Serious Ear Therapy

Over the course of the last three decades, music has progressed (or regressed) from purely analog to digital, then to sampled and compressed digital. This was driven by the desire to ‘personalize’ music and bring and have as much of it available, in as little space as possible. From the audio CD, to MP3 players, and into the iPod decade, the music and components kept getting smaller and more compact. The problem with this is that the audio quality diminishes the more the music is compressed. Depending on the sampling settings you used when you loaded the music in, the listening experience may be anywhere from slightly deteriorated to horribly thin and distorted. Combine the compressed music files with crappy little earbuds, and it is almost a wonder you can recognize what the music actually originally was. But over the course of years, you become accustomed to listening to that thin facsimile … and you simply forget. And then, something comes along to remind you.

At work, we have been working with a stereophone manufacturer for a number of years … and I am purposefully not talking about brands, because this isn’t an infomercial … this is about music. This is about being awakened to, and reminded of, what music is supposed to be. Through our work and conversations about the essence of stereophones, of the brand promise of how music is meant to be heard, I was reminded of those days back in the late 70’s, plugged into the turntable, a monster pair of headphones perched on your head, listening to a new album without any ambient noise. Throughout our conversation, I remembered thinking of how good the music sounded when you slipped on a pair of cans; how you could hear things in the music you simply never heard before; how you heard the music the way it was meant to be heard.

Having lost track of the last pair of headphones I owned, probably back in the early 90’s, and being inspired by reminiscent thoughts of pure music, I ordered a pair of high-end, over the ear, studio stereo-phones. Two days later, I was opening the box and pulling out a full-sized, fully cushioned, metal framed pair of cans that were meant for business. Simply holding them in my hands made me anticipate the sounds I would hear. My earbuds lay impotently crumpled in a pile as I plugged myself into the iPad. I completely understand the loss of audio quality with MP3s, so I have always ripped my CDs in at a higher sampling rate. They are not ripped in at ‘loss-less’, but certainly better than default settings. I spun through the selections and started really listening.

For the next three hours, I sat quietly listening to the music. I simply listened to music, like I haven’t heard music, in almost 20 years. I started with Rachmaninov as played by Gavrilov, each note as clear as if I were sitting on the bench next to him. The impossibly large intervals, being complimented by the faint sounds of pedaling. Next, I listened to Mozart’s Sinfonia Concertante in E-flat Major. As the viola plaintively and expressively cries the melody, the clarity causes your breathing to become just a bit ragged, uneven. Moving into contemporary music, I needed to hear the jazzy and complex interactions of Weather Report’s Birdland, and the full orchestra accompaniments in Fool’s Overture on Supertramp’s Even in the Quietest Moments. Typically very restless and task oriented, I had no problem working my way through song after song, genre after genre. I was listening to the incredibly moving voice that belongs to Leona Lewis when my plug got pulled and I was herded off to get ready for dinner.

As I gently set the phones on the table, I was completely transported back to my early listening days. My memories were completely accurate. The music I had just listened to was full, rich and perfectly tuned to be delivered to my ears just as it had been done. It was serious ear therapy, and something I had not enjoyed for two decades. How did that happen? How did I wander away so far away from what music really is? As I walked away, I was already making a mental list of the CD’s I would be re-ripping into my library under the loss-less encoder, thus bringing the experience completely back to how it was originally recorded. While I am not completely convinced I’ll be able to pick up the subtle audio differences of going that extra step, I certainly look forward to my therapy session and finding out.

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4 Responses to Serious Ear Therapy

  1. Andrew Wiech says:

    Good choice with the Rachmaninov. Sang a lot of that in college. My “Second Bass” title had nothing on those Russian guys.

    My moment was when I was listening to a Jazz combo and I could actually hear the bassist plucking the strings. I couldn’t help but smile.

    Not to mention half of my favorite songs now had bass lines.

  2. hdbb says:

    I love this. I completely understand what you mean. I had a somewhat similar experience when I was traveling in England last year. While on the train between my various locations across the country, for the first time in years I just plugged in my earbuds and tuned out the rest of the world. I didn’t read. I didn’t blog. I didn’t do anything but listen and watch the world go by. Music has become so ambient for me – just background noise – for so long that I’d forgotten what it was like to just give in and feel it. That mix of being in a place I love so much, watching these huge cities and sparkling little towns give way to sprawling countrysides and seascapes – all while having an amazing soundtrack going directly into my brain – was incredibly moving. I’d forgotten what that was like – how music can add depth and texture and memory hooks to such a transitory experience. All I need to do to bring back that feeling is play my “train music mix” and it all floods back. Truly, truly amazing.

    • jimhoefflin says:

      That is exactly it BB! Music has become so ubiquitous that unless you really sit down and pay attention, it just fades into all the other static out there. By putting those headphones on, and cutting everything else out, it just accelerated me to a place where it was hard not to pay attention.

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