Closing in on a cure for compression9/16/2015
Virtually every medium of media has its zealots. The most well known group is audiophiles — music or sound lovers pursuing the cleanest audio sound possible. These fanatics will espouse the virtues of five-figure sound systems that deliver frequencies the human ear can’t hear but are nevertheless important because of the subconcious way your brain reacts to said tones. I don’t mean to disparage audiophiles — or any other media zealot for that matter — but to simply identify the protagonist in a digital age crusade against the most alarming of foes: compression.
As long as the ability to record sight and sound has been available, compression has existed. Whether we’re talking the phonograph, daguerreotype or kinetoscope, all forms of media started with compressed quality. Simply put, compression is any manner of compacting information as to reduce file size in effort to allow for easy delivery (i.e., degrading sound and image quality).
To understand the scale of this issue, a good example is the 2008 Nine Inch Nails album “The Slip.” As a thank you to its loyal fans, NIN released the album free of charge online at several different qualities. MP3s — the universally deemed accepted, albeit compressed, option — was first on the list. Downloading all 10 tracks of “The Slip” as MP3s equaled 87 MB of space, which is ridiculously small. But if you wanted something a bit cleaner and at CD quality audio (M4A files), the album took up 263 MB, more than three times the space of the MP3 album. Finally, imagine you’re an audiophile and you require nearly uncompressed sound (WAVE files), this flavor of the download required 1.5 GB. At 1.5 GB an album, filling your playback device with uncompressed audio wouldn’t take very long. The issue is many times worse when you get into video files.
Up until the last decade or so, compression was, for the most part, accepted. Audio Cassettes, VHS, DVD, CDs, Mp3s, .MOV and many other media types have been delivering compressed media. Uncompressed media produced files simply too large for available hard drives and media delivery platforms to hold. With the advent of unlimited cloud computing and terabyte hard drives, compression isn’t quite mandatory, but storage of absurdly large files is only the half of it.
Every online media delivery service you encounter trades in compressed media. Do they have the servers large enough to store uncompressed sound and images? Absolutely, but delivering uncompressed images and sound takes serious bandwidth. While services like Netflix, Spotify and Flickr would love nothing more than to take your money and return unfiltered media in return, the amount of new media being generated is almost untenable to store and deliver uncompressed.
Hoping to prepare their media delivery services for the mounting onslaught of media storage and delivery online, Alphabet, Amazon, Microsoft, Netflix and other streaming heavyweights have banded together to create Alliance for Open Media and develop a new streaming media compression standard. The new standard would protect copyright, be royalty-free, protect image quality and speed up delivery of streaming. Is it uncompressed? No, but much like electric cars and LED light bulbs, it’s as close to the dream as we can get at the moment. As with most forms of progress, achieving an uncompressed media standard will happen by evolution, not revolution.
Finally, there is a fringe element that must be addressed — the analog hoard. Music fanatics and cinephiles have long held vinyl and 35 or 70 mm film in high esteem. While the warmth of these mediums is impossible to deny, do not confuse warmth with uncompressed fidelity. Anyone who equates vinyl warmth to superior fidelity is not a true audiophile but just a sentimentalist who has embraced distortion. CV
Patrick Boberg is a central Iowa creative media specialist. Follow him on Twitter @PatBoBomb.