Wednesday, March 24, 2010

Reflections on Resolution and Reverence

I’m a hobbyist musician whose musical ideas often exceed my technical knowledge and abilities. Nevertheless, I dabble and, every once in a while, I come with ... uh, something ... that is reasonably satisfying – to me at least.

I’m in a similar position when it comes to computer technology. I’m far from a code geek, but I’m probably a little more tech savvy than the average Joe (although living in the Boston area with all these MIT grads around, I say that with some reservation). Over the years, I’ve managed to become fairly competent with an array of sound and design technology that is useful in my amateur musical endeavors.

This is why I’ve subscribed to Electronic Musician magazine for the last decade or so. Much of the content is way over my head technically (and often musically, too), yet I find enough of the publication useful, inspiring or thought-provoking to keep me renewing it each year. One of things I always read is Nathaniel Kunkel’s monthly column on modern sound production trends and issues. Kunkel is a Grammy Award-winning producer and engineer who also happens to be a decent writer with interesting and thoughtful things to say.

Kunkel’s most recent column (“Avatar This,” March 2010) addresses the increased cheapening of music today, especially when compared to the film and video industry (with its emphasis on large screens, hi-def, 3D, etc.). Kunkel notes that as music has become more disposable (with the proliferation of low-resolution MP3 files that are dissociated from any meaningful context in their presentation, as well as any focused commitment on the part of the listener), it has become little more than sonic wallpaper. It is ubiquitous, almost always in the background, rarely the focus of attention and, thus, of little value. No wonder the industry is struggling.

Yet, Kunkel points to a small but allegedly growing cadre of consumers who are looking for and finding value in their listening experiences. These are the folks behind the apparent resurgence of the vinyl records market. I’ve seen
the vinyl section increasing at my local music retailer (Newbury Comics) in recent years and, as Kunkel notes, even Best Buy is stocking vinyl now.

Obviously, part of the value and appeal is the packaging (the tangible physicality of it, the large artwork, readable liner notes, etc.). Then there’s the renewed attention to the order and contiguity of the songs – things that still hold meaning to some artists. But perhaps most important, Kunkel says, is the higher resolution of music preserved on vinyl – hence, the “warmer” sound routinely cited by audiophiles.

To me, the first critical step in renewing the satisfaction of good music in our lives is to give it a bit more of our focused attention – even if that still means just popping a CD in the player or selecting a choice iTunes playlist rather than digging the old vinyl collection out the back of the closet. And, despite his valid points on the importance of packaging and resolution, Kunkel seems to agree. “Maybe,” he concludes, citing the committed effort that goes into spinning a vinyl disc, “people hear more out of vinyl because it’s the only time they are really listening that closely.”

Whatever it takes, it would be nice to see a return to real reverence for good music – however you choose to define it. Indeed, “Tear down the wall(paper)!”

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