Fantastic Formats: An Exploration into the Popular Music Format Part 4

For the fourth edition of his insightful Fantastic Formats series, The Waveform Transmitter’s Andy Weights takes a long hard stare at the digital format.

This month, I will be journeying through the electric ether of the DIGITAL formats; the format of a thousand files, a hundred acronyms and a handful of software tools.

Whatever your age and tastes, if you listen to music it is likely you have entered the digital formats arena. Here, you have made choices that shape how you listen to your music, whether it be analogue or digital technology deciding how those sounds are represented.

Our pioneering grandfathers stood at the gates of the digital revolution sometime between 1950 – 1970. Little were they aware, the world was to become coded and binary would become the new music language. One of the first digital recordings from 1971 was Uzu: The World Of Stomu Yamash’ta 2 by Stomu Yamashta, regarded as a digital Prometheus. Now, in 2017 the entire acoustic world uses digital in one form or the other, from the hillbilly’s in the mountains to the shiny new kids on city streets.

Officially the digital age began in 2002, this is a point in history where the scales tipped towards the artificial, micro-plasmatic platform, forever altering our perception and senses. Allowing effortless transfer of human emotion into zeros and ones then reforming into electronic clones of the thoughtful originals, the same but altered, glitchy, Max Headroom image, vivacious synesthesia.

Digital formats come in a range of different applications such as DAB, MP3, Ableton, YouTube, SoundCloud, the list of electronic music sources is becoming infinitely longer with every discordant error fix. Auto-tune will be the death of the accidentals and the demise of our human spirit.

For DAB or digital audio broadcasting the journey began in 1981 at the Institut für Rundfunktechnik, which could be thought of as the birthplace of streaming digital data. In 1988 DAB made its first transmission again in that pioneering country Germany, the digital waveform transmitter was developed further by EUREKA, a European research group that refined audio codec and in turn by 1995 allowed pilot digital broadcasts to hit the British public’s lugholes.

Formats are evolving like a monkey in space, it won’t be long until the next bigger, better format hits the headlines. Involving compressed audio lossless FLAC files or uncompressed lossless files like WAVs. Ripping up the airwaves through 30-minute wireless downloads, perhaps 3D printers will create the disk or tape, websites will provide the files that will bring the quality of past formats such as vinyl or CD, all sent to you in a convenient folder for your computer’s hard-drive to store. Allowing massive amounts of data, this format will be the evolution and marriage of the MP3 download and the much-loved analogue formats.

The Mp3 download format is known by most, if not all people, it has been shared around the technological world at ease and even reaches into the audio deserts, such is the portability and simplicity of this format.

On the downside compression does kills the mood, like answering the phone mid-coitus, but the fact that thousands of songs can be stored in a device the size of pack of playing cards means the benefits heavily outweigh the MP3s sonic short-comings.

“‘Digital then’ has come a long way, this is ‘digital now’” I say through a vocoder effect.

Crisp and clear, the digital age has come to grips with the capabilities of digital production with modern releases showing a greater understanding and respect for the harmonic boundaries.

Ballsy and bass, producers are creating stunning audio works in unchartered audio territories, pushing the frontier further and wider, yet detailed and more exact.

Pumped with warmth and a ‘cuddly hug by a bear feel’ which welcomes you into grooves regardless of styles, the only way to ruin some of these production techniques is to listen to them on the wrong playback system.

Like scientists finding cures for our insatiable hunger, artists and their sound gurus are promising a bright, digitally infused future full of out of this world sounds and music to be ‘inside of’ as opposed to just bearing witness too.

The sonic future is always now if not sometimes yesterday such is the ferocity of evolution, our sound matters to us and people always wish to push our understanding and applications further, improving and modifying our perceptions while causing fads or short lived formats such as Mini-Disc (which has plenty of admirers even for its absence in the format hierarchy)

Streaming on sites like YouTube, or free Spotify, have changed the face of music massively, on one hand creating thousands of advertising opportunities and the chance for artists to be heard, and on the other hand allowing the money-grabbing companies to see their profits falter, which in turn hampers young acts and denies artists the chance to reach a larger audience. This then leads to independent labels releasing the music through streaming, downloading and physical presses sometimes at a greater expense.

Independent labels are the key-holders in new music and, as such, have the format control and the way we digest our music at their mercy. This new formats adventure that we embark upon is overlooked by the big companies that are responsible for their production and although private vinyl, CD and compact cassettes production plants still exist, they rely on the indie labels but the big companies will always rule the roost! They own the monopoly and in this ‘big money buys you the ears’ world, big labels dictate what you hear. The future electronic formats can break that strangle-hold, allowing small artists a platform to be heard.

Now, we have looked at CDs, Vinyl, Tape and Digital, through these formats we have found convenience and necessity at the heart of their inception. Today’s needs are met by the format choices we already have, with the needs of tomorrows listeners very much in the inventor’s hands, but maybe the idea is a social one and not a machine or physical implement.

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