Sonic Rhetoric: Between a meteor and a sound place

Seth Horowitz’s first chapter of The Universal Sense is practically tailor-written to my interests. I’ve always been fascinated by the collision of space bodies, and the high-velocity impact experiments designed to simulate the conditions of these impacts (at a very small scale) was a great segue to the pivotal role sound has played in our evolution. It’s easy to think of sound as an invisible force with an almost physically solid presence. When we hear sounds, it’s so often a result of an observably physical interaction. A hammer strikes a nail and an appropriately sharp and loud sound accompanies. Tires squeal, horns blare, and steel crumples to announce an automobile accident. Soft clicking and clacking, sporadically rapid, telegraphs the process of composing this blog post.

Perhaps it is because our most intellectually and emotionally meaningful auditory experiences – chiefly music and speech –run contrary to this falsely-percussive trend, we yet maintain a peripheral awareness of sound as something more intangible. As Horowitz explains beautifully, we are evolutionarily hardwired to pay immediate and fearful attention to loud, sudden, booming sounds. We’re unnerved by thunder, low-flying jets, or any other eruptive or explosive sound because our primitive, skittish, self-preserving brain kicks in with the message “I have no idea what that was; time to go!”

This is beautifully demonstrated in the well-documented reactions to February 2013 Chelyabinsk meteor event. Scores hundreds of videos on YouTube depict the moment the sonic boom strikes thousands of Russians, minutes after the meteor rips through the upper atmosphere. As the boom hits, people run away from breaking glass, scream in shock, or swerve erratically when driving. As is the case with the man recording the video below (about 30 seconds in), the primate brain kicks in each time, always with the impetus to duck or flee. It may be physically intangible, but sound’s presence in the human mind is solid as a rock … ripping its way through Earth’s atmosphere at supersonic speeds.

Sonic Rhetoric: Just a little bit(rate) more

It was interesting to learn of the mp3’s functional history and to explore its status as a cultural artifact. A lot of attention is paid to the effect of the mp3 on the music industry, but I wonder if this article is situated at a turning point, published as it is only a year before the smartphone explosion kicked off with the introduction of the iPhone. Before that point, mp3s were a convenient format for those who wanted to carry a large music library with them wherever they went, but they were far from a necessity, so the industry saw no need to unify under a single format. Even if they were a ubiquitous luxury, dedicated mp3 players were a luxury nonetheless, so producers were content to pressure users to stay within their proprietary systems.  Smartphones expanded the userbase for digital music significantly and rapidly, and it may have been at this point that the battle of the dominant format was decided. With digital music players landing in so many pockets, major distributors of music saw further compartmentalization of the market into proprietary file formats as unprofitable. By 2010, the largest providers of digital media, Amazon, iTunes, and Google, had all switched to MP3 as their music sales service’s file format, albeit at the data compression rate at 320 kbps. Apparently the music industry has accepted that the digital music genie won’t go back in the bottle, and has given up using file formats that limit the free exchange of files, opting instead for the expansive compatibility of mp3.

That these services chose 320kbps signifies a lot. If, as we learned from Jonathan Sterne, the brain/ear does a lot of the work to fill in the possible gaps created by the mostly lossless 128kbps, the distribution of so high an encoding rate could be as much a choice of vanity as it is functionality. Knowing that the digital music buying public was fractured over which format was the best compromise of quality and file size, encoding at 320kbps was a boost to consumers’ perception of the audio file’s use-value. At the same time, music sales services have enjoyed expanded sales by lowering the price points of complete albums, and media storage devices have continued the general trend of greater capacity at lower cost, boosting the exchange-value. Sterne suggests on page 831 that no one is buying mp3s. I’m not so sure that’s the case now. I know I certainly see the value of a sure bet 320kbps album for only $5 over attempting to piece together the same thing via piracy.

As for my own conceits concerning audio quality, I believe I can tell the difference between 128 and 320kbps encoding fairly easily. When a song comes up in my library that sounds kinda off to me, more often than not, it’s an older encoding at 128kbps, a leftover from when I cared more about conserving disk space than audiophonic purity. Each time I discover one of these albums/tracks in my collection, I silently vow to re-encode them as soon as I can get my hands on a CD.

For some fun, try this quiz that tests your ability to distinguish between low and high encoding. Good headphones or speakers are a must.