Wednesday, January 02, 2008

The Rise of the Digital Tune

It's time to face the facts: the digital era is here and it's affecting nearly every aspect of our lives. How we order our food, how we talk to people and even how we relax - all have been changed by digital in some way.

Thankfully the advent of digital has been largely for the better. But there's some concern about digital's impact on the world of music.

Homepage producer Matt Heffernan investigates.

Just like the CD killed the vinyl record, digital music downloads are beginning to kill off the CD. Disc players have been almost completely replaced with MP3 players and now the medium is undergoing the switch to the digital MP3 format.

But should this be a cause for concern?

Well, first of all, one must consider the audio quality of a digitally downloaded track in comparison to that of a CD. Generally speaking, a retail CD will nearly always beat out an MP3 download in the quality department. This occurs as a result of MP3 compression.

But what does that mean?

Essentially, compression requires the quality of the music to be shrunk down in order to keep the file size of the MP3 as low as possible, creating for faster downloads. A common quality, or bit rate, for an MP3 is 192 kilobits per second.

If you have iTunes installed and you're a little curious about the quality of some of your downloaded tracks, simply right click on a song and select "Get Info" and the bit rate information will be displayed on screen.

Most people, however, simply cannot notice the difference in quality between CD and MP3 audio when the music is played through an average sound system. The differences in quality become much more glaring, however, when MP3s are played through a classy car audio or well set up home entertainment system.

Essentially, the louder you bump low quality MP3 tunes the more they may begin to distort.

But what do the musicians themselves think about the rise of the digital era?

Matt had a chat with experimental band A Stranger's lead guitarist Brendan Smith about the issue of quality.

"I think it's a natural is advancing so fast now, it probably won't even be that long until MP3 audio is on a par or even better than CD audio... interesting times".

If musicians aren't too worried and the average listener can't pick up the difference in audio quality, there probably isn't too much for you to be worried about just yet. Although there is no doubt that the CD will one day be replaced by the MP3, there is still quite a long way to go before the CD is completely forgotten and thrown upon the musical scrap heap.

And for those of you shaking your heads, wondering what on earth you're going to do with all your old CDs when retail albums are finally replaced, don't worry because you can simply convert your CD's to MP3 on your home PC by using programs like iTunes and Windows Media Player. But don't fear...the digital changeover is still a few good years away.

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