- Studio Services
- Creative Team
- Hotkey Matrix
- Log in/Create account
When MP3s Come Back To Bite
Submitted by b1daly on Wed, 03/14/2012 - 04:50
As a music creator I strive for maximum sound quality in my recordings. In this quest I've been known to obsess over minute details of digital audio sampling theory, or become convinced that I must have the latest expensive gizmo for my projects to have the "big label sound." Sometimes though we miss the forest for the trees, and there are simple issues causing major havoc with our sound. Since this is my first post I thought I would write about a such a scenario that is happening all to frequently. I call it Audio Viral Infection. Symptoms include fuzzy hi-hats, collapsed dynamics, and all around poopy sound. What is going on here?
What's happening is that MP3s and other compressed audio formats have become the default delivery mechanism for music. Not only do they by nature degrade the sound quality of a recording right off the bat, are now routinely created from other MP3s! (or AAC or WMA files, same idea). On a fairly regular basis we are listening to music that is 2,3,4 or more generations down of audio compression.
One of the primary transmission vectors for Viral Audio Infection is Youtube. Youtube is a prime destination for music listening. (The audio on Youtube is actually worse than MP3, the audio is compressed as part of the video.) People will post songs as a video with a still. Then a listener comes along, thinks they would like to put the track on their iPod. So they use one of the many online services that will convert the audio from a Youtube video to an MP3. The resulting MP3 is an even lower bit rate, grungier version of the song. If they really like the song, they might post it again on youtube! Then the cycle continues.
Another all too common source of the infection is the use of online music sites. Popular sites like Soundcloud and Bandcamp automatically convert any songs uploaded to stream at 128kbit/sec (this is a grungy, lo fi sound). If you submit an MP3 to site via their upload interface, and then send your song around on Facebook or what have you, it will be heard as an MP3 of an MP3.
A primary vector this audio illness is the use of computers to rip music from audio CDs. My first experience with this problem in a professional context unfolded as follows. I had recorded and mixed an album with a band. The band broke up before we had a chance to finish. A few years later the leader decided he wanted to finish the album. The final step was to take the mix files and master them. The mixes had been backed up on two separate hard drives. In the interim both hard drives had failed. The band leader (understandably) didn't want to fork out the cash to recover the data.
No problem, he had the mixes on CDs. I usually would give him a reference on CD after finishing a mix. So he brings in a stack of CDs. None of them have my writing on them. There were multiple versions of CDs with different combinations of songs on them. I ripped them into my workstation to start mastering. Hmmm, they don't sound quite how I remembered...kind of fuzzy. After listening to different versions of the mixes, I realized that they were all fuzzy, some more than others! I had the sickening realization that they were MP3s and there were no original CDs to be found.
The band had been taking the reference mixes I gave them on CD, ripping them into iTunes, then burning CDs to give to each other, not realizing that unless you change the default settings on your media player it will rip it as a compressed format. You can burn it back to another CD, but this doesn't undo the effects of the "lossy" compression. In some cases it was obvious that this process had been repeated multiple times, resulting a pretty bad sounding recording.
I have come to learn that very few people who aren't audio engineer types understand that the default settings on iTunes (or Windows Media Player etc...) will compress your audio when it rips a CD. As a music producer, I try to educate my clients about this issue. I always give them a 16 bit version of their mix, and tell them to keep it in a safe place. Usually their eyes kind of glaze over when I tell them, but I do my best!
Until some kind of high bandwith online audio format becomes the norm (I'm not holding my breath) this is a battle that will have to be fought one conversion at a time!