The Age of Mid-Fi

I love music. I listen to it pretty much constantly; play a couple of instruments (some even competently!); and have bought about a bajillion CDs in my life. But I’ve never truly been a hi-fi purist like some of my fellow music-lovers—at least when it comes to listening to it outside of a recording studio control room.

A few years ago (a referenced in my earlier Tech Carnage post), I decided to “rip” my walls full of CDs to MP3 format in order to remove three entire storage racks of them from my living room, as well as be more easily able to listen to them when I was in different rooms or at my computer. At the time, I used a bitrate 50% higher than standard: 192KB/s, because cymbals in particular tend to fall apart on 128 KB/s MP3s. (Like most musicians, I tend to automatically tune in to my own instrument when listening, so as a drummer, 128 KB/s MP3s are pretty awful for me. 192 KB/s MP3s, on the other hand, hang together pretty well in all but my best listening environments.)

And that was part of my big realization when undertaking that project. Sure, if I close my eyes sit at the point of an isosceles triangle with my best speakers at the other corners, I can usually detect the difference between a low-bitrate MP3 and a CD, particularly on music with some subtlety and dynamic range. But when the heck do I listen to music like that anymore?

Let’s face it: 99.8% of the time I’ve got music on, it’s either coming from 1.5″ speakers under my computer monitor; the set of headphones which came with my iPod; amidst the road noise and weak speakers of my car stereo; or—if I’m lucky—on a slightly less weak set of speakers mounted to the walls of my study. An audio engineer would bust a blood vessel pointing out the huge ranges of frequency in all these environments which are either over-accentuated, obscured, or missing entirely.

Worse yet, most of the time I’ve got music on, I’m not listening to it: at least not in the sense that I’m blocking out all other external stimuli and really focusing on it. Sure, there’s some part of my brain that’s busy grooving along and memorizing every insipid lyric on the latest White Rose Movement album, but the rest of my brain is usually working on other things, like…err… blogging.

While closing your eyes and bathing yourself in the aural splendor of true high-fidelity music is a wonderful (though tiring) experience, we live in the age of “mid-fi”: music that sounds reasonably good, delivered with no irritating skips, scratches, or tape hiss…to distracted people listening in noisy environments on bad speakers. And we’re OK with that.

Rolling Stone has an excellent article on this in their latest issue (thanks, Hud for pointing it out!), including talk about how heavy use of volume compression has made virtually everything we listen to on the radio sound louder than in the past. It’s fascinating stuff.

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