Removing Murphy from Moore: A Conversation with Damon Krukowski

On a recent Saturday afternoon at the Rough Trade record store in Brooklyn's colorful Williamsburg neighborhood, musician/author Damon Krukowski and New York Times music columnist Ben Sisario sat before a small crowd of music enthusiasts to discuss Krukowski's book, The New Analog: Listening and Reconnecting in a Digital World.

Krukowski began the conversation with a brief overview of the book, including a summary of its provocative opening thesis, Murphy's Moore's Law, which balances the old familiar Murphy with the more recent Moore. The former states that anything that can go wrong will go wrong, while the latter describes the tendency of integrated circuits to approximately double in power, speed, and capacity every 18 months.

Combining these observations in The New Analog, Krukowski asserts, "…if aspects of a given technology functioned better before the introduction of integrated circuits, they must be getting worse at the same fantastic rate. Twice as bad, every 18 months…"

At Rough Trade, Krukowski was just as blunt: "What if what we have is getting worse just as it's getting cheaper, faster, and smaller?"

For many, the convenience that comes with making things cheaper, faster, and smaller is a crucial aspect of quality—perhaps even the primary aspect—but for the audiophile, Krukowski's question remains particularly poignant. And while he would not refer to himself as an audiophile, Krukowski shares the audiophile's concern for deep engagement with music and media.

To be clear, Krukowski is not at all interested in denying or obliterating Moore's Law—he, too, finds much to appreciate in the speed and efficiency of today's digital media—but he does want to remove as much of the Murphy as possible.

While reviewing The New Analog for Stereophile, I had the pleasure of exchanging a few emails with Damon Krukowski. He hopes to continue the conversation with AudioStream's readers.

Damon Krukowski

Stephen Mejias: Can you trace your interest in sound to a specific moment in time? What is your earliest memory of having a fascination with sound?

Damon Krukowski: My mother, Nancy Harrow, is a jazz singer. She sang to me from the very beginning, and played music (both live and on records) in the house. So I guess I was born with a discography!

SM: How and where do you listen to music most often? What kind of audio system do you have at home? How do you listen to music while traveling?

DK: I still listen most to albums—LP and CD—on my home stereo. But I make use of digital listening, too, especially when traveling. My preferred way of listening to digital is from my own transfer of tracks to iTunes (using AAC), and, if via headphones, I use the CanOpener app to mimic crossfeed between L/R channels; I find that makes for much more comfortable listening!

I also end up listening to a lot of our own music as we make it, of course, but that's in our home studio, which is a digital/analog hybrid. I track to hard drive using Digital Performer [digital audio workstation], but mix on an analog board. There I use an old Crown amp powering the classic Yamaha NS-10 bookshelf monitors. I know those speakers have lots of detractors, but I'm very used to them and they help me predict what will end up on the final mastered product.

SM: The audio engineers with whom I've worked often define noise as "misplaced vibrational energy," which has no meaning, cannot be turned into intelligible sounds, and inevitably comprises our relationship with music. This is distinct from things like tape hiss or the "pops and ticks" of old LPs, which audio engineers might describe not as noise but as properly reproduced sounds that we simply wish didn't exist.

Is there a difference? How do you define noise?

DK: I am drawn to a more anthropological definition of noise—noise embedded in a mesh of cultural meaning. Noise has meaning, in other words, regardless of how or why it is produced. My book is an effort to describe aspects of that meaning, as we receive it through both analog and digital media.

"Noise has meaning. . .regardless of how or why it is produced."
SM: In the section of The New Analog titled "Thick Listening," you write: "If you listen closely enough to an analog recording, you hear all its sounds preserved together: the signal and the noise." And later in that same section, you continue: "My digital listening is to signal alone. I hear the notes but not the space between, or the depth below. It's listening to the surface without the noise."

In my review of The New Analog, I wondered whether what you're describing here is not so much the difference between analog and digital but the difference between dedicated listening (or listening as an event unto itself) and listening as supplement to some other event (commuting, bicycling, working, etc.).

What do you mean when you say that you're "listening to the surface without the noise"? How does casual listening equate to "signal alone"?

If we listen to a digital recording closely enough, would it be possible to hear all of its sounds (signal and noise) preserved together?

DK: I was describing my own digital listening habits in that passage. I wouldn't put it past someone else to listen better to digital music, but I find myself distracted more quickly when listening to it. That said, I once had a transcendent experience listening to a Joao Gilberto album via iTunes on an airplane—but I was on Xanax at the time!

As for whether we can listen thickly to a digital recording, I don't doubt that there are digital recordings that invite that kind of engagement—and, if there are not, I hope there will be one day. But again drawing on my own experience, I find that [digital recordings] tend to be constructed more graphically. That is, even if they are dense, they feel more all on one plane.

But maybe audiophiles have found depth in digital listening that I am not describing—using better equipment, for example. I would be interested to learn more about that. I'm not a hi-fi expert and have not explored the less usual means of listening.

SM: Very early in your book (p.11), you write: "Analog media always include noise...but never eliminate it. Digital media are capable of separating signal from noise absolutely." Later, on page 139, you write: "In analog recording, the medium contributes sound alongside the musicians. That's the fairy dust of tape: noise as part of the signal."

Is it correct that digital media are capable of separating signal from noise absolutely? Many audio engineers have told me that this is impossible, that, in fact, noise always exists regardless of whether we're working in the analog or digital domain.

In hi-fi, we're often concerned with jitter—digital timing errors that result in thinner, more abrasive, less dimensional overall sound. Is it possible that the analog noise you describe is simply more beautiful, or more musical, than digital noise?

DK: In the book, I discuss the difference between analog and digital distortion, which I feel is a difference between program-dependent noise (thus, "musical," or at least potentially so), and not. But distortion is not the full story about noise, which covers other ideas as well as the artifacts you describe.

"In the digital-media environment, signal and noise are often defined by others rather than by us."
Noise, as I use the term in the book, is whatever is not signal, which means it is different at each moment we shift our attention. It is a flexible category—until it is not, which is what I feel is happening through digital software and platforms. In the digital-media environment, signal and noise are often defined by others rather than by us. That is the political conclusion to my book. I want to alert people to how often we are surrendering the terms of that definition in the digital world.

SM: Does digital media as provided by streaming services such as Tidal and Spotify necessarily foster superficial, fleeting experiences?

DK: I wouldn't say anything in music or art is necessarily received one way or another. Our experiences are our own to shape, which is why I am not anti-digital and use it myself. But I do think that companies like Spotify, Apple Music, and so on have less of an interest in inviting us to shape our experience of media freely than they do in determining (and predicting) that experience as precisely as they can.

SM: Can the convenience and immediacy of pure signal coexist with the quality and depth of noise?

DK: Yes, I am sure they can because they do all the time: signal and noise are mixed in our experience of the world and of one another in society. Why not work to insure our digital communications mirror that?