Do MP3s and the "loudness war" spell the end of high-quality music recordings? Rolling Stone Magazine thinks so. I disagree.
A recent article in Rolling Stone, The Death of High Fidelity, offers a pessimistic assessment of the sound quality of current audio recordings and predicts little hope for the future. The reasons for this gloomy outlook? The article cites the increasing popularity of MP3s and the ongoing loudness war - the tendency in recent years for music producers to increasingly limit the dynamic range of recordings.
These are indeed both valid concerns of anyone who cares about the audio quality of recordings - and many have been sounding the alarm for years. However, I suspect that reports of the death of high fidelity are - like Twain's at one point - greatly exaggerated.
Notwithstanding the popularity of MP3s - and often low-bit-rate-encoded ones at that - high fidelity sound isn't going to disappear as long as recordings are still being made at current (or better) professional-level bit depths and sample rates and as long as the original uncompressed (lossless) recordings remain available. There will always be a market for higher-end sound, and technology is making it easier than ever to create and distribute it.
The loudness war - originally a result of competition to be "loudest" on the radio, and now perhaps exacerbated by the ubiquitous use of MP3s - is a bigger concern. Musical details on a recording that has been compressed to such extremes during mixing are irretrievably lost (short of a remastering) for the end listener, with a notable loss in sound quality as the following short video (1:52) so clearly demonstrates:
Of course dynamic range compression isn't always a bad thing, as anyone who's ever tried to listen to classical music in a moving car knows. But the answer would seem to be to allow end-user adjustment of dynamic compression of recordings for different listening environments - certainly something that should be technically feasible in this age of digital music recording and playback.
Still, overall, I'm somewhat heartened by the increasing attention and dire headlines this subject has been generating lately. Maybe - just as so often happens with the stock market - the cries of doom and gloom in a mainstream publication is a sign that this disturbing trend may itself be nearing an end.