Year in Music: Rather ripped

Chasing the phantom of perfect sound
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I traded one obsession for another in 2007, a tedious game of music on a Möbius strip. Eleven months ago I had some 10,000 CDs — few of them ripped — a couple of 150 gig hard drives packed with MP3 files, and a tiny apartment with no room to move, and I mean it. So I ripped and I ripped and I ripped some more — disc by disc, day after day, week after week. When I looked back, I'd moved the music from 5,000 CDs to a quartet of 250 gig GDrives, and I was ready, sort of, to head for Amoeba Music's buyback counter. It seemed like a good idea at the time.

The shadow of Steve Jobs hovers, uncomfortably close to my soul. I'm all Apple, all time — it's a ball of convenience that picked up steam over the years until process became pleasure, a mystery dance played out in zeroes and ones. Classic? Nano? Touch? Shuffle? I have iPods like some people have shoes. CDs? Vinyl? Not in these parts.

It wasn't always so. I once had speakers that cost more than my car. They'd generate music so thick, rich, and three-dimensional I could swim in it — and that was straight. Did you ever listen to Jimi Hendrix doing Bob Dylan's "All Along the Watchtower" on audiophile headphones? Were you ever experienced? So much the better to appreciate a guitar that spoons down and back up, constrained and compressed — a short loop that suddenly wah-wahs into a new dimension. As a woodblock reverberates in the distance, Hendrix greets the howling wind with an exhilarating roar of his own.

But that was then, apparently, because now is all about MP3 files. Besides, I live in Los Angeles, and people go out in LA. Who wants to spend life stoned, listening to music in a fucking apartment? I can pack the essentials onto a slim, white, 160 gig object, hook it to a noose around my neck, and have more music than I will listen to in the next five years — never mind the obvious question. I've got a score for the car wash, for grocery shopping, for the laundry, for my commute.

I love music as much as I ever did, yet digital toys shape not just when and where I listen but also how it sounds. It's not just that the frozen food aisle at Safeway isn't ideal for anything other than frozen food, much less listening to the new Radiohead album, In Rainbows (self-released), or the Flaming Lips' 2002 masterpiece, Yoshimi Battles the Pink Robots (Warner Bros.). I heard both this year while purchasing ice cream. The truth is MP3s sound like shit.

Fortunately — or not — technology is cooperating on the other end. Of course I'm all for Pro Tools, the M-Box, and opportunity in our fabulous democratic world. This is the era of the bedroom studio. You too can have a hit record — DIY, and I mean it. Much if not most of the music I run across these days, no matter how well crafted and played, sounds like it was recorded at home. Which is to say, one might as well download a tune, put it on your iPod, and head out for the market.

There was a time when the recording studio was a place to explore sonic possibility — where music was enhanced with richness and surprise. Those days are gone, lost in the dot-com world, and damned if I'm going to be a square wheel. I got so busy ripping and keeping up that it was months before I knew what I was missing.

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