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April 01, 2005

Digital Killed the Optical Star

I hate CDs.

When the compact disk first came out about 20 years ago, my neighbor - a German jazz fan (let me be clear - he was a German who was a fan of jazz. "German jazz" is a contradiction in terms, like "Japanese funk" or "Interesting Wendy Wilde show") who was ecstatic; the prospect of music being recorded, mastered and distributed digitally was a dream come true for this teutonic tone shark.

I listened to the first DDD CD - and was horrified. So cold. So harsh in its perfection. So...teutonic.

Part of it we can chalk up to an industry that hadn't yet learned the art of recording for the new medium. Recording is every bit as much an art as is writing and performing music; the art hadn't yet caught up with the technology.

And now that it has, I still can't stand the CD. Part of it is the fraud the industry perpetrated to foist them on us; they charge more for a product that costs much less to produce than vinyl or the execrable cassette, and the old assurances that CDs would never skip were baked wind from the word go.

No, it's that while the CD is very clear and has immense fidelity, it sounds cold and digital and teutonic in a way that vinyl never did.

There IS an upside, of course; as the technology matured, it brought high-quality recording technology down to a price that was unthinkable 20 years ago; I can do multi-track audio recording and editing on my laptop using freeware that, in the analog world, would have required a tape deck that either cost tens of thousands of dollars (for the deck alone, to say nothing of supporting equipment and a studio), or over $100/hour to rent - and with a degree of reliability that didn't exist 20 years ago.

But at the end of the day, the point is that CDs just. Don't. Sound. As. Good as vinyl.

So too now with photography.

Joe Kimball reports that Shutterbug, a Grand Avenue (Saint Paul) photography shop, is shutting down.

Shutterbug on Grand, an old-fashioned film-developing lab that has been an institution on Grand Avenue, closed Thursday, victim of a sea change in the way we take photos.

"Digital killed us, it killed the industry," said Shutterbug co-owner Debra LaFontaine. "People in America are addicted to new technology.

Photogrpaphy runs in m family - my grandparents, Oscar and Bea Berg, ran a photography studio for probably 35 years, between them. They did it the old-fashioned way, of course; Grandma even hand-colored photographs, back in the day, still the only way to assure the permanence of your colors.

(Family trivia aside: Grandma was involved in the taking and development of this classic photo, well-known to all midwestern protestants:

(Image from the "Grace By Edstrom site, from whom you should buy a copy of this classic photo right now)

End of digression.

The shop's owner says:

"I know how the livery station guy felt at the turn of the 20th century."
No doubt.

Digital photography is in an awkward stage; it's certainly convenient (I hate taking film to the store), but the price point for technology that is truly near to equal in quality to analog photography is still very high. Reading Glenn Reynolds' paeons to "affordable" cameras that are over $1000 is particularly galling , when you can still get an excellent analog 35mm camera for under $200.

And even then, digital suffers from the same problem the CD did and does; it's a cold, digital technology. There was an art to putting light to film that can be aped in Photoshop, but not (to my knowledge) on the camera itself. My daughter - who seems to have inherited the photography gene - even notices it; she specifically wanted an analog camera rather than a digital. (Note to self: Good girl).

There may come a time when I learn to tolerate the foibles of digital photography. I'm sure it will happen. But it's been 20 years, and I'm stil not to that point with the CD yet.

Posted by Mitch at April 1, 2005 07:15 AM | TrackBack
Comments

my parents ran a small photographic business in the 40s through mid 60s, with my dad using large format Kodak cameras and my mother coloring the black and white shots with light oils (tho often using heavier oils for the background, where she would highlight the colors of the client's face and clothes by integrating complementary colors in the background). The use of light, the time spent understanding the nature of the client's personality, made for portraits that certainly wuold be difficult to reproduce in photoshop!

Posted by: netsailer at April 1, 2005 07:54 AM

I'm not much on photography but I am a musician. A while ago I was transferring some old albums to CD. Not having played vinyl in quite some time, I noticed the warmth while playing the records into the computer. Also, some of the stereo effects were quite prevalent. I don't notice either of these playing the CD back.

I will confess, though, to enjoying the ease of working with digital recording equipment. I suppose if I were working on some serious jazz or acoustic songs, I might consider an analog studio but for most stuff it's just not worth the cost and effort. I'll also confess to having bought a digital camera recently.

Posted by: Thomas Pfau at April 1, 2005 08:05 AM

Let us see how archival these digital photos are in about 50 years. With the changes in recording medium every 10-15 years, I wager most of what that is being taken in photography and music/recorded sound will be unretrieveable in 50 years or less.

My 60 plus year old Kodachromes slide and motion picture film is still viewable and can be blown up and viewed with very little intervening technology in front of it. It is also archival along with black and white film.

No one cares about archival although I see newspapers are still microfilmed on to a black and white positive or negative silver halide film for long tern storage.

Getting a great many reports of CD "rot" already. Remember, one bit or byte out of place and format and the disk is unreadable.

Posted by: Greg at April 1, 2005 08:08 AM

Gotta disagree, Mitch. What we're getting now with digital is the raw data. What we got before, in sound and pics, was something less, something already altered that we just got used to.

You can still have that "warmth", if you want it, by introducing it back in on the playback side. You can manipulate the sight and sound any way you want - the only limitation is that we're still using playback and print gear that is geared for the old altered input. The next generation will allow for more individual manipulation of the raw data. That's the proper place to alter, not at the front end.

Posted by: bobby b at April 1, 2005 10:47 AM

These new fangled computers will never replace newspapers either. There's something so much more personal about low quality paper smeared with ink. All these pixels on the screen are just so cold and teutonic. :) Sorry, but I am convinced that most current audiophilia is just pseudoscience. And the old CD rot complaint? You'd think that would kinda lose its luster after 20 years or so. And really what's the difference? Since it's DIGITAL, I can have identical backups of everything- photos, music or whatever. How does the average LP sound after 20 years of use?

Posted by: Chris Matthaei at April 1, 2005 01:33 PM

These new fangled computers will never replace newspapers either. There's something so much more personal about low quality paper smeared with ink. All these pixels on the screen are just so cold and teutonic. :) Sorry, but I am convinced that most current audiophilia is just pseudoscience. And the old CD rot complaint? You'd think that would kinda lose its luster after 20 years or so. And really what's the difference? Since it's DIGITAL, I can have identical backups of everything- photos, music or whatever. How does the average LP sound after 20 years of use?

Posted by: Chris Matthaei at April 1, 2005 01:35 PM

Newspapers shall never die. I'm always hearing this crap about how online editions will render paper and ink obsolete. Baloney. What would you prefer during your breakfast; a newspaper or a computer monitor? I have spoken.

Posted by: John at April 1, 2005 02:55 PM

"Gotta disagree, Mitch. What we're getting now with digital is the raw data. What we got before, in sound and pics, was something less, something already altered that we just got used to."

Right. And there was artistry in the alteration. The George Martin and the Beatles' working around the limitations of the four-track recorder was part of the beauty of their work. Phil Spector's production of the Crystals, done with tinny AM car radios in mind, are every bit as much a part of the art as the girls' voices and the instruments.

And yes, the idea that every person that wants to can alter the final product rather than depending on someone else to alter it for them is contiguous with, say, blogging. But I'm not a photoshop guru. I'm better at recording, but it's a big jump from "I have a lot of fun dinging away at recording demo tapes" to "Did you hear what Bob Clearmountain did when he mixed "Born to Run?""

I enjoy blogging. I enjoy reading Dosteyevskii. They both start with the same raw material. Somewhere along the way there's a difference.


You can still have that "warmth", if you want it, by introducing it back in on the playback side. You can manipulate the sight and sound any way you want - the only limitation is that we're still using playback and print gear that is geared for the old altered input. The next generation will allow for more individual manipulation of the raw data. That's the proper place to alter, not at the front end."

Posted by: mitch at April 1, 2005 02:56 PM

Hey Mitch - are you gonna give up the digital writing and pick up a mimeograph so you can run off a 'Zine?

You know - this web page feels so cold :)

Posted by: brian at April 1, 2005 08:12 PM

"Hey Mitch - are you gonna give up the digital writing and pick up a mimeograph so you can run off a 'Zine?"

Nah, but I'm going to keep buying paper books...

"You know - this web page feels so cold :)"

I'll re-do it in earth tones...

Posted by: mitch at April 2, 2005 06:54 AM

I'm old enough to have a sizable vinyl collection. Though I have taken great care of them, I prefer cds and digital files because of the awful surface noise that the phonograph brings to the audio experience.

Still, I like vinyl. Nothing like that nostalgic stroll down memory lane with old fashioned records; clicks, hums and hisses, all.

To be honest, though, Mitch. My turntable needs a doctor. I've been meaning to get around to that. But doctor or no doctor, cds are cleaner sound, imho.

Posted by: pinkmonkeybird at April 3, 2005 12:25 PM
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