What is an MP3-CD Audiobook, Part 2 – Why We Still Love Our LPs

My blog post about MP3-CDs several years ago generated an unexpected interest – what was different about an MP3-CD audiobook? Did I need a special player? And how did they get an entire book onto one single disk? I answered the questions, but it bugged me that I didn’t answer them enough. And when I dug just a little deeper, I realized the answer might be why there’s such a resurgence in old-fashioned vinyl LP records (kids, ask your grandparents).

Format Development

Back in the 1980’s, as CD and digital technology was taking off, committees were formed to create the format, so that the technology could be used anywhere. JPEG, that familiar photo tag, was formed first, the Joint Photographic Experts Group (1986), and they set the coding and standardization of digital transfer and storage of still photographs. MPEG-1 committee followed a year later, the Moving Picture Experts Group, Phase 1, which included both video and sound. It remains the most widely compatible audio-visual format in the world, and we all know the MPEG-1 Layer III by its short form of  .mp3.

When CDs hit the market, they took off like wildfire. You didn’t have to worry about compact discneedle and dust scratches ruining the fidelity of a record, and even better, you could carry that music with you wherever you went, just like a tape cassette but without all the mess and rewinding. Not all musicians jumped on it, though. Just as John Phillip Sousa hated the invention of the record, Neil Young was one of the earliest critics of CDs and delayed putting his music onto digital format, as is David Crosby, two men who know just a bit about music and the recording industry.

The Battle for Quality

high res vs. low res imagesAnd here’s why: MP3-CDs use what’s called lossy compression, a form of psychoacoustics (your gold-star word of the day). What it does is reduce or eliminate sounds that the system thinks the human ear can’t hear, either because they’re out of normal frequency or other sounds might be louder and keep you from hearing them. Once all that “useless” noise is gone, the audio files are a LOT smaller – enough to fit that whole audiobook onto one or two discs. Of course, in doing so, you lose a lot of sound quality, like when you send a low-resolution photo over the internet, or use a cell phone inside a tunnel.

The Return of the LP

And for all those people who said LP records were dead, here’s why more than 14 million of them were sold last year (14% of ALL album sales).  By the early 1900’s, when records became a thing, they were made of shellac (that bug resin), had a wide, noisy, grinding groove (think of those 1920’s recordings), and at 78 rpm (the speed they spun at), you could get no more than 5 minutes of play to a side – no American Pie, no Thriller, and forget In a Gadda Da Vida. That lasted until 1949, when Long-Playing (LP) records came out on vinyl (good ol’ PVC). At a speed of 33 rpm, with a finer groove that runs almost a third of a mile, they played more than 20 minutes of music per side, with a much higher sound quality. Stereo, which recorded two channels and put one on each side of the same groove, giving you that left and right sound, came in 1957. In a vinyl record, the sound waves from the microphone are transferred directly by needle to a core, which is transferred to a metal master, which is then pressed into vinyl. A needle then rides the groove, transferring those same exact soundwaves to the speakers. With proper speakers and tuning, the result is a rich, deep, acoustic sound much more like live music. Listen to enough LPs, and you really can hear the canned music effect on a CD recording. There is no comparison if you are a music purist.

Vinyl is Final

So, what’s playing on modern LPs? Ed Sheeran’s Divide was a top seller in 2017, and the old/new sound track to Guardians of the Galaxy, Awesome Mix No. 1, but so were the classics – Sgt. Pepper’s by the Beatles, Abbey Road, Thriller, and still, forty five years later, the champion of staying power, with more than 1,000 weeks on the top-200 best-selling albums, STILL selling more than 8500 albums a week, Pink Floyd’s 1973 Dark Side of the Moon.Pink Floyd - Dark Side of the Moon album cover

For audiobooks, where one or two voices may recite a book in a calm, steady voice, you might not notice just how much sound is missing when you listen to it – enough to cut out six or seven discs worth. For music, I urge you to find a friend or a library that still has music LPs and players. Listen to the album (Dark Side of the Moon is amazing with serious headphones and a very dark room), and then listen to the digitally compressed MP3 files, missing highs and lows and the depth they provide. It might take a few tries, but you will start to hear the differences, and while MP3s are so fabulously convenient and almost foolproof, it just can’t compare to a good LP.

Fun fact: There is a gold-plated LP traveling the galaxy. Sent aboard the Voyager spacecraft in 1977 with recordings of Earth music, it is now more than 11 million miles away. MP3s only made it as far as the Space Station.

Rocking Rock Opera

fuddEven in High Society, there aren’t many faster ways to clear a room politely than bring up the subject of Opera. Everyone gives a nod, a panicked smile, and then slowly backs out, unable to name a single one. If we took a poll, most people would probably say their exposure to opera consists of what they learned from Bugs Bunny http://www.dailymotion.com/video/x2mjbrz, or perhaps Animaniacs. Don’t worry, I’m not going to change your mind. You won’t get me to sit through an entire one, either, except maybe Aida. Any play with live elephants and camels is awesome.

So, what IS opera? Opera is a play, usually in acts, where all the dialogue is sung in an operatic style (and you know what that sounds like). The music is big, heavy, foreign, and so are the singers. Operetta is still an opera but usually much shorter, and they are often comedies. A musical is just a play where people burst into songs, or songs and dance now and then.

So where does Les Miserables fall? I liked that movie, and I hateles-miserables-dvd-cover-48 opera! Les Mis is a bone of contention. It is not an opera, because the songs are not sung in the operatic style. It’s more than a musical, because all the dialogue is sung and there’s certainly nothing to dance about, like Oliver! dreaming of a real meal. So at best, for lack of a better term, the experts call Les Mis a sung-through, meaning there is some non-song dialogue, but the lines are sung without being part of a song (think of Javert and Jean Valjean’s confrontation in singsong https://www.youtube.com/watch?v=I8WSysB5vKM). Some call Les Mis a “popera,” or pop-opera, but those aren’t exactly songs that will climb record charts, and others try to call it a rock-opera, which it is also definitely not.

So what then IS rock opera? At some point in your life, on some radio station, you’ve heard a version of “Pinball Wizard,” or “We Don’t Need No Education” (the technical title is “Another Brick in the Wall part 2”). Those songs come from the two most well-known Rock Operas, Tommy, and The Wall. A rock opera consists of a full-length story in which the story is told through song, but the music is entirely modern and popular.

TommyalbumcoverTommy, by The Who, was the first work known as Rock Opera (1969). Purists will say it is not opera because it is not sung in opera fashion; the fact remains, it is a full story told entirely in song. In short, as a child, Tommy witnesses his father kill his mother’s boyfriend, retreats into an autistic-like trance, and endures much abuse as his parents look for ways to break him free. They discover that, even though it doesn’t appear he can hear, speak, or see, he is a master at pinball, which they use to draw him out and return him to society. Yes, there are differences between the album, the play, and the movie version, but the flow of the story remains the same. The movie includes Tina Turner, Elton John, and Peter Frampton. ‘Nuff said.

Fastforward ten years. The Brits hit again, with the release of Pink Floyd’s The Wall inB000006TRV 1979. The Wall is a masterpiece of modern music, the story of a rock singer (Pinkerton Floyd) who builds a mental wall to insulate himself from the outside world, which he feels has abandoned him. The death of his father in WWII, his overbearing mother, his abusive teachers, his unfaithful wife are all bricks in his wall, until, isolated and alone, he festers until the court of his peers orders the wall be torn down and he be returned to the world. It’s a masterpiece of suffering, death, and rebirth, without a word of dialogue. The movie had mixed reviews, but remains faithful to the vision. Check out the concert version here.

Green_Day_-_American_Idiot_coverA third, more modern piece (2004) that can be considered Rock Opera is Green Day’s American Idiot, which chronicles the “disillusionment and dissent experienced by (Jesus of Suburbia) a generation which came of age during various turmoil including the Iraq War.” What is it with wars creating Opera? Admittedly heavily influenced by The Who, the only real difference I see with American Idiot from its predecessors is it seems to be a LOT LOUDER. Songs like “Wake Me Up When September Comes” are just as worthy and beautiful.

Sure, some people try to lump Ziggy Stardust in here, and Lamb Lies Down on Broadway, but there is a difference between a “concept” album and a rock opera. Think of a concept album as a book of short stories around a theme, whereas a rock opera is an entire novel.

So if ladies in Viking horns screeching for the ophigh notes aren’t your style, try a rock opera. Drama, intrigue, murder, drug addiction, infidelity, and rebirth, all set to some pretty catchy music – and sometimes a pretty good movie, too. What more can you ask for?

Same Old Tune

unnamedI am a semi-hard-core Pink Floyd fan. I’ve likely spent more hours listening to them than any other musical group, and I think I know the entire Wall album from memory – lyrics and orchestration. So when David Gilmour, who, along with Roger Waters wrote many of their greatest hits, came out with a new album, Rattle that Lock, of course I had to listen to it.

The album, I must admit, left me with mixed feelings. It’s a varied album, with some pieces (The Girl in the Yellow Dress) being almost classical jazz, and others being such classic Floyd in tone you can almost recognize lines from Learning to Fly (Echoes), and riffs straight from The Wall. Parts of it are cranking rock, and other parts are very ethereal and New-Agey in feel – not unlike inventive Floyd tracks from Dark Side of the Moon. There are even two instrumental tracks. It was good, it was fresh, but I’m still not sure if I liked it. I’m not a jazz person, no matter how hard I try, and though I love my Floyd, it’s 2015, not 1979, and I want to say, “Yes, it’s good, but what are you doing now?”

Which got me to thinking: Why is it often so easy to pick out a band/singer on the radio? Because they are often stuck in the same style that made them famous. Their songs are caught in a groove of sound – it’s a good sound, but it doesn’t change. Sometimes they try but the fans turn away, because it’s not “their” sound. Sometimes they do and it works beautifully (how many heavy metal bands have one or two incredible slow ballads, like Kiss’s Beth, or the Scorpions’ Still Loving You?). Listen to The Police’s Every Breath You Take – the first four songs are almost identical in format, all hits, but identical. I love R.E.M., but they get monotonous if you listen to six albums in a row. As George Thorogood said, “I only know four chords on the guitar, so of course all my songs sound alike.”27club-660x300

According to the internet, some of today’s popular bands are guilty of unoriginality and being one-trick ponies. Not even getting into Boy Bands, or Brittney, or other manufactured stars (it’s fair to place The Monkees here, too), too many artists sound – well, too much like themselves. Pete Townshend’s last albums drifted song to song like a dream; you couldn’t tell where one ended and the next began, and he’s a music legend. Ed Sheeran, Oasis, Ke$ha, Flo Rida, and the often-unfairly picked on Nickelback are among the worst offenders, by internet polls. Having a trademark “sound” is good, but a truly talented musician masters versatility.

So who, then, has successfully changed their tunes and embraced versatility over the CyndiLauperBodyAcousticyears? Both Paul McCartney and Billy Joel have attempted branching out into classical music, but classical music doesn’t rake in money on radio ads. One I would consider would be Cindy Lauper – she’s older than you think. Before she was a shock-haired icon of the 80’s, she fronted a rockabilly band called Blue Angel. They put out one album, Blue Angel (duh), which did well in the Netherlands, but you could see the genius. Check it out here: https://www.youtube.com/watch?v=36MgP5Hg6KU. To go from Money Changes Everything to Above the Clouds on her Body Acoustic album – she has an impressive range. What a Broadway career she could have had! Oh wait – she wrote all the music for Kinky Boots, winner of 6 Tony awards, including Best Musical and Best Score!  She’s not as ditzy as she looks.

Robert_Plant_and_Alison_Krauss_-_Raising_SandAnother would be Robert Plant – the former lead singer for hard-rocking Led Zeppelin. Post-Zeppelin he formed the R&B group The Honeydrippers in 1981, and they shot up the charts with their # 3 slow-dance hit Sea of Love. If that wasn’t different enough, he’s recorded several folksy albums with Allison Krauss – my personal favorite being “Trampled Rose” from the album Raising Sand. Truly, no one would guess this soulful folk singer is one of heavy rock’s legends.

A third I would nominate would be David Bowie (yes,ZiggyStardust I’ve chosen all older musicians, because 40-50 year careers are living, breathing entities). Ziggy Stardust is a far cry from his later success with Suffragette City, and another layer removed from 2013’s The Next Day album, let alone his (in)famous duet with Bing Crosby on The Little Drummer Boy – and the soundtrack to Labyrinth.

So now we know David Gilmour can write and play good jazz, even if it feels like the jazz is being played in the dance hall of a Pink Floyd dream. Is it progress or stagnation? You have to decide that for yourself.

The Great Gig in the Sky

This month marks the 40th anniversary of one of the most seminal rock albums of all time: Pink Floyd’s Dark Side of the Moon, which was released in March of 1973.

220px-Dark_Side_of_the_MoonDark Side of the Moon, with its iconic album cover of a prism and rainbow on a black background, holds the American record for most weeks spent on the album charts – 741 weeks. That’s  more than 14 years!  Johnny Mathis had been the previous record holder, at 10 years on the charts. Most major music lists consistently place the album in the top 50 rock albums of all time.

Dark Side became Pink Floyd’s most successful album at more than 50 million copies sold, more than double their hugely successful 1979 rock opera, The Wall.  The album was Pink Floyd’s first attempt at a concept album, loosely following former bandmate Syd Barrow’s decent into mental illness, as later would The Wall.  Interspersed among the lyrical 12-string guitar solos and ethereal synthesizers are snippets of conversation, clocks, helicopters, and of course, the rhythmic banging and chiming of cash registers at the start of Money – an early melodical version of Stomp!, combined with classic rock beats and timeless lyrics.

I received my first copy of the album sometime around 1978 – so long ago I had the album on 8-track!  Now, on CD, it remains perhaps one of my top-20 favorite albums, wonderful for relaxing to or as a background music for writing or painting. My favorite way of listening to it?  With noise-canceling headphones, in total darkness, where the quadraphonic effects bounce around you out of nowhere, the music carries you away, and you lose all track of time.  If you haven’t experienced the album, give this piece of music history a try.  If you have, it’s the perfect chance to reacquaint yourself with a classic.