My name is Matt Glenn. I am a student of music technlogy and sound engineering at the University of Michigan in Ann Arbor. Outside of class (and sometimes during) I do a ton of thinking about music and audio engineering. This blog is a my attempt at organizing my mental maelstrom.

Matt Glenn

Monday, March 29, 2010

iTunes 5.1: New Quality in Downloadable Music

I was reading an article recently about an artist who was signed to a half-century-old record label in 2007 with high hopes for her career and for the label. Three years later, it is reported that she began stripping to keep herself on her feet. There really is nothing consistent or reliable about the music industry except that it is always in a constant state of flux. Even a mere decade ago, everyone bought music on CDs. Yes, BOUGHT. These days, listeners have ample opportunities to listen to music for free without breaking a single law (sources such as youtube and grooveshark make it easy). And more often than not, music serves as a background while the listener does something else.

I'm not complaining about any of this. Things change, and if you can't accept the new ways then commercial darwinism will quickly slap you out of your jadedness. Plus, mass access to music opens up a plethora of opportunities for musicians and producers like myself to collaborate with other types of artists and create new uses for our tunes.

I have a theory, though, that there is a way to present music of all genres in a new medium that is creative and fresh yet not too bold or expensive: surround sound music. It's not completely new—SA-CDs have been around for a while, and many electronic artists, such as BT, release DVDs featuring surround mixes of their music. But it hasn't caught on just yet. Maybe too few listeners own surround systems, maybe listeners just don't have the patience to experience or the ear to appreciate a surround mix. Even in film, surround sound is a drastically over-hyped and misunderstood for film viewers outside of the business. It has to start somewhere, though.

Imagine the setup: music that is already popular suddenly emerges on iTunes in "exciting new 5.1 format!". Users can download the tracks the same way they always do, but the filesize is a bit larger and the format changes a bit. As of now, the mp3 format does not support multichannel audio, but it would be very possible to design a 5.1-compatible lossy format. One might argue that this format would alienate listeners who do not own a surround system (hell, I don't even own one myself). I think this is just a way of the audiovisual world. Blu-rays, LCD flatscreens, and HD cable channels are luxuries, sure, but sales have shown that people like high quality stuff. Even with regular stereo iTunes music, higher quality speakers (and perhaps a subwoofer) enhance the listening experience. Prices for surround systems have drastically decreased in the past decade, and many can be connected directly to a computer via USB or the built-in sound card. And for all those music pirates out there—discrete 5.1 channel audio files are not exactly a standard format. Yes, I'm sure it can be done, but it would take a long time before the files would become as convenient as mp3s, and during that time iTunes could be the sole-provider of its own downloadable format.

Surround music would also change the music creation process for producers and engineers, before the music even hits the listener base. Advents in technology have made home-studio music production a reality, commercially jeopardizing many studios and putting studio engineers out of a job. Mixing well in surround is no simple task, and if surround music caught on then studios and engineers with surround capabilities would see a rise in demand, even if only slightly.

I admit that surround music would not drastically change the industry, and really the industry does need a bit of an overhaul. The old business plan did not account for the fact that people want to hear music for free and will do just about anything to pay nothing. But the nice thing about downloadable surround music is that it does not cost much more to produce, and could bring in a profit if advertised well. I even heard an [unconfirmed] rumor that broadcasting companies had talked about 5.1 radio broadcasting as a possibility, which of course would compliment 5.1 music downloading wonderfully.

Maybe I'm just one of those bitter music engineers who wants listeners to sit down in front of two high-quality, well-placed speakers and truly appreciate the work I put into the music; that said, most people I talk to simply lack this opportunity to do so, not an interest. And if they get excited about high-quality stereo music, I bet surround could make them drool...

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