“The Distortion of Reality”

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On July 10, 2014, a new documentary, titled The Distortion of Sound, premiered at the Grammy Museum in Los Angeles, California. It promised to deliver “an eye-opening exposé of the current state of sound”, enlightening music fans as to what they have been missing out on by listening to the lossy audio formats that now dominate today’s music industry. Following the premiere, Harman, the company that produced the film, made it available for free on its own dedicated YouTube Channel.

When I first saw the trailer for The Distortion of Sound, I was excited at what appeared to be a polished and well-researched documentary examining the decline in sound quality at the hands of convenience. Unfortunately, after watching the 22-minute film I was left feeling confused and angry.

The Distortion of Sound is chock-full of misinformation and deliberately misleading audio examples. The filmmakers misuse and confuse the term ‘compression’ so many times that even the president of the Audio Engineering Society, Dr. Sean Olive, who is quoted extensively in the film, would have difficulty pinpointing just what type of ‘compression’ any given line of dialogue refers to.

The bold claims in "The Distortion of Sound" have been drawing some criticism from informed commentators.

The bold claims in “The Distortion of Sound” have been drawing some criticism from informed commentators.

As SonicScoop readers know, the term “compression” has two main uses in the audio field. There is:

1) “Dynamic Range Compression”, a reduction of fluctuations in level (eg what happens when you send a bass guitar through a LA-2A) and:

2) “Data Compression”, a reduction in the size of a file (often resulting from the use perceptual encoding, e.g. MP3s).

Having spent the good part of the past 10 years teaching audio engineering to undergrads, I am used to students confusing the two terms at first, and using them interchangeably. It’s an understandable mistake for students and laypeople to make.

It is however, a completely unacceptable mistake for an established audio company such as Harman to make—and to make again and again.

Their film consistently weaves between both senses of the term, referring to loudness and dynamic range compression in one sentence, then MP3s and data compression in the next without missing a beat.Interview any musician about the state of sound today, and they are likely to have something to say about either or both of these very different types compression. But it is up to the director to discern which type of compression they are talking about and to make sure that remains clear.

The film also features some astoundingly misleading audio examples that insult even the casual listener’s intelligence. At 11:20, after discussing how MP3s are ‘dangerous’ as they ‘are not what is faithful to the original recording’ because ‘portions of the original signal just aren’t there anymore’, the filmmakers play an example of what this apparently sounds like in order to illustrate the problem. In their audio example, a clean-sounding violin is transformed into a distorted, band-limited, modulated version of itself. The resulting sound is absolutely nothing like the result of perceptual encoding — not even close. The worst MP3 preset on iTunes sounds light-years better than the example presented.

This is one of several cases in which the producers have deliberately manipulated the sound to make it painfully obvious that the ‘before’ sounds much better than the ‘after’. The big and recurring problem with the film is that the kind of processing used to achieve this result is not the kind processing that the segment is actually discussing.

Harman have made a film that argues that by listening to MP3s, people are missing out on the ‘original experience’ as lossy formats sound much worse than the original. To demonstrate this, they could have played the original clip, and then the MP3 version, and let the difference in sound speak for itself. But they didn’t. Instead, they manipulated the sound clips to support their desired conclusion.

It is easy to understand why they would do this. The biggest problem facing the filmmakers is that if they had taken the honest approach, the actual difference just isn’t that obvious to the average viewer. (And certainly not when you’re watching the film on YouTube, which is another issue entirely).

Misleading sections of the film substitute in distorted and heavily-limited sound clips when discussing the quality of data-compressed formats.

Misleading sections of the film substitute in distorted and heavily-limited sound clips when discussing the quality of data-compressed formats.

It is likely that the producers of the film likely tried a legitimate ‘before and after’ MP3 test, but were not convinced that listeners would be able to hear a difference. (In many cases, an audible difference is there, but it is far from night-and-day for any layperson, and perhaps many audio engineers).

So instead, the filmmakers set out to manipulate and completely change the original sound of the file through the aggressive use of signal processing effects, resulting in a sound that is nothing like the original, but also nothing like the sound of perceptual encoding. This is much like attempting to demonstrate the difference in performance of a Ferrari with Fuel A versus Fuel B, but before testing with Fuel B, taking a moment to stop and slash the tires.

This kind of dishonest presentation pervades the film. At 12:05, the filmmakers present a drum recording, and then switch to the alleged MP3 version, which they have treated to be so far beyond distorted as to be unlistenable. The film suggests that this effect was actually the result of perceptual encoding.

Assuming that the original audio was 16-bit 48kHz and was then converted to a MP3, this would never result in such brutal distortion. I recorded the original drums from the film and tried various different MP3 conversions, (well aware that the audio is already data compressed). The result? Even a 40kbps MP3 doesn’t sound as trashed at the example presented, and this is less than 1/6th the size of a standard iTunes track today. A discerning listener will also likely conclude that some form of dynamic compression has been applied to the drums in the film—It clearly sounds like they have been hit hard with a limiter and a bucket-load of makeup gain. (The dead giveaway is the significant increase in the level of the room sound in the clip.)

The drums may very well have been converted to a MP3 after this (or before it), but all bets are off by this stage. You can’t rightly slam a drum recording through a limiter to the point where it’s falling apart at the seams, and then point to perceptual encoding as the villain. The film not only routinely confuses the dynamic range compression with data compression, but it baldly presents the sound of one as the sound of the other.

At its heart, The Distortion of Sound is a film about music as an emotional experience, and a film about data compression. It also criticizes low quality playback devices, but it is in no way ostensibly concerned with the negative effects of dynamic range compression. It is of course, also a tool that Harman is using to sell its products, as evidenced by scrolling to the bottom of the http://www.distortionofsound.com homepage.

This doesn’t bother me at all—I don’t expect a commercial company to make a documentary that doesn’t in some way promote its wares. (I think that the “Clari-Fi” software they’ve developed in an attempt to restore the original sound of data compressed audio is fascinating). What I do expect from Harman is a minimum standard of honesty and factual accuracy when presenting a documentary on an audio-related topic.

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  • AJ

    the documentary is total bs. 192kbps is totally fine for consumers. many truly blind ab tests have proven it. even blind tests with “golden ears” have proven it. the doc is using 8bit 64kbps examples to make their false point. read this http://people.xiph.org/~xiphmont/demo/neil-young.html#toc_lt

  • Rodrigo

    Only thing i know is that they have used the overheads recordings from a drum set, they slammed it really hard with a compression causing distorted sound. I was confused when i saw this video because mp3 doesn’t sound like that. The part that is straight forward is at 9:39 from the movies that is a good example

  • Andrew

    Just watched the film. As a producer/mixer, I eat sleep breathe music creation as it relates to the listener’s experience. I do it for the artist, for myself, and everyone who may listen to it. I agree, it’s a shame music has become more disposable. But wow, this film has next to nothing to offer. It seems to be a string of successful artists stating the obvious. Yeah, we know you worked hard to make your music great. The “problem” is not mp3. 192+ Kbps is perfectly representative of the artist’s hard work on almost any system shy of top tier studio monitors or hifi systems. Even that’s subjective among blind tests and golden ears. The problem is the zeitgeist of music consumption. Streaming, skipping, and shuffle. It renders the art form of the “album” less respected, and … *drum roll* … the medium of music less monetized. That’s what they’re REALLY bummed about. But no one says that in the film… Just seems like a silly defense mechanism to place all to fuss on lossy compression. If ISP and cell bandwidth were no object, we could all have 96k 24bit WAV coming from YouTube and Spotify, and yet we’d all still listen to music through the same speakers/earbuds, and it would all sound almost identical to what it does now. The film doesn’t once offer a solution with results. Perhaps suggesting people educate themselves on speaker systems, room acoustics, or even offer a little inspiration to sit down with an entire album in your living room with no distractions. Anything but this mp3 fussing! My 2c.

  • Andrew

    And I’m talking about those scenarios where the mp3 / stream really is 192+ Kbps … Lower than that, Its absolutely a bummer. But that seems to be less and less prevalent. The message of the film seems to be “all lossless audio is crap.” I don’t believe that to be true.

  • Strangebone

    After all this I’ll be less, or maybe even un, inclined to ever spend even a dime of my hard earned money on any product that Harmon has to offer. This article is simply one more piece of evidence that the public’s perception is being manipulated in the interest of generating higher profit. Criminal.