massive volumes of storage space and high bandwidth data transfer promises to make our world better by allowing us to “consume” our preferred media, however, whenever and wherever we want, provided we possess the required equipment and the financial/technological contracts required to operate this equipment. Of interest to me is the realm of music in this densely visible yet intangible cloud. Music lovers, metal heads like myself, reside on generational, technological, economic, philosophic and ethical lines fault lines, scrambling to get a sense of the whole, attempting to predict the future and rationalizing the disappearance of a culture of music appreciation being smothered by the cloud.

The battle lines are drawn thus: those who favour physical media as a tangible representation of their connection to and support for various artists are balanced by those who believe physical media is ostensibly obsolete in our present high volume, high bandwidth era. Naturally, reality is less polarized and there is a wide diversity of grey between either end. Indeed, perhaps it is my age, nostalgia or my own philosophical preference for the object, whatever the case, my preferred medium is the vinyl record

I simply adore vinyl. The sixty square centimetres of art both front and back, the visible, mechanical reproduction of the sound, the fact that it ages with me and that age can be heard, even the smell of vinyl, the cardboard, paper sleeves, plastic sleeves… and then there is the side a/side b factor, suites of music and not just a giant “blob” of music or a random collection. Sure, you can drop the needle at any point, but the linear nature of the record is so elegant in that it urges us to listen from start to finish, since a single side of even an awful record cannot overstay its welcome.

That said, there are downsides to vinyl, these are partly the reasons that led to the development of new media such as the cassette tape and the compact disc. Records are fragile, a little heat, a little mishandling, a dusty room with a blowing fan can all impair a session of musical appreciation. Moreover, some albums just don’t work as well with the record format, either because their logic of production excludes the record (and they ended up on the medium only by accident and not design) or because of the way a label has seen to distribute the compositions across the medium. In other words, Death’s “Individual Thought Patterns” works well, it has two sides. However, Schuldiner’s follow-up, “The Sound of Perseverance” is spread across two discs meaning it has four sides which makes listening to it in its entirety (well worth the effort) somewhat of a chore. This is what happened with Pantera’s “Cowboys from Hell” and “Vulgar Display of Power”, awesome metal albums whose sequence and flow is shattered and re-distributed, they are just not fun anymore.

Sometimes, in cases like the above, compact disc or digital media are preferable at the level of pleasurable experience. Meanwhile, there is another myth, gaining currency as a result of its incessant iteration in message boards and comment sections across cyber-space: that vinyl sounds better. I wonder who is saying this, since the mean age of the internet seems a lot younger than I am and since the preferred methods of music consumption presently favour mobility over fixed context. If it is children, then when exactly are they listening to music on vinyl, since records force the listener to be in a particular space for a particular time, are not portable and require some (if not a lot of) effort to obtain in comparison to CDs and digital media files.

Does vinyl actually sound better? It depends on what better means. Do not let anyone fool you, digital media creation and playback technology has improved so much that in the end it is only a matter or personal opinion or preference when the playing field is level. Obviously a low bitrate compressed file will not sound as “good” as CD or vinyl, but that same song, encoded in a lossless format played back on a system designed for its use will be able to provide objectively verifiable sonic experience. There are also other factors for control: vinyl may well sound better because a turntable is usually paired with a stereo designed for a rapidly disappearing musical experience paradigm, so if you were to pair a high bitrate or lossless file with a high end stereo, you may not know the difference. Listening to the same song through ear-bud or in-ear ear-phones, on PC speakers, through a cell-phone speaker will result in different perceptions of quality.

The only reservations I have about the cloud when it comes to music are the same reservations I have with my non-ICT enabled ipod “classic”. So much music, so little time compressed into one tiny device. Ultimately, I end up grazing but never savouring, gulping but not feeding. Until they become unavailable, I will continue to buy records and the occasional CD where necessary. They might take up space, they may gather dust, but I can hold them, look at them and appreciate them and be disconnected from the ever increasing neurosis of full penetration communications technology.
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