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An introduction to audio: why where your music comes from matters

Posted by Charlie O'Toole on 7th September 2020

It’s been a long time since I had a dedicated music player as part of my daily pocket check, and I bet that’s the same for most people.

The rise in streaming services like Spotify and Apple Music have made sure that no matter what device you own, if it’s got a speaker, you can pump music out of it. I recently bought myself an old iPod Classic and loaded it up with my favourite albums, which got me thinking about whether or not streaming is such a good thing at all.

The case for an integrated experience is a strong one. Through only one purchase you can listen to music in any room within your house (as long as you have a subscription to a streaming service). Be that through a TV, speaker or even just your laptop, it doesn’t matter, you can stream music in decent quality.

It’s a convenient option, so why bother with a separate home stereo, TV, games console or computer? Why not just have one central system and run everything from there?

It’s a simple choice — if you want the very best of modern technology and all of its convenience, you automatically go down that route. It’s symptomatic of our shortening attention spans, we all need stimulation and we need it to be new. So new music, playlists and artists feed into our collective wants.

So why would I go back to an iPod? Why do I want to buy music and be limited in what I can listen to when I could have access to more music than ever before? It’s much like any hobby or interest that people have. I did it because I love music, and because I’m a closet hipster. But that’s not the point.

It’s not as common as it used to be because music is packaged in with so many other avenues of entertainment. But the simple pleasure of just sitting and listening to music is one of my favourite things to do.

Listening almost critically and taking in every instrument — from the voicing of the chords, the melodies and harmonies — it’s not something you can do with just one listen. There are albums that I’ve been listening to for the better part of a decade and there’s still parts in songs that I pick up on only when I stop and listen carefully.

“Okay then”, I hear you say, “If you want to just listen to music, then just do that. Put your phone on airplane mode and enjoy it for a while”. This nicely brings me to my next point – thank you for guiding me there by the way – all audio sources are not made equal.

I’ll talk about this in a general sense because I’m pretty sure I’ll bore you if I rabbit on about compression algorithms and bit rate, so just keep in mind for this next bit that the bigger the number the better the audio quality.

Streaming services like Spotify have a maximum audio quality of 320 kbps, CDs roughly have an audio quality of 1,411 kbps and high-def audio sources have a rough audio quality of 9,216 kbps.

When a song is compressed two things happen — the file gets smaller, but you lose elements of the audio. This is a necessity with streaming services, as you don’t want to be chugging along with the song buffering every 10 seconds. You want to listen to it now and you want it to stream flawlessly, so you need the smallest file size possible.

This means that when you’re streaming audio, you’re losing parts of the song. There are exceptions to this rule, however. Tidal for example offers some albums in Master quality, which is essentially the finished product from the artist and the engineers — with no compression or lossy file formats — what they made is what you get.

This in my opinion should be the goal. With advancements in the resolution of monitors, the speed of processors and internet speeds, we have the means for music to be in conversations as important as the picture quality of the TV in your living room.

This is all on the back of my previous blogs on how Spotify uses machine learning to optimise your playlist recommendations, which goes into detail on how they pay artists.

I won’t go as far as to say that if you love music avoid Spotify. It serves a need, it’s accessible and they only catch as much flack as they do because they dominate their industry. I would say though, if you love music and use Spotify, it gets so much better from here.

Think of audio as a chain, defined by its weakest link. You have the source material, the device and the speakers/headphones. We’ve now gone through why the source material matters, so next I’ll look at why the device matters and then finally chat about headphones and speakers.

Strap yourselves in, we’re going deep into the rabbit hole with this one!

Charlie O'Toole

Charlie brings an unorthodox background of Music, Art, Marketing, Design and Social Media Management together to help bring a fresh perspective to any PR campaign. An ardent believer in the Stanford design thinking process, Charlie prefers to leave no stone unturned in the planning stages to ensure effective and creative results. In his spare time Charlie is a gigging musician, experimenting with different instruments, tech and playing styles to bring his music to life.