Get A Better Stereo

Sunday, June 03, 2007

A guy I know called Steve works at, who, if you know anything about the internet, you will be aware have just been bought by CBS for a cool £140m. A lot of people seem to find this very exciting; not sure why, monopoly-building in the music industry has almost always been bad news as far as I am aware. But there you go. When the ‘good guys’ are being bought out it’s OK, cos they deserve the money, or something.

But beyond this vague concern about the insidious “big fish eat the little fish” onwards march of capitalism, and with no disrespect to Steve, who is a fine man, pisses me off. Or, rather, one of the things that I feel it stands for pisses me off.

Not the social-network side of it, although I’ve long since abandoned Myspace and Facebook, because (almost) anything that encourages human communication is pretty good at least on a theoretical level, even if that communication quickly devolves into self-aggrandisement.

I’m not even that pissed off by the fact that one of’s primary (unspoken) purposes is the destruction of the critic and therefore music writing and therefore any kind of informed and impassioned discussion (and therefore communication) (the easier it is to communicate the less effort and thought people put into communication, perhaps [see above]).

Actually I am, because I think this is dangerous as all hell; much as most critics are seemingly happy just to tell you what to buy in exchange for a +1 and a promo and fifty quid, there are a number out there who are performing important duties regarding the relaying of information (finding new bands) and the recording of the history of music (letting you know about old bands), piecing together strands and constructing narratives where possible (and often where inappropriate, obviously, given that the history of music, like the history of anything, is not an easy-flowing linear story) so that we understand what music is and what it means and what it has done a little better.

There’s also another critical function, that I like to think I’m involved in (and I hope I’m not alone), which is telling people what they’re doing wrong (even if only in my opinion) so that in the future they can not do it wrong and as a result make better records. The 65daysofstatic affair is, I hope, proof that critics can and do exist, sometimes, outside of the realm of merely being catalogue guides and gatekeepers; isn’t going to write in-depth articles about dynamic range compression any time soon, I suspect.

By allowing people to bypass criticism in terms of finding new music (not necessarily a bad thing), also allows them to bypass criticism in terms of engaging with and understanding any music (pretty necessarily a bad thing). Is the positivity of the objective worth the negative side-effect? I’m not sure.

But anyway, damaging criticism is a minor concern. My main beef with is that it’s damaging music itself. How? By making people listen via a computer.

Obviously there are methods that can make using a computer as your primary music-player a decent prospect: digital music servers can be integrated into hi-fi systems; hi-end soundcards with analogue-outs can be run straight into dedicated amplifiers, etcetera. I run a 3.5-stereo-plug-to-analogue-red&whites cable from my iMac to a Denon microsystem next to the computer for the rare occasions when I do want (or need) to listen to something in that room which I only have as digital files; a satisfactory solution, but not ideal when I have a profoundly good headphone set-up within arms reach and a proper hi-fi in the next room.

But most people who use aren’t doing that or anything remotely close. If you’re lucky, some people might be running a decent modest set of headphones like Sennheiser PX100s straight from the headphone socket; far more will be using 2.1 satellite+sub set-ups (which I also have on the iMac, for watching downloaded TV programs - yes I know TV freaks will see this as heresy on several levels) which are capable of LOUD but very much not capable of detailed or accurate or nuanced or realistic. Possibly as many, maybe more, maybe less, will just be running off bundled or inbuilt speakers though; the tiny, tinny downward-firing grill on the bottom of an iMac or the insane blips and beeps that a PC tower emits. Hell, I regularly see people playing music straight off their mobile phone speaker; I can barely tolerate using the damn things for talking, such is the poor quality, let alone as a loudspeaker for music.

It’s a basic tenet of communication theory that noise affects interpretation of signals; insufficient equipment to relay a signal is a prime cause of noise (but not the only one, obviously). My girlfriend and I noticeably argue a hell of a lot more over the phone than we do face-to-face, because a huge amount of the signal gets lost. I don’t just mean facial expression either; technologically shoddy transceivers garble enunciation, inflection, timbre and tone of voice in a phonecall, and can lead to misunderstandings. Sometimes the message is simple enough and couched in enough clear and translatable signifiers that it can still be understood, but sometimes it isn’t.

With music, where for some listeners, some artists, some entire genres, the nuances of inflection, timbre, tone etcetera are utterly key to understanding and enjoyment, inadequate playback equipment can and does cause just as many problems, even if those problems are just ‘lack of enjoyment’ rather than relationship-threatening miscommunications.

And so back we go to 65daysofstatic, and also Guillemots, both of whom have made defiantly “quiet” records in absolutist, reductionist terms, that mean nothing and do nothing and sound awful when played through the kind of speakers most people run off a computer, but that become radical, enveloping, overwhelming and deeply moving experiences when played on the kind of equipment that’s designed exclusively for listening to music, rather than for running spreadsheets, word processing, accessing the internet, playing games, organising files and any of the other countless tasks that computers are used for. (And yes, I know that a CD player is just a modest computer; but an amplifier isn’t.)

By making it easier to listen to music, you make people put less effort into listening to music. Labour-saving devices are not emancipatory, utopic machines; they’re obfuscations to utopia, laziness traps, sedentary facilitators. Washing machines don’t make you free; they just give you more time to coagulate in front of the television.

I’d probably find’s holistic spiderweb of links between music fans useful, but I can’t use because I don’t listen through a computer; my CD collection, my hi-fi, my headphones cannot be scrobbled. I am more than prepared to live without’s utility if it means I enjoy the music I do listen to so much more.

In other news, I have “Martha My Dear” from The White Album stuck in my head; not sure why, given that it’s Sgt. Pepper that’s veering close to ubiquity at the moment, given its fortieth anniversary.

Also, please note that this blog looks SO MUCH BETTER on a Mac than on a PC. Forget those fucking hideous Mitchell & Webb adverts, which make me want to chuck my MacBook out of the window and take a mallet to my iMac; Macs just render graphics so much better. On a PC my pictures look pixelised and blocky, and the text font is blurred and indistinct. Not so on a Mac.

As an additional aside, Uncut magazine apparently ran an article on dynamic range compression this month. I’ve not seen it yet, but will possibly stand in a newsagent for a few minutes one day this week to have a gander. Anyway, learning this I headed to the magazine’s website to have a look, and GOOD GRIEF at their editorial blogs. If that unevolved claptrap is professional music writing, stick with the kids who do it for free.


Sunday, June 03, 2007


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Nick Southall was born in southwest England at the tail end of the 70s, and is the youngest of three brothers. He has a degree in popular culture and philosophy and has written about music for Stylus Magazine, The Guardian and Drowned In Sound, amongst others. He likes red wine, expensive headphones, spicy food, and the Hungarian national football team of the 1950s. His favourite record is the last one he listened to. You can contact him by email via sickmouthy @ gmail dot com should you so wish.

All material copyright Nick Southall 2006/2007/2008

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