CD's: Greater Than The Sum of Their Parts

back before digital music became standard, when cd's were still the cutting edge technology the world of music was a completely different landscape. the terrain and routes through it determined solely by the musicians themselves.

i never really thought about the sequencing of songs on a cd. it always seemed irrevelant unless it was a 'concept' album. but lately, as my music listening has shifted from using cd changers to using mostly my computer, it's begun to occur to me that just like in many other aspects of life, while those individual songs can stand alone, together as a complete album, they become greater than the some of their parts. while reading the writings of neil peart, the very literary drummer for rush, my theory was given validity when he noted the careful selection process they go through to determine the order of the songs on a cd.

in the past, before mp3's and wma's; before just a click of the mouse was all it took to turn a cd into a dozen or so files on our harddrives, it was always the artists who determined how the songs on a cd would flow from beginning to end.

there were audio cassettes, of course. where the patient person could record and mix different songs together into any arrangement they saw fit. as the child of a professional mobile dj i made my share of mix tapes on various hand-me-down cassette decks, but that process was long and tedious. and even worse, once the tape was recorded that was it. those were the songs. that was the order. later came the random and program functions of cd players. personally, random never worked for me. it worked physically, but not spirituallly. and programming tracks is too tedious for the player only to forget when it was turned off. but with a winamp or media player the playlist is everchangaeble. a simple click and drag puts jon oliva's 'walk alone', currently song one down at position ten. or removes candlebox's 'far behind' at song three and replaces it with rush's 'roll the bones'.

but there is one other major drawback to listening to music via the computer. i was burning data cd's yesterday and all that cd usage was causing serious skippage in my digital music playback. so i decided to use my old fashioned cd player instead. i listened first to jon oliva's pain cd. i had already had a bunch of the tracks from that cd in media player. but now it was the whole album in the artist's designated sequence. and it sounded completely different. it was better.

it's important to note that music playback from my computer, for the most part, doesn't suffer audio quality loss, as i have my sound card plugged into my audiophile quality team of myryad amp and preamp assisted by a very respectable pair of monitor audio silver 9i tower speakers.

all music (that i listen to anyway) seems to suffer this syndrome, though to varying degrees. with one notable exception. acoustic songs. in particular, songs with only voice and a single insturment; either acoustic guitar or piano. maybe some sound engineer can explain this to me. chevelle's 'one lonely visitor' most memorably. i was once on the phone with comcast tech support and that song was playing in winamp and the technician actually commented, 'do you have a concert going on over there?'. 'hopelessly' by train, 'this is your life' by dio, and 'i never cry' by alice cooper, also seem to improve through digital playback.

it's the more intricate stuff that really suffers. the real music. the kind people write to create art, not money. now, some would argue that it's simply because my digital music files have a lower bitrate than factory recorded cd's. but it's not the sound quality where i hear the difference. i'm someone who still acknowledges the superior sound quality of vinyl lp's. so much so that i bought a basis 1400 turntable, a graham robin tonearm and a benz micro gold cartridge to listen to only a handful of vinyl records (savatage, rush, tool/a perfect circle). it sure would be cool to be able to get beethoven's last night on vinyl.

only a few weeks ago, i had finished setting up my stereo after having to disassemble and move it for the room to be painted. i had finally gotten around to setting up the turntable and properly adjusting the tonearm. so naturally i had to give it a listen. i put on savatage's 'the wake of magellan' and selected the track 'the hourglass' particularly for its intricate layerings of pianos, guitars, and what sounds like an entire orchestra, and for it's use of multi-layered voices singing different lyrics overlapping eachother (counterpoint, i think it's called). the unfortunate thing about vinyl records is that you have to turn them up so loud to really feel the difference. so most people never realize the what they're missing. also when listening to vinyl, headphones seem to provide a more in your head feel.

but once i had the amplifer at a sufficiently loud enough volume, eyes closed and the headphones pressed tightly to my ears i became completely lost in the music. consumed by it. so when i talk about the difference between listening to songs on your pc of your own chosen playlist and listening to cd's as whole i'm not referring to sound quality. i'm referring to the flow of the music. the individual songs coming together to become an album that is ultimately greater than the sum of its parts.

it's the difference between hearing one song standing alone surrounded by strangers and hearing all the songs of a single cd united; surrounded by their complimentary counterparts. flowing into and out of eachother as if making love.

while all the music i choose to listen to seems to be effected to at least some small degree, some albums that i feel are most profoundly effected by this syndrome are, days of the new's red album, rush's vapor trails, tool's lateralus, definitely trans siberian orchestra's beethoven's last night. the later savatage cd's. believe it or not, dio's holy diver. though i always thought of his music as rock pop, it seems to be effected, though not as profoundly. and the older black sabbath albums. i can't even listen to them except on cd. there are certain songs on beethoven's last night that i love so much, if i try to add them to a playlist, i actually dislike them. however, when these cd's are listened to in their original sequence those individual songs come together to create a whole that is much greater than the sum of its parts.