Confessions of an Audio Dolt
October 29, 2009
It's a wonder that I ever got sent to the US as a technology correspondent for a major British newspaper back in 2000, really. My lack of prowess at -- and genuine interest in -- figuring out the nuts and bolts of everyday applications I use is not something of which I'm proud. But there's only so many things I can pay attention to on any given day, and worrying about which format I transfer audio files to and from my laptop sadly isn't one of them.
I was made to feel the full force of my technophobia yesterday afternoon when I went across the Bay to Berkeley to guest-lecture for an hour at an adult "vocal music appreciation" class. Unlike many serious music fans (and most classical music journalists) I don't keep my music library on CD, only digital audio files on my computer, even though most people in my line of work proselytize against this for reasons of quality. I don't perceive a huge difference in the quality of a CD versus most of the audio files on my laptop. frankly. Then again, computer audio files do vary radically in quality, which is a detail I confess that I need to pay closer attention to.
So I turned up to class with a playlist in an embarrassingly motley range of file formats. Some of them were near-CD quality. Others, I must confess, I'd yanked off YouTube using AudioHijack, and the quality was far, far from perfect. One or two of the tracks sounded like they were being played at the bottom of a well.
The teacher of the class was not impressed. He had the most staggeringly stagey audio setup I'd seen in a while, with speakers resting on ball-bearings. You couldn't so much as breathe on the shiny black objects without causing him to get upset. I got a public dressing down for having some of the tracks as MP3 files rather than the more up-to-date AIFF files. "Did you rip some of this stuff off the Internet?" I was asked with a critical "tsk" halfway through the class.
I dunno. Of course it's preferable to have optimal quality when you're listening to music. It's always better if you do. But having a slightly-less-than-perfect listening experience isn't going to cause your eardrums to explode. And going with a not-extremely-good output is OK too if you're under duress (ie you want to play something that is only available on YouTube) and using the music sample to make a general point rather than listening intensively in private.
The students in the class didn't seem to mind all that much anyway. Many of them came up afterwards to say how much they'd enjoyed the lecture. And hopefully the teacher forgave me for my sin. Rest assured, though: I'll be paying closer attention to audio file formats in the future. Lesson learned.