As more listeners turn to music downloads and the compact disc seems headed for history's scrap heap, a growing number of artists are making a renewed effort for better-sounding tracks, online and on disc.
It's generally accepted that regular MP3 music files compromise CD sound quality for convenience and portability. (Some listeners argue that even CDs are less than optimal.) Last year, Amazon and iTunes made concessions to upgrade the quality of their download tracks.
Some artists want the bar raised even higher. Metallica announced last week that its upcoming untitled album, in addition to being released on CD, will be available as a higher-quality digital download ($12) and on audiophile vinyl in a limited-edition $125 boxed set. It's due this fall.
In technical terms, one measure of quality is the amount of data per second of music; more is better. Standard tracks often are 128 kilobits per second; Amazon's and iTunes' are as high as 256 kbps. Metallica's tracks will raise the data rate to 320 kbps.
Also from musicians:
•High-resolution downloads. Nine Inch Nails' frontman, Trent Reznor, began giving away The Slip album via download last month. In addition to a higher-quality download, other free versions include several better-than-CD music files, including a "high definition" stereo version.
The recently launched HDTracks.com from audiophile label Chesky Records has better-than-MP3 downloads of albums from Jerry Garcia, jazz artists such as Bob James, blues stars such as Son Seals and vocalists Bing Crosby and Tony Bennett (typically $12). Co-founder David Chesky calls the 320-kbps format "not quite as good as CD quality but good for portable" listening.
HDTracks.com also plans to offer better-than-CD high definition and DVD Audio downloads in the future.
•Better discs. John Mellencamp's upcoming Life, Death, Love and Freedom CD, due July 15, will come with, at no extra charge, a high-definition DVD stereo version that will play in most DVD players. Producer T Bone Burnett and his engineering team developed the DVD music technology because they grew exasperated about the state of digital music. Listening to the high-res disc, "I could hear the music the way it was intended to be heard," Mellencamp said in a statement.
Neil Young recently announced that the first volume of his long-awaited archives project would arrive this fall on 10 Blu-ray Discs. The rocker, who has long decried the sound of CD and digital recording as brittle, says, "Previous technology required unacceptable quality compromises." In addition to HD video, Blu-ray Disc players support the playback of high-resolution music beyond a CD's dynamic range.
•Vinyl. Renewed interest in what some consider the more realistic sound of vinyl LPs continues with the re-release June 24 of Liz Phair's Exile in Guyville on CD and audiophile vinyl, as well as in Amazon and iTunes' higher-quality downloads. That same day, Tom Petty's side project Mudcrutch, out on CD a month ago, arrives in a special $30 audiophile CD/vinyl LP package.
Mudcrutch engineer Ryan Ulyate says he and the musicians felt they had to compromise on the mass-market CD. That's because, in general, most popular music CDs are mixed to sound louder for use in cars and for conversion into MP3s. "That makes it really unsatisfying to listen to," Ulyate says. "We have this loudness war that has destroyed the way CDs sound, and we're trying to find a way to get off this spiral."
The original studio recording "has life and dynamics," Ulyate says, "but we are the only people getting to hear that now." He says the audiophile CD is "hands-down better" than the current CD for listening at home.
Since the CD's arrival more than 25 years ago, purists have criticized the format because it reproduces only a portion of the sound of a musical performance. MP3 and other compressed formats reproduce even less.
"Let's say a classical violinist spends $3 million on a Stradivarius. When you play that back you want to preserve every ounce of that tonality. But you destroy it with (MP3s)," says Chesky, a composer and jazz pianist. "We have the technology to deliver really superior quality. We need to develop a consumer base."
Burnett says, "We work for months to get an album to sound a certain way, and the thought that somebody disconnected from the process in the studio would have so much power over it was no longer acceptable."
He believes the music industry's decline has left an opening for artists to influence quality standards. "Every musician I have discussed this with is incredibly concerned about this," Burnett says.