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The Philadelphia Inquirer’s music critic has written a piece on the Philadelphia Orchestra’s downloads that contains an impressive litany of the misinformed clichés that can emerge when music critics try to write about technology. Or music. It makes me kind of angry.

First up, he opens with a colorful metaphor that doesn’t really mean anything:

This time, the journey to the summit of Strauss’ Alpine Symphony is obscured by fog and slowed by mud – which shouldn’t happen when the trail guide is the Philadelphia Orchestra.

You can’t really argue with fog and mud, but don’t worry. This fog-laden muddiness is the premise upon which this article is based, so why bother to examine it?

The orchestra’s 2008 performance of the Strauss tone poem was highly acclaimed when recorded live in Verizon Hall; some even pinpointed the Alpine Symphony as the moment when current chief conductor Charles Dutoit claimed the Philadelphia Orchestra as his own.

Look. They either played it well or they didn’t. There are a lot of reasons why you might have liked the concert and hated the record, and very few of them have much to do with either the playing or the technology you’re about to blame for it.

But though the lavishly scored piece is the flagship release in the orchestra’s reentry into the recording market on high-profile websites – with 35-plus titles that include Shostakovich conducted by Wolfgang Sawallisch, Beethoven symphonies led by Christoph Eschenbach, and distinguished guests such as Vladimir Jurowski and Rafael Frühbeck de Burgos – one could argue that it should never have been released.

It was certainly a lot quicker to write this paragraph than it was to actually listen to 35 albums. Don’t even get me started on “one could argue”. They won’t even stand for that on Wikipedia.

Many significant elements of it were lost in the performance’s transition from the Kimmel Center to digital files. Whether on Amazon.com, emusic.com, Rhapsody or iTunes.com, the Fabulous Philadelphians are barely recognizable in the sound-compressed MP3s. Only on the higher-priced HDtracks website – where the FLAC (Free Audio Lossless Codec) file of the Alpine Symphony costs $17.98 – is the Dutoit version of the Philadelphia sound apparent.

You can measure the difference between a lossless file and a compressed one. It’s often quite tiny. Don’t take my word for it: take a look for yourself. Here are three audio files. The first is a CD-quality WAV file of a modern symphonic recording. The second is a compressed file of the same performance from one of the stores mentioned above. The third was created by subtracting one from the other to show the difference between the two. That’s where you’d expect any non-imaginary fog or mud to show up. You might notice that there isn’t any.

WAV, MP3, WAV minus MP3

Let’s zoom in, and check on that.

Wav vs MP3 vs WAV minus MP3

Nope. No fog. No mud. They are EXACTLY THE SAME.

If you’d prefer to look at research on what it actually sounds like, you can check this out. The conclusions are the same.

Occasional differences do arise, but they’re very small and our impressions of sound quality are very vulnerable to presentation, so without some sort of blind test there’s no way he’s able to reliably tell the difference between these two high-quality codecs. He might as well say that the potato lost some of its flavor between the field and the plate, and then blame the waiter.

Though the orchestra’s emergence on such a wide retail platform is to be applauded, gatekeepers at various steps along the way – from the orchestra to the distributor IODA (which handles the majority of classical downloads) to the individual retailers – tend to be fatalistic. During numerous interviews, no clear solution emerged.

Dare I suggest that this is because “obscured by fog and slowed by mud” is not a clear problem.

The orchestra could have expected recording challenges with Strauss’ grand orchestration, which has never been easily captured. Compromise is likely to be particularly audible when so much sound is compressed into MP3 files, a medium suited more to pop music and recreational listening.

Again, we’re talking about something you could measure, but instead of doing so, he’s off again with the assertions. I’m also curious about that last clause: what’s the alternative to recreational listening?

Also questionable is the presentation and price structure of the Philadelphia Orchestra downloads. Titles have less-than-sexy black-and-white covers; some of the most marketable conductors, such as Jurowski, don’t rate cover photos that would make the albums more readily identifiable. One retailer, Amazon.com, charges full price – $8.99 – for a 30-minute performance of Shostakovich’s Cello Concerto No. 1, while Rhapsody sells an hour-long Bruckner symphony for $3.99 – and lists a certain Philadelphia Orchestra conductor as “Eugene Normandy.”

You can’t blame the orchestra for retail pricing. It’s illegal for them to agree a price with a retailer. This might have been a meaningful comparison if he’d compared the same product in two stores.

“A lot of this is new territory,” said Jeremy Rothman, the orchestra’s vice president for artistic planning. “The retailers are still learning how to do things, and orchestras are still learning how to present themselves.”

So “we’re not incompetent, we’re pioneers” is the story here, although “we don’t want to go to jail for price fixing” would also have done it.

On the retail side, the activity borders on mind-boggling, with huge numbers of classical files being posted in a single stroke. Over the summer, 154 titles by the American Symphony Orchestra under Leon Botstein arrived on Amazon.com, some as short as 23 minutes (Strauss’ Death and Tranfiguration) and sold at $8.99 – in contrast to the same price charged by Cantus Classics for most of the 387 complete operas it posted on Amazon over the last two years, all recordings that outlived their copyright.

Surprise surprise. Music is cheaper when you don’t have to pay any royalties. We could look into what that means for the business as a whole, but no, let’s skip on past it – even though it could have some bearing on the economics of these new releases – and proceed to some more wild speculation.

Amid such traffic, attention to detail is bound to be lacking, along with any clear diagnosis of how Philadelphia’s Alpine Symphony went so wrong, even by MP3 standards. Comparisons with other Alpine Symphony performances on MP3 are unflattering. Though the London Symphony Orchestra has long been hampered by its acoustically flat venue, the Barbican Centre, its version under Bernard Haitink has far more space and detail.

Yes. Let’s look at other restaurants in which this waiter has worked, to see if he screwed up the French fries there, too.

“I agree that there is a noticeable difference in LSO and Philly versions of the Alpine Symphony,” said Rob Wetstone, vice president of content at emusic.com in an e-mail. “LSO’s label, LSO Live, is definitely a bigger operation than Philly’s; they produce and distribute physical CDs internationally . . . and I’m assuming have a considerably larger budget in terms of recording and mastering.”

Rob, who knows what he’s talking about, suggests that the chef might have something to do with the food. Better change the subject.

Oddly, the Beethoven symphony series conducted by Eschenbach – pre-Dutoit – is completely up to current MP3 standards, with much of the sonic gleam the Alpine Symphony lacks. Same thing for Sawallisch performances, though earlier this year, files posted on iTunes had the first few seconds of some movements cut off, a problem that has since been corrected. For the more complex Alpine Symphony problem, no post-release solutions were apparent.

What the heck are current MP3 standards? To what is he comparing it? The complex problem in question here, once again, is fog and mud.

One botched recording wouldn’t be such an issue in years past, when the Philadelphia Orchestra was a leader in the classical market. Now, however, the orchestra is coming back from leadership crises – and with it, a public perception that it is in artistic decline. Though the consensus among local audiences is that Dutoit has maintained and even raised standards, communities beyond Philadelphia can only discover that through the electronic media.

You couldn’t get a quote to illustrate the public perception that it is in artistic decline? You only needed one person to tar them with hearsay, and couldn’t even do that? And how are recordings more important now? Has it become more expensive to visit Philadelphia?

Dutoit performances, in particular, require a full sound picture to reveal their worth: Though some conductors concentrate the music’s meaning into nuanced shaping of individual phrases, Dutoit presents a phrase as just one element in a clean, clear cross section of orchestral sound. When the sound is obscured, a significant interpretive element is lacking. Missed notes – inevitable in live performances – loom more glaringly.

It beggars belief, then, that Dutoit was such a successful recording artist during the LP and cassette era.

In not-for-quotation conversations, various experts portrayed the orchestra as being powerless over what happens to its sound files once they leave the distributor, since Amazon, Rhapsody, et al., encode and compress the files according to their own specifications. The lesson from the London Symphony Orchestra is that some acts of compression are more flattering than others. Is there artificial reverberation added to London’s Alpine? Audiophiles frown upon such practices, but the end product beats Philadelphia’s.

To use one blind source is weak. To generalize from a whole bunch of them means you don’t even have quote that supports your argument regardless of the context in which you frame it. You’re just making an unsubstantiated claim and then adding your interpretation to the end of it. There’s no lesson here. It might be that the London Symphony Orchestra just makes better records, and if you can’t tell if the reverb is real, it doesn’t matter.

The Philadelphia Orchestra needs to insist on its own encoding, allowing for trial and error that may be necessary in music as complex as the Alpine Symphony. Changes may be necessary closer to the source. The excellent-sounding Eschenbach Beethoven symphony recordings were supervised by the Ondine label, which no longer records here. Differences in the current microphone setup couldn’t be enumerated by orchestra officials on Wednesday. In any case, improvements are needed. (And are such dull, generic album covers necessary?)

Also, potato farmers should really require that waiters wear white. Here we are, though, just a few sentences from the end, and we arrive at the conclusion of the investigation: you don’t know why it sounds bad because you spent all your time talking to people who deal with metadata instead of speaking to anybody that was involved in actually making the sound recording, all in the pursuit of a ridiculous idea about compression that is founded in your own imagination and a lot of confirmation bias. Nice work.

The orchestra’s electronic presence has always been crucial. These days, it’s a matter of life and death.

If by “always” you mean “for the last ten years” and by “life and death” you mean “relevance outside Philadelphia”.

Comments

8 Comments

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  1. September 2, 2010

    Not to nitpick an otherwise fine rant, but the newspaper is the Philadelphia Inquirer, not the Enquirer.

    Otherwise, nice post!

    Adam

    • properdiscord #
      September 2, 2010

      It sure is.

  2. muso #
    September 3, 2010

    Many thanks for documenting the confluence of logical fallacy and vitriol in this article – I would not have been able to do this so succinctly and eloquently. It bothers me as much as it does you, and I hope this page gets as many hits as the original article.

  3. September 5, 2010

    Philadelphia is sadly under-served by DPS. He surely means well, but seems blind to his inability to communicate clearly rather than smugly. When I read his writing, I always have to take a deep breath and remember the day when he was “Dave Stearns” and wrote pop music reviews in Rochester NY. In a way, it seems he’s been struggling to make everyone take him seriously ever since, rendering himself tragically insufferable in the process.

  4. September 8, 2010

    I still liked him on MASH. Oh wait, that was David Ogden Stiers. Nevermind.

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