We just saw this piece on Billboard about Jay-Z owned music streaming service TIDAL. We have nothing to comment on the content of the article but it did get us thinking about TIDAL and other high quality streaming services. Do we really need them?
Let’s face it- the internet, laptops and mobile devices have killed music quality. As producers and engineers it’s soul destroying to spend so much time on a mix only for it to be played out of some shitty laptop speakers or those tiny little holes in your phone. All those nuances and adjustments to the sound get lost when they get played on those systems (where the hell did our bass go?!). Of course as engineers we have to mix a song to play across all formats but there is no avoiding the discrepancies in sound quality across the wide range of devices people consume music on. The other issue is that people tend to use the EQ presets on their systems that essentially turn the bass and treble up. This means we have to mix songs to counter that- keep the bass a little lower than usual and have the vocals a little louder than you would on a flat EQ setup. The trouble you run into there is that not everyone uses the same presets so it’s a guessing game as to whether your song is gonna sound like shit or not (this is particularly worrying when we visit A&R offices- there is one guy who runs a big label that uses computer speakers with a big subwoofer and the first time we played our stuff for him we were both cringing at how overpowering the bass sounded. Every time we see him now we keep the bass a little lower on the mix to counter this!).
Now, having said all of that, the average listener can’t identify any of that. They don’t hear music through the same ears that folks who make music do. When producers or engineers hear music they are constantly analyzing it (it actually makes it a little harder to enjoy it if we’re honest). It’s the same for people who are in video when watching TV or movies, if something’s not quite right you notice it and it bugs the hell out of you. Without fail when we play our songs to our wives, families or close friends there is always the comment that they can’t tell the difference from the demo and the final iterations of our mixes- sometimes they even prefer the demo because they got so used to hearing it! This isn’t supposed to sound snobby or elitist but it’s true- music quality isn’t as important to the masses. This is why TIDAL and other HQ streaming services will remain niche products. There’s nothing wrong with that but for most consumers the quality that Spotify, Pandora and other services use is more than fine and they won’t pay a premium for better quality. Have a look in your settings on the streaming service you use (you do have one right? It’s 2015…) and most likely it’s set to 96kbit/s or 128kbit/s. For context, CD quality is about 320kbit/s. You’ve gone this whole time not caring and probably thinking it sounded great, which it most likely did! Spotify offers the use of 320kbit/s and we’re sure the others do too, so why pay double for more than CD quality?
TIDAL and the other HQ services offer what is called lossless audio. Basically what happens when an MP3 file is created is that the program takes out pieces of information that is deemed unnecessary (how much gets taken out depends on the bitrate- this is why 320kbit/s is better than 96kbit/s- more information per second means less needs to be taken out). The reason lower bitrates are used is to keep the file sizes down, pretty useful for streaming or storing multiple files on a phone as it requires less space. Lossless files don’t take anything out so are exactly the same as the original files. This has its obvious benefits as the sound quality is how the creator intended it but we challenge most people to notice the differences between a high quality MP3 and lossless file when not listening on high end systems. If you can hear the differences they’re really not that substantial and for most wouldn’t motivate them to pay a premium for it.
We have nothing against TIDAL but just question whether consumers will utilize its lossless streaming because as we’ve learnt first hand, the average listener can’t tell the difference- especially on the systems that are typically used now. It definitely has it’s place with the hifi crowds but for most, they’ll stick with the cheaper services who do a fine job already.
Just something to think about.