Monday, July 31, 2006

The neutering power of iTunes

With as much time I spend in front of my computer, I'm now understanding why I should not listen to music on it that often. Why? iTunes through standard issue computer speakers are no match for CDs through bookshelf speakers, car speakers or even boombox speakers.

I love listening to songs that I have yet to burn onto a CD on iTunes. I love the vast library of music I have at the click of a mouse. I love making mix CDs on iTunes. I love the 'shuffle' options if I'm feeling adventurous. I love the fact that the files don't take up a hard drive and a half for all the music I have on there. What is not cool is the playback sound: unless the song is by Michael Jackson, I have to crank up the level to hear a decent amount. Why is this a problem? Because this takes the juice out of so many songs, especially those considered in the "metal" genre.

A few weeks ago, I took a listen to a few Slipknot tracks from their second album, Iowa. I was looking for a certain part of a song that had been stuck in my head for a few days and I thought it was by Slipknot. Since iTunes has the trusty fast-forward/rewind feature, I decided to pull the CD up in iTunes rather than my boombox. As I listened to the first track, I was reminded of how heavy this band is on CD, but they sounded like wimps on iTunes. The same can be said about bands like Converge, Dillinger Escape Plan and my new favorite metal heroes, Killswitch Engage.

I'm not somebody that wants to "feel" recorded music at a loud volume. If the bass lines and kick drums are making my stomach and t-shirt move, then the volume is too loud. I'm a fan of hearing a full representation of the song without any neutering of the sound itself.

My enjoyment of music comes from a variety of CD players and one main MP3 player/program. I wouldn't say I listen to one more than the other, but I like having all of them available in places that I frequent. If I want to listen to a non-remastered Tom Waits song, I'll pull it up in iTunes because the sound quality isn't that much different than on CD. If I want to listen to Killswitch Engage, the boombox, the den stereo or the car stereo are the places that I'm going to hear it.

The point of why I bring all this up is this: I'm not about to become a listener of music through the computer all the time, so the personal and car stereo companies have nothing to worry about with me. MP3s are convenient for some computer use or a walk with the iPod, but that's it for me. I'm a CD fan first and foremost, so all those music industry people crying foul about MP3s taking over should not point the finger at a user like me.


jonofdeath said...

See, I agree with you completely. And you can even apply the same idea to listening to vinyl. I have a ton of Stevie Wonder records that I would never even dream of uploading to my iTunes just because the original vinyl sound is so warm. And I have both CD and vinyl for Bob Dylan's "Highway 62? Revisited." The vinyl does by far sound better. There's just something about it, that when you want to hear a certain band, singer or song, digital just doesn't cut it.

jen said...

i got one of those radio transmitter things for my shuffle to use in the car. the coolest thing about it is that i can also and use it inside too by just tuning my home stereo to the right frequency -- no more sad little computer speakers for me!

captain groovy said...

$175 gets you the Harmon Kardon soundsticks.A simple 2 speaker setup with a subwoofer that looks every bit as cool as it sounds.Seriously they are amazing.Fantastic spatial clarity & power to spare.Second problem.I-tunes sucks.Buggy worthless program.Play music thru Winamp.Download it for free then add one of the many free plug-ins that let you get the sound you want.Your computer listening experience will alter dramatically.
In the car i'm a cd guy.I bought a car with the hookup built for the ipod & the menu even shows up on the stereo screen but i still prefer cd's.IPOD random probably good for long trips.

Mr Atrocity said...

I don't know if you're using a Mac or a PC but there are a variety of boxes that can wirelessly receive your iTunes output and then put that into your "proper" hi-fi.

Speakers on computers will generally be manufactured as cheaply as possible and to fit within a given form factor, neither they, nor the amplifier that drives them are built for fidelity. I would imagine that the dynamic range that most computers are capable of putting out will be pretty paltry.

To combat this you can tweak the EQ in iTunes if you like, though I think perhaps using a slightly higher quality compression setting when you rip CDs and putting the output through some decent audio equipment will make things better.

Inevitably it cannot sound as good as CD since both MP3 and AAC (the default file format used by iTunes) are lossy compressors so there will be some frequencies that simply go AWOL. But given some proper sound reproduction equipment you an get an acceptable quality out.

Anonymous said...

It's interesting to me that there is a different mastering process for vinyl than there is for CDs. They have different ranges of sound that they're capable of producing. Also, when we (Theater Fire) went to master our most recent album, the engineer wanted to know if it would be getting any radio play, as radio mixes tend to need crisper high end to stand out, and not much sub-bass, which would tax car stereos too heavily. In the end, we settled for a mix that sounded good on home stereo speakers, and okay on small speakers... but I find it strange that we're all listening to music on computers more and more, which means all new parameters for mixing and mastering. Sometimes I think the music pushed by a lot of blogs is music that sounds good on computer speakers. For instance, the last Smog album sounded horrible online and I didn't buy it. Eventually somebody gave it to me, and it sounds fucking great on my home stereo. Amazing actually. It's become one of my favorites. So it makes me wonder what all those guys at Pitchfork that gave really low reviews were listening to their cds on.