Eighteen months ago, I made a playlist for my son’s sixth birthday party. He chose the music: Dizzee Rascal’s Bonkers, Tinie Tempah’s Pass Out, some Jessie J and One Direction, and Michael Jackson’s Bad. I downloaded the tracks I didn’t have and at the party, after an hour’s football, followed by snacks and one of those mass pile-ons that small boys love (why?), I put my phone into the dock and pressed play.
The sound that emerged was OK. But it couldn’t really compete with the screeching of 20 children fuelled on sugar and additives, so I turned the volume up. The noise was horrible, like a badly tuned radio being put through a final rinse and spin. “Darn it,” I thought or a stronger equivalent, “the speakers have blown.”
Then the Michael Jackson track came on. It sounded fine. Great, even. I turned it up, and up. No distortion, no fuzz, no problem.
What was going on with my music? Well, if you’re at all interested in sound, you’ll already know the answer. The Jackson track had been uploaded from a CD; the rest, bought online, were in MP3 format, the ‘lossy’ version that doesn’t have the depth and scope of a full recording. MP3s sound acceptable at lower volumes, but cat-scaringly awful when you pump up the jam.
This is sad, because many of us listen to our music, consciously or unconsciously, in MP3 format. MP3s came about in the late 90s, when our internet speeds were so slow it could take an entire day to upload one CD. They were designed for convenience; they took only the ‘essential’ information from a recording and lost the rest hence ‘lossy’, which meant that they were quicker to upload and use – perfect for an impatient world. Given that most people don’t have the highly-developed hearing of musicians and producers, not many noticed the difference in sound quality.