Tag Archive | MP3: The Meaning of a Format

SO! Reads: Damon Krukowski’s The New Analog

Analog revival has gained traction across many media in recent years, but perhaps nowhere so strikingly as in sound. The shifting formats and fortunes of a digitally reshaped music industry invite, for many, the counterposition of a bright nostalgic picture. Yet artists and engineers whose work has spanned the transition from analog to digital sound find that the romanticization of the former can have a weird overreach. For example, when Dave Grohl produced a digital-decrying documentary on the LA studio Sound City, engineer Larry Crane was bemused that “Grohl seems to be attributing the arc of his career to the magic in a Neve console.” Recordists like Crane find themselves in between the Scylla and Charybdis of digital-era music: on one side, the embrace of new tools that are as entangled with corporate control structures as they are convenient; on the other, a skepticism that overshoots its mark, fetishizing old technologies and cementing a previous generation’s in-crowd as gatekeepers. Decades after digital media triggered one of the most momentous transitions in sound recording, the debate around their use is anything but settled. Tied up in this contest are questions of how and what pre-digital media will be preserved, but also problems like whose use of technology in music-making constitutes authentic talent and who has authority in the determination.

When Damon Krukowski steers into these waters with The New Analog: Listening and Reconnecting in a Digital World  (The New Press: 2017), he is quick to qualify that his memorializing of pre-digital practices “is hardly a Luddite’s call” (12). Noting the “all-or nothing response” that “dominates popular discussion of the many anxieties provoked by the digital revolution” (9), Krukowski contrasts the disruption-embracing “clean break” with life on the “technological island” (8) of confining one’s practice to outmoded materials. Addressing a reader who lives more or less contentedly in a contemporary media world, he speaks as a kind of expatriate of the analog island. He, too, lives in the digital present, but he sees it through the lens of decades spent working with and listening through analog machines. His project of defending analog listening practices takes inspiration from the efforts of urbanist Jane Jacobs, who labored to turn back the tide of redevelopment and suburbanization by celebrating the organic functionality of city life. His central argument for preservation is that “what we are losing in the demolition of analog media is noise” (197, emphasis original). Noise becomes a character in The New Analog akin to the city block in Jacobs’s work: a wrongly maligned figure that has quietly formed the basis of experience and utility in the old mode.

Though Krukowski’s definition of noise is flexible in some ways, he casts the digital as its uncompromising antithesis. This position precludes what could make the book more forward-looking in its aim: a consideration that noise might become a new kind of character in the digital realm rather than disappearing at its edge. Noise shows up in analog media as buzzing undercurrents and as modes of distortion when electrical signals exceed their ranges; digital media, while lacking these, are replete with moments of failure when a system is fed the wrong kind of information or pushed beyond its intended bounds. In their repetition, these moments of error become a new kind of noise that, just like analog noise, forms an unremovable layer of our experience in mediated environments. By declining to look for digital noise and instead focusing so squarely on noise as something lost to the digital transition, Krukowski misses a chance to center a more significant linkage with Jacobs: many of the problems he sees in digital-era sound are not due to the inherent nature of digital media but rather to the same motives of control and segregation underpinning the drive toward suburbanization.

Yet his original and thoughtfully cast historical route points us toward these culprits, even when the language drifts toward a more technologically deterministic stance. It is thus that his book still provides a vibrant body of historical consideration we can leverage in using noise to reshape our digital ways of listening. The moments when Krukowski lets technology stand in for the human motives that construct it give unfortunate cover to what should be the targets of such a critique. But his real concern toward the digital era arises from specific changes in the landscape of aural awareness, and he ultimately succeeds in the task of elevating his argument above the cliché of deterministic digital-bashing by setting its true focus not on the digital but on the era.

headphones by Flickr user Chris, (CC BY-NC-ND 2.0)

Readers might be surprised, for instance, to discover that The New Analog’s first chapter covers a development in sound — the transition from mono to stereo — that has nothing to do with digitization at its outset. The chapter narrates the release of Pink Floyd’s The Dark Side of the Moon as a critical moment in consumer audio’s treatment of headphones as the ideal listening space. This movement toward individualized experience becomes a crucial part of setting the stage for the actual entrance of the digital. The design of digital media, Krukowski demonstrates, has not just carried forward this trend but absorbed it as a guiding principle, and has effected the same transformation not just in listening to music but across all kinds of daily situations. “The stream of digital information can put each of us in a different space than the others, even as we hurtle together through a tunnel on fixed tracks,” (49) Krukowski observes of the changed social experience of riding a subway. The comment makes an easy metaphoric return to music: digital design is now funneling sonic experience into a small number of streaming platforms, each promoted on the appeal of moving out of a collective listening space into one of personal curation. Claiming that a dangerous disorientation can arise in the separation of such neatly personalized spaces from their messier surroundings, the chapter closes with a cautionary tone: bad things can happen when we follow along with the digital logic of turning a once noisy situation into “a stream that is signal only” and when we stop “paying attention to noise.” (51, emphasis original).

Noise closes out each chapter, constituting the shared floor on which the book’s arguments stand. This construction calls for scrutiny, because noise is a notoriously slippery figure. As Marie Thompson notes in her recent interview with SO!, subjective and objective definitions both lay claim to noise, bringing along problems of politicized value judgment and erased context. At the same time, the term’s many meanings (electrical, legal, musical, etc.) serve as useful bridges. In Sound Ideas: Music, Machines, and Experience, Aden Evens uses noise as a primary example when he suggests a “productive ambiguity” can prompt connections that help different disciplines approach meeting points. Krukowski would, it seems, endorse this idea. He couples his formulation of noise to that of analog — an analog medium is identifiable by its noisiness, and noise is the substrate by which meaning takes hold in an analog medium.

Is it fair, though, to chain the figure of noise so tightly to analog recording that we must say it is wholly lost in the move to digital? In arguing that digitally mediated communication lacks the analog mode’s quality of perceivable distance, Krukowski lists perceptual coding — the application of “psychoacoustic research to digital sound processing” (75) — as one culprit. Jonathan Sterne, in MP3: The Meaning of a Format, points to perceptual coding’s advent as a moment when noise was domesticated. Where engineers had long sought to minimize noise, perceptual coding meant that “communication engineering exhibited a new attitude toward noise. Once you can use signal to hide noise, the game is up. Noise ceases to matter as a perceptual category.” This change in noise’s status does not eradicate it or lessen its importance, though. According to Sterne, this domestication made noise more available as a site for artistic exploration and subversion. But if noise is a key foundation on which we find meaning through listening, as Krukowski compellingly argues, and noise has been subjected to a great domestication, what does that say about the forces at work upon our listening?

A fascinating answer emerges in a thread that pops up multiple times across Krukowski’s anecdotes: the relationship between patriarchal domesticity and the shaping of digital sound. In the chapter on stereo, he includes an ad from a 1962 Playboy issue where a man carries a woman as if across a threshold; she, in turn, holds a stereo set in its portable case. The ad pairs the stereo and the wife as two laudable choices in the man’s domestic assemblage. Both are manageable enough for him to carry home, yet both promise to extend his control — Krukowski notes that such marketing material touted stereo products as letting their owners occupy “the producer’s chair” (28) by granting listeners new agency over the mix. That focus on idealized male consumers echoes still through gendered suppression in musical exchange: as Elizabeth Newton writes, “Though women have collected vinyl since the inception of the medium, female collectors, like the women musicians being collected, often lack representation in public space that is commensurate with their actual involvement.”

True to the analogy with Jane Jacobs’s struggle against the developer Robert Moses, the patriarchal force that has ingrained itself so thoroughly in digital audio is also a suburbanizing one, keyed to a politics of racial segregation that frequently cites noise as a justification. In “‘Just Be Quiet Pu-leeze’: The New York Amsterdam News Fights the Postwar ‘Campaign against Noise,’” Jennifer Stoever documents how “white press discourse on Puerto Rican migration firmly attached ‘noise’ to the voices, bodies, and neighborhoods of Puerto Rican migrants — portraying white flight to the suburbs as a justifiable escape to suburban refuges of peace and quiet and targeting urban areas such as Harlem in ‘antinoise’ campaigns” (PAGE). Regina Bradley traces this “connection between whiteness and quiet” through to a contemporary moment in her SO! post “Fear of a Black (in the) Suburb.” The history of racially targeted noise ordinances intersects Krukowski’s narration of the proto-digital movement toward private listening. He quotes LL Cool J’s “I Can’t Live Without My Radio” as a noise-ordinance-defying affirmation of boombox listening, the antithesis of headphones and their sonic compartmentalization. Dwelling on the song’s line “Terrorizing my neighbors with the heavy bass,” he points to the artist’s intentional use of noise as a political implement, bound up jointly in his listening and his music making.

For Krukowski, the song is noteworthy in demonstrating a practice lost to the wave of noise-eradicating digital development in sound. If we approach it with the consideration that noise might not have been lost but rather domesticated, however, it serves more as a guidepost. Were he looking to LL Cool J’s example as one in need of a digital-era parallel, Krukowski might arrive at a different treatment of Kanye West’s post-release revisions of his album The Life of Pablo than he gives later in the book. Rather than describing West’s changes as “art severed from its own history” (169), he could instead credit the album’s uniquely digital instability as a moment of usurping the corporate platform as the arbiter of a record’s final version — an instance of harnessing digital noise within a digital environment to reorient its assumed parameters of authority and a prompt for listeners to consider their own role in deciding what version of the text should prevail.

Though Krukowski declines to bring it to the forefront, the involvement of a domesticating and segregating force lends further weight and precision to The New Analog’s historical argument. Returning to his invocation of Jane Jacobs, Krukowski analogizes the dichotomy of street and home with that of analog and digital. “Noise has a value of its own—the value of shared space and time,” he writes. “The urban spaces we occupy are built on that commonality. The street is a noisy place. And the street has value, as Jane Jacobs pointed out” (207, emphasis original). The contrast between analog street and digital home reaches back to rescue the book from the flawed pronouncement that digital tools themselves are the problem. We are left to consider a much richer historical argument about the alarming success that efforts of domestication and power-consolidation have found in intertwining themselves with digital media.

In that light, readers looking for an actionable takeaway from The New Analog shouldn’t just unsubscribe from streaming services and start (or resume) buying vinyl records. They should redirect their attention toward the very thing of whose existence Krukowski seems skeptical: digital noise. Even though the digital home is built to confine, there are new noisy streets outside it to be explored. Krukowski recounts how the band Can endeavored to let their recording studio “compose on its own” and to become an activating, curating conduit for the sounds of tape machines. “In Can’s studio technique,” he writes, “noise and signal are equally significant materials…. the noises in it are no less human than the signals” (138). If we look for digital noise, we will see that it bears no less potential for meaning and beauty than Can’s analog noise, as artists are already proving with techniques like glitch and sampling. We as listeners can do more to help realize that aim by celebrating digital noise, by recognizing what it reveals and critiques. For a project that with less care could have steered off into the welcoming terrain of nostalgic grievance, The New Analog offers a surprising amount to point our way forward.

Holly Herndon’s “Home” uses sonic and visual sampling to turn the surveillant gaze of an intimate digital space back on itself.

Featured image: “Scenes From The Recording Studio” by Flickr user G. Dawson, CC BY-NC-ND 2.0

Andy Kelleher Stuhl is a writer, sound artist, and software developer focused on creative infrastructures and the politics of mediated sonic exchange. His work looks to musicians for inspiration and aims to apply musical creativity as a model for new paths in such domains as digital humanities and the critique of technology. His research has investigated the phenomenon of analog fetishism from the perspective of sound engineer communities and, more recently, the process and aspirations behind interactive musical works. He holds a master’s degree in Comparative Media Studies from the Massachusetts Institute of Technology and a BA in Science, Technology, and Society from Stanford University.

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SO! Reads: Jonathan Sterne’s MP3: The Meaning of a Format

The promiscuity of the mp3. Borrowed from NYCArthur on Flickr.

SO! Reads3The point that had lingered with me after first reading Jonathan Sterne’s essay “The mp3 as Cultural Artifact,” was the idea that the mp3 was a promiscuous technology. “In a media-saturated environment,” Sterne writes, “portability and ease of acquisition trumps monomaniacle attention . . . at the psychoacoustic level as well as the industrial level, the mp3 is designed for promiscuity. This has been a long-term goal in the design of sound reproduction technologies” (836).  A technology, promiscuous? I did not have to look far to find support. Like germs, I could find copies of mp3s that I had downloaded from Napster in 2000 scattered across generations of my old hard drives. Often they were redundant, too – iTunes having archived a copy separate from my original download.

But, for Sterne, mp3s are also socially promiscuous. They accumulate in the hard drives of the working class and are shared, almost anywhere, through the branching left/right wires of iPod earbuds. Since the popularization of the mp3, there have been new opportunities to share how we listen with others. This is promise of the mp3, and the reason it forms such a key point of scholarly meditation.

MP3: The Meaning of a Format (Duke University Press, 2012) finds Sterne revisiting many of these key themes, with a larger focus on the genealogical beginnings of the mp3 technology. While many of the book’s chapters are extrapolations of prior work Sterne has done regarding the genealogy of listening practices, this work concerns itself less with the 19th century, and more with the 20th century. Perhaps this is related to some of the methodological decisions Sterne has made in planning the book – in seeking out the genealogical origins of the mp3, Sterne worked from archives and manuals described in interviews by engineers who were fundamental to the technology’s production. As such it finds much in common with Trevor Pinch and Frank Trocco’s Analog Days and Dave Tompkins’ How to Wreck a Nice Beach but incorporates the genealogical methods regarding sonic technology present in Sterne’s earlier work The Audible Past and Emily Thompson’s The Soundscape of Modernity. In MP3 Sterne positions himself as a critical cultural studies scholar working between the humanities and sciences, focusing specifically on the mp3 due to its social and technological relevance today. The critical is key here as MP3 is truly a work devised to underscore the economic connections between the construction of our selves as “hearing subjects” and the media industries.

Certainly, the mp3 can still be considered a promiscuous technology, but it is corporate capitalism that had failed to recognize the extent to which it relies on technological promiscuity to support its infrastructure. This focus, ironically, displaces the mp3 as the main object of Sterne’s analysis. It highlights instead the pathological logic of corporate capitalism, and the ways that this rationality has mutated, now, in the wake of mass replicable, malleable, and iterative digital culture. In other words, the mp3 is endemic to a much larger plot, wherein the culture industries adapt to their own deus ex-machina. The naive development of the mp3 by the motion picture industry is a large part of the story here, but it is only a small bit of a much larger whole. The real story involves understanding how a handful of vested corporate interests have shaped the ways that we interpret and understand what listening is. In MP3 Sterne addresses one of the great questions of sound studies: What are the politics of listening? Or, which individuals and institutions have a vested economic interest in questions of how we hear?

Sterne recalls this drama in three parts, each unfolding in a somewhat autonomous fashion, but unified in so far as they explore the economic interests behind the scientific construction of “hearing subjects.” In the first part, Sterne is at his best exploring AT&T’s (and the affiliated Bell Laboratories’) role in funding psychological, physiological, and cybernetic research on hearing. In the second, Sterne explains how this early research has been applied to the visual and technical abstraction of sound in the 1970s. And, in the third part of this genealogy, he explains how these analogs were made digital, specifically the corporate politics which went into the construction of the mp3 standard. Throughout this surprising and detailed trajectory, Sterne makes the invisibility of corporate interests apparent and explicit.

AT&T and Infrastructure. Borrowed from djbones on Flickr.

Sterne also hints toward several powerful economic rationalities that have guided the construction of the mp3. Key among these insights is the monetization of cybernetic discourse, or the incorporation of the human body within a scientific understanding of technical systems. In order to engineer an efficient technical system, the capacities and limits of how we interact with (or serve as parts of) these systems must be taken into account. Sterne refers to this mode of engineering as “perceptual technics,” and he goes to great lengths to explain it.

Basically, at the turn of the 20th century, AT&T had taken a keen interest in the science of how people listen because they wanted to maximize the amount of simultaneous conversations broadcast through a single telephone wire. More conversations meant the purchase of fewer wires, and therefore greater profits. Eventually, drawing on the research of the oft-cited Claude Shannon and Warren Weaver (within SO!: What Mixtapes Can Teach Us About Nois and Pushing Record; and soundBox: Mapping Noise), AT&T recognized an economic problem of technical efficiency within their wires – there was too much ambient noise. Because of this, AT&T sought to limit the audible signal transmitted from one phone to another. This would allow for more signals (and therefore conversations) to be transmitted through the same wire. Physiological research provided clues that some frequencies were more audible than others, so engineers worked to compress audio signals to reflect this scientific abstraction of hearing.

The scientific capture of listening. Borrowed from img.informer.com .

The reduction of listening–as an embodied practice–to the quantification and control of the audible spectrum, is, in other words, the history of compression. Which, according to Sterne, should be understood as the true meaning of the mp3. While the mp3 format, like the CD or cassette, may become obsolete, technologies of compression will not. Sterne argues convincingly that most advances in compression technologies have been guided by the invisible logic of corporate capitalism. It is this exact tendency of compression–to make things smaller and more efficient–that threatened to undo the entire project of corporate and branded music distribution in the year 2000, via platforms like Napster.  Sterne is well aware of this irony throughout MP3, and uses the final chapter to discuss, briefly, the moment of cultural transformation that is defined by file-sharing and mass distribution.

Bringing things full circle with a somewhat stoic conclusion about the democratic potentials of this moment, he remarks: “The end of the artificial scarcity of recording is a moment of great potential. Its political outcome is still very much in question, but its political meaning should not be” (224). Sterne points to the globalization and ubiquity of mediated listening as a sign that things may not have changed much even though mass networked society at one point promised freedom from a commodity form which privileged things like “liberal notions of property, alienated labor, and ownership” (224). He argues that even the music industries shall persevere, mostly because people have a sublime attraction to listening and music. In other words: Meet the new boss, same as the old boss. There are few moments of liberation to be found within MP3; it is instead a drama of the status quo where the conspirators of corporate capitalism succeed in spite of themselves.

The ubiquity of listening. Borrowed from κεηι on Flickr.

The disparity in Sterne’s tone, when juxtaposing the nefarious and efficient dispositifs of capitalism with an untroubled and authentic construction of music is striking to say the least. And although Sterne is clear to explain that he locates his scholarship as work on a container technology (the mp3) and not its content (the music), this is a somewhat unsatisfying distinction as an embodied practice, such as listening, must take both into account. And while I agree that the mp3 reflects the promiscuity of corporate capitalism, is this challenged by the plethora of ideological nuance coded into song lyrics and arrangements? Do the corporate ideologies of the music industries flow beyond the container of the mp3 into the music itself? Is there any crosstalk, or overlap between these historical constructions? In other words, what are the limits to theorizing a container technology, and how much does the discursive path of the mp3 sculpt the content of what we listen to?

Despite, or perhaps, because of the rather dystopic scene that Sterne alludes to at the end of MP3, it falls nicely in the space between Sound Studies and Critical Information Studies. It bridges humanistic scholarship on embodied listening practices with a critique of the economic interests that have funded much of the scientific research relating to the phenomenology of sound. To that end, MP3 reveals much about the social construction of hearing and the ways that the familiar mythology of audio fidelity has been produced, discussed and exploited by several communication industries. Even though the mp3 may have been eclipsed by industry as the main object of inquiry in the eponomously titled MP3, Sterne succeeds admirably in detailing the promiscuity of corporate capitalism in the listening practices of our everyday lives.

Aaron Trammell is co-founder and Multimedia Editor of Sounding Out! He is also a Media Studies PhD candidate at Rutgers University.

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