Blog Post

mp3 as Sound Object

            A new lecture series entitled "InfoStructure: Intersections Between Social and Technological Systems" is an endeavor to examine and discuss the hidden complexities of information technology systems that can often be obscured by disciplinary boundaries. The first lecture was that of Jonathan Sterne, a  Professor in the Department of Art History and Communication Studies and the History and Philosophy of Science Program at McGill University. Visit his website at http://sterneworks.org. His talk was titled The MP3 as Standard Object: Infrastructure, Software and the Politics of Media Culture. 

            Sterne began talking about the history of data compression and digital formats. He started with the example of the aspect ratio. In the early 1950s, Warner Brothers standardized the television industry with a 4:3 ratio. As attendance in cinema began to drop in the 1980s, a new standard ratio was born in order to differentiate the film industry from TV and create capital through the new 16:9 format. In doing so, these standards introduce a fixed way of viewing television, in that, the moving image is confined to a predetermined limitation of the medium. 

            Sterne uses this visual example as a jumping point into the history of the mp3. Mp3 is an audio-specific format that was designed by the Moving Pictures Expert Group as part of its MPEG-1 standard. The MP3 was officially recognized as a standard in 1991, however sound recording and playback has a rich relationship to early research in telephony, particularly by the folks at the Bell Telephone Company and American Telephone & Telegraph. The fundamental principle of telephony is to get the least amount of data down a wire by compromising quality. The human ear can only access a certain range of sonic frequencies, and telephony had the idea to extract all of those tones in order to decrease the size of data. The mp3 uses this concept through a digital equivalent called encoding. Wikipedia defines an encoder as "a device, circuit, transducer, software program, algorithm or person that converts information from one format or code to another, for the purposes of standardization, speed, secrecy, security, or saving space by shrinking size." Sterne points out that there is a difference between CD audio and mp3 in terms of quality. The CD uses the .WAV file format and has a better quality in terms of file size and the range of frequencies. Although the CD audio quality is both technically and sonically richer, the mp3 still operates as the dominate file format. Sterne argues this shift happened due to the increase in file sharing and a willingness to put up with worse quality for quantity. Therefore, the mp3 became an accepted, willing or not, standard for listening to any type of digital audio. Some media theorist would call the mp3 a disruptive technology, one that rained supreme regardless of its lesser quality or the proprietary nature of the mp3 object.

            Sterne points out that more recordings exist in mp3 form than in any other form in the world. What does this mean for artists, musicians, and consumers who use the mp3 in everyday life practice? The mp3 is often considered a file format, however as a sound artist I am interested in the mp3 as a creative format. Similar to paint for a painter, sound is my medium and the mp3 becomes my art object. Sterne left me questioning the idea of sound recording and playback in relationship to the audible capabilities of playback technologies. If the mp3, or wav file for that matter, cannot technically capture a whole range of sound frequencies then where does that leave the sound artist? Given the history of media formats, the visual and sonic artist should continue to question exactly what is gained or lost in the exchange of recording and playback. The human ear alone cannot locate many frequencies in the world, let alone the mp3 object. Sterne presents the question: how does encoding file formats include and/or exclude the spectrum of sound? Does the mp3 help filter out frequencies that I can't hear anyways or does it cheapen ones listening experience?

In I Am Sitting In A Room, several sentences of recorded speech are simultaneously played back into a room and re-recorded there many times. As the repetitive process continues, those sounds common to the original spoken statement and those implied by the structural dimensions of the room are reinforced. The others are gradually eliminated. The space acts as a filter; the speech is transformed into pure sound. All the recorded segments are spliced together in the order in which they were made and constitute the work.

A contemporary art example would be Cory Arcangel's Iron Maiden's 'The number of the Beast' compressed over and over as an mp3 666 times

In Iron Maiden's 'The number of the Beast' compressed over and over as an mp3 666 times, Iron Maiden's song is compressed and a beautiful loss of quality happens. 

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4 comments


Sterne's talk was fantastic. In a related article of his "The MP3 as Cultural Artifact" (link to his personal website) he frames the issues of sonic fidelity you mention as a case of the MP3 playing the listener:

To personify the technology, it presumes that the sense of hearing discards most of the sound that it encounters, attempting to imitate the process by which the human body discards soundwaves in the process of perception. It preemptively discards data in the soundfile that it anticipates the body will discard later, resulting in a smaller file (p. 833).

 

This editing of sonic information isn't as simple as just taking out the sounds we can't hear, but involves an anticipation of the psychoacoustic capabilities of the human body and mind; it has a predictive model of the workings of the outer ear, the cochlear cilia, and the auditory pathways in the brain which it uses to tailor the sound just for us. This permits the algorithm to do things like actually remove certain audible sounds/frequencies from the soundfile and allow the brain to fill in the gaps (which it does seamlessly). The mp3, then, isn't just a (neutral) sound that exists out there that we can hear, but is a sound that exists out there for us to hear, much as there are both potato sacks and bespoke suits out there that we can wear, but while one is perfectly matched to the specificity of our bodies, the other carries potatoes. 

 



In a discussion following the talk, Sterne pointed out that the fetishization of certain lossless formats in the file-sharing community (e.g. flac) has certain ideological implications, just as we might think about the mp3 as being ideological invested in a certain formation of human embodiment. But what does it mean to obsess over lossless soundfiles which are only ever going to be heard by lossy ears? I think with regard to your question about the position of sound artists, Sterne's comments suggest that sound art can't ever be about some external/objective notion of sound which exists prior to or outside of the human listener, but is only ever about and a function (creation) of the listener. So, while it might be fair to discuss certain types of musical mp3s (e.g. low bitrate) as being some type of depraved or cheapened sonic experience given that fidelity is of central importance in regard to music (that is, music where you can "hear more" is better than music that is fuzzy or muffled), I think we should be careful exporting these cultural assumptions into other sonic terrains. In the case of sound art, it seems to me that instead of thinking of mp3 as a limit that the artists necessarily has to deal with or work around, maybe it should be thought of as central to the work itself. If the mp3 is your art object, it doesn't seem to me to be anymore a neutral expression of artistic intent than oil paints on canvas are neutral. But instead it is a specific decision made by the artist taking into account the limits and possibilities of the format, just as the painter takes into account the nature of canvas and oil and the way the viewer see these media when she decides to use those materials. Thinking about sound this way, as a function of the listener as opposed to an external state of affairs, situates the body of the listener within the artwork itself, arguably allowing for a more inclusive and person-centered artwork. 

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First of all, thanks for your comments! I think you bring up some great points about Sterne's lecture that maybe slipped through me. And it was great to do a link to his site, the content is all there.

As for your comment on the mp3's relationship to sound art, you said that sound art "is only ever about and a function (creation) of the listener." I feel as though a lot of sound art doesn't only seek to create a listener to the sound. Often times I think the sound acts as a gateway into a different topic. In other words, the sound is always the most important part of sound art therefore the mp3 exists in that space as an object. I feel as though the mp3 does create certain limits as to what the sound can actually do or how it can function. This doesn't necessarily mean that the sound can only functions to create a listener, because what if no one is every supposed to listen to it? What if the listening device or method does not need the use of an mp3 to function as an art piece?

I am thinking of this art project in particular by new media artist Yolande Harris. In the project titled "... the landscape is now an acoustic chamber ...", she forms the "idea to treat sound in relation to technologies of navigation and environmental information, questioning our shifting relationship with the physical environment in an age of technological contact. " Yolande uses sound to anchor herself into a larger environmental system. In doing so, she is merging the technical and social aspects of sound into, what she calls, an acoustic chamber. Where does the mp3 fit into this project? Does it matter? Should it?

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I have a friend--Rose Pink--who's getting an MFA in Fiber Arts at Cranbrook Academy of Art.  Most of her work lately has been in sound art, and her work's relationship to sound is pretty interesting along these lines.  She typically spends a great deal of time recording very specific sounds--people talking about music that's important to them, passages from books read aloud, etc.--but then she digitally degrades the recording until it's almost impossible to actually hear what's being said.  She then makes it part of an installation:

or an event/collective performance (For this piece--"Layered"--she used found sound mechanisms from Hallmark cards placed into blank cards and handed them out to participants to create a cacophony):

The point is not necessarily the sound itself, or the listener's ability to make sense of that sound.  It's about the situation--the relationships and orientations produced by the collective experience of sound, even when each listener does not listen to the same sound. She's still productively working through the relationship of the recorded content to the listening situation, and her work grapples really interestingly with the issues raised here. She really highlights the ways in which the individuated sound experiences made possible by technologies like the mp3/mp4 and the iPod (or, for that matter, the audio tape and the walkman) have profound social and interpersonal dimensions.  And her work asks pretty pointed questions about the relationship of sound technologies to the possibility of human community.  (Alexander Russo has recently published a relevant article adressing the public/private dimensions of sound: "An American Right to an 'Unannoyed Journey'? Transit Radio as a Contested Site of Public Space and Private Attention, 1949-1952.")

And I think her work, in combination with Sterne's scholarship, raises some great questions: In terms of the social relations of the mp3, does the particular sound matter or--especially when it's made portable on something like an iPod--is it more about the (mobile) conditions of consumption?  When I pass someone on the street, or sit across the room from someone in a cafe, and they have earbuds in, what difference does it make whether they are listening to the Mountain Goats, Bach, Frightened Rabbit, an audio book, or nothing at all?  (I'm willing to entertain the notion that, to understand our interaction more totally, it does matter...but I'm not entirely sure how.)  And finally, what does fidelity and legibility (so to speak) have to do with all this? 

I'm not sure if I've made any sense at all, and I know I've gone off on a tangent--but I offer these thoughts to the ether.

(See the pieces by Rose Pink mentioned above, along with another, on her section of the Cranbrook website.)

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First of all, thanks for your comments! I think you bring up some great points about Sterne's lecture that maybe slipped through me. And it was great to do a link to his site, the content is all there.

As for your comment on the mp3's relationship to sound art, you said that sound art "is only ever about and a function (creation) of the listener." I feel as though a lot of sound art doesn't only seek to create a listener to the sound. Often times I think the sound acts as a gateway into a different topic. In other words, the sound is always the most important part of sound art therefore the mp3 exists in that space as an object. I feel as though the mp3 does create certain limits as to what the sound can actually do or how it can function. This doesn't necessarily mean that the sound can only functions to create a listener, because what if no one is every supposed to listen to it? What if the listening device or method does not need the use of an mp3 to function as an art piece?

I am thinking of this art project in particular by new media artist Yolande Harris. In the project titled "... the landscape is now an acoustic chamber ...", she forms the "idea to treat sound in relation to technologies of navigation and environmental information, questioning our shifting relationship with the physical environment in an age of technological contact. " Yolande uses sound to anchor herself into a larger environmental system. In doing so, she is merging the technical and social aspects of sound into, what she calls, an acoustic chamber. Where does the mp3 fit into this project? Does it matter? Should it?

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