Some of you may or may not know that I like to consider myself an up-and-coming audio engineer. Don’t get me wrong, the more I learn the more that I realize I still have LOTS to learn.. But I would like to think that I know more than the average consumer when it comes to audio and recordings. With this in mind, I would like to discuss TIDAL with you.
You may or may not know about TIDAL. Long story short, Jay-Z purchased and relaunched a semi-new music streaming service called TIDAL. He (and a whole bunch of super-stars who each own 3% shares) is claiming that this is the new game-changing service. They are all preaching on about how this is a service by artists and for artists, how it will save the music industry… The list goes on and on. To be frank, I could go on for hours about its strengths and weaknesses, but those are all better covered here and here. Read them if you are interested.
What I would like to talk about concerns this video. Go ahead and watch it really quick and then come back. I have lots of fun things to tell you.
So the video tells you that you are switching back and forth from MP3 to lossless, right? Fun fact: It’s a lie. *gasp* “But I thought I could trust everything I hear on the internet!?” I know, I know. I feel betrayed too. But it’s true. Now that you are over the initial shock, listen close (well, you know what I mean).
First I’ll tell you about how that video is a lie, then I’ll explain what lossless (WAV, FLAC, etc.) vs. lossy (MP3, AAC, etc.) means in the most basic way I can. If you’ve watched a lot of Doctor Who you may have noticed that The Doctor sometimes explains things in a way to help it make more sense and then turns around and says “but it’s nothing like that.” This is going to be like that. My fellow audio people, I ask that you give me some understanding for what information may be kinda-but-kinda-not-really-accurate in my attempt to help people understand this sometimes confusing situation.
So the video. Yes, it gives a disclaimer at the beginning, but it is important you understand it and don’t miss it, like I fear many are. Compelling, right? Who knew that the audio quality you were used to from Spotify and YouTube was actually so bad? Well… I did, but I don’t blame you if you didn’t. Even worse is the fact that the music you download from iTunes or Amazon is, in fact, no better. At all. Even worse, actually. And that video is making an attempt to let you know by showing you what all of that file compression takes out. It switches back and forth from terrible sounding audio to seemingly high quality goodness! The lie? Well, if one takes the time to examine the code of the website, one would find that the video that plays on the website is hosted by Vimeo. Why does that matter? Remember how I mentioned that YouTube is low quality? Vimeo is no better. “Even when switched to HD?” Oh yes! Granted that the improvement from 360p to 1080p audio quality IS a drastic improvement, the only reason the HD sounds good is because of what you are comparing it to. In fact, neither YouTube nor Vimeo are even capable of playing lossless, Hi-Fi audio. It’s LITERALLY not possible for them to. So what’s going on in the video? They have manipulated and degraded the sound quality of the “MP3” audio drastically and noticeably. The “lossless” that it switches to is, in fact, no better than your run-of-the-mill MP3. But by comparison to the degraded audio, it sounds so much better! That, my friends, is how they are tricking you. It’s just propaganda. The difference in lossy vs. lossless sound quality won’t be like the video portrays at all.
Now, “what’s the big deal if there is no such thing as lossless audio?” you say. STOP! I didn’t say that! There most certainly IS such a thing as lossless audio and it absolutely most certainly IS incredibly better sounding than the MP3s you are all used to. I’m just saying that YouTube and Vimeo can’t actually play them. You see, MP3 (and other file-compression coding) was introduced as a way to store music on your devices in a way that would keep a single song from taking up all of your memory. (Remember the days of a 1GB MP3 player? Hahahaha…. I’m old…) You see, MP3 takes a lossless file and compresses it to fit into a much smaller amount of data. A single song can go from being 33 MB to around 6 MB. That’s a significant size reduction! In fact, it’s a modern day miracle! It shouldn’t even be logically possible to take something that was originally so much data, reduce it, and then play it back in a way that it sounds the same! Well… It’s not. It IS a miracle that it sounds even remotely like the same song, let alone that it sounds as good as it does. However, what’s actually going on is that the information is literally being removed.
Imagine that you had a page in a book in front of you and that you have one of those nifty white-out pens. Now remove every 4th word. Hmm… Not enough, do it again. Uh… Remove a few more words… Ah, that’s the ticket! Now re-type the remaining words in order and print it out. Now read it. Amazing, isn’t it! You can fully understand what that page used to say even though all those words are missing! … Wait, you can’t understand what the page originally meant? Too much information has been removed? Exactly. The compression for MP3 works in the same way. That’s why I say it’s a miracle that it sounds like the same song! The best part is that almost everyone has been tricked into thinking that it’s perfectly ok. It’s not! Not at all. iTunes, Amazon, Spotify, YouTube, Pandora… The list goes on and on. Heck, even when you buy a CD, your computer is set to download as an MP3 when you rip it! That ruins the point of a CD, which actually carries lossless audio. So TIDAL wants to change that. And even though their video is all propaganda material, they actually do improve the quality. By about 4 times!…. For $20 a month. Yeah, that’s too much for me too.
So what can you do? Well, the need for music to be the size of an MP3 is no longer valid. We live in the age of practically unlimited space. We can fit hundreds of gigabytes into tiny little devices now. There’s no need for file compression. So, at the very least, try buying actual CDs and changing the iTunes import settings to download as AIFF. Those *are* lossless. They aren’t the absolute highest quality (44.1 kHz/16 bit out of the now possible 192 kHz/32 bit float) but they are technically lossless and sound way better than MP3. “I tried comparing MP3 to lossless and didn’t notice a difference.” Well, you may be using terrible quality speakers or headphones (computer speakers, apple ear buds, Beats headphones, etc.) Get a proper good speaker system or pair of headphones and then give a listen. Fun fact, the human ear actually takes time to adjust to hearing music. For a true test of enjoyment, try listening to about 30 minutes or more of MP3 music and then listen to 30 minutes or more of lossless audio (at the same exact volume level) and then see what the difference is. It’ll astound you.
I like the idea of lossless streaming. I REALLY like the idea. I’ve been begging for it! But… $20 a month is way too high for my budget and probably most of yours too. But there’s a chance that TIDAL will be throwing in lots of really cool perks to go along with that subscription, so as more details come out, it may very well be worth it. Check it out, at least. And do your ears a favor and look into buying some proper, good quality listening devices and stop downloading crappy MP3 and AAC files. I understand that it’s easier.. as well as streaming Spotify and YouTube! However, the quality just *isn’t* there. Need suggestions on what to do to fix this epidemic? Email me at firstname.lastname@example.org and I’d love to give suggestions to meet any budget!
Have a blessed day!