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Its purpose is to point out that musical sound quality is an important part of the setting—as in set and setting—of psychedelic psychotherapy
Michael and Annie Mithoefer suggested that I write this guide after I kept pestering them with audio questions at an MDMA psychotherapy training last June. Its purpose is to point out that musical sound quality is an important part of the setting—as in set and setting—of psychedelic psychotherapy, and then to show how to avoid making basic mistakes that will harm the participant’s experience of the music.
care needs to be used in the choice of all extra-drug or environmental factors involved in psychedelic psychotherapy. A helpful analogy is to think of sound as if it were light
Psychotherapists deal in subtleties. The therapist’s frame of mind, their choice of words, body language, and the atmosphere of the spaces in which they practice all contribute directly to the effectiveness of their work. Adding psychedelics to the mix can dramatically intensify the participant’s awareness of these subtleties and, because of that, care needs to be used in the choice of all extra-drug or environmental factors involved in psychedelic psychotherapy. A helpful analogy is to think of sound as if it were light. When setting up a room for a psychedelic therapy session, does it seem like a good idea to light that room with a bank of intensely bright, naked fluorescent bulbs? Of course not. It may do the trick as far as basic illumination is concerned, but it also can make the people exposed to it feel dysphoric and exhausted. Those who work in sound production generally agree that poor quality digital sound has a similarly exhausting effect on the ears and can get in the way of the experience of enjoying a piece of music.
In therapeutic work with psychedelics, music acts as a carrier wave for the entire period of drug effect, which means that the participant spends many continuous hours under headphones. This calls for a music-playing setup that is comfortable, reliable, and that sounds good. We all know what it feels like when you hear a song (especially through headphones, often on the internet) and find yourself thinking: there is something wrong here, this sounds terrible. This is usually the result of poor quality music files or bad gear. This guide presumes the therapist’s use of consumer grade audio gear and digital music files, most likely MP3s, to create playlists because this kind of file is the current industry standard and most people use them whether they are aware of it or not. MP3s perhaps need a brief explanation.
To make the file even smaller, MP3 compression permanently deletes some of the sonic information in the original file, information that is supposed to be outside of our normal range of hearing
An MP3 is the kind of file available on Apple Music or Spotify, and the kind used for sound in YouTube videos. They are universally supported in digital music players and can sound good. They generally take up a lot less space on a hard drive than other kinds of digital music files. In fact, an MP3 can be up to 95% smaller than a comparable CD quality file. The way it does this is via compression, which means that the file is collapsed down and folded up like a tent. To make the file even smaller, MP3 compression permanently deletes some of the sonic information in the original file, information that is supposed to be outside of our normal range of hearing. This is true up to a point, meaning that if a file is compressed down far enough and enough information is thrown out, then there is definitely an audible difference – it often shows up as an awful swirling hiss in higher frequency sounds made by instruments like cymbals and in sibilant vocal sounds.
The good news is that the solutions are pretty simple. This guide, presented as a list of heuristics, or little rules of thumb, will help to navigate around basic pitfalls having to do with sound quality in the context of psychedelic psychotherapy. It is intended to be read with the simplicity of a cookbook.
Audio Heuristics For Psychedelic Psychotherapy
Choose your software. Spotify and iTunes are currently the most popular digital music players. Spotify is connected to a streaming/download service that draws its files from a catalog of over 35 million songs. iTunes does the same thing through a service called Apple Music. Both are good for making playlists and offer many of the same features. Both cost $10 per month in order to access higher quality files and to listen offline, which is important; I will explain why below.
Choose your hardware. The ideal setup is an iPod or laptop running into a stereo system that drives a set of headphones and a set of speakers, each with separate volume controls. The speakers allow the therapist to track the participant’s experience with the music and also give the participant the option to take the headphones off and stay with the music in a less immersive way. When using a laptop as the music player, make sure to turn off any alerts or pop up windows that will make noise or interrupt play. When using an iPhone or similar smartphone, put it on airplane mode to avoid interruptions and to keep the headphone cable from conducting electromagnetic frequency radiation to the listener’s head. Make sure devices are fully charged and power supplies are plugged in or on hand.
MP3s are fine. Some audiophiles disagree, but MP3s can sound very good as long as they are not too small. The size of an MP3 is measured in kilobytes per second (kbps). 320 kbps is considered a high quality file, and for files smaller than this (e.g., 256 kbps) audible distortion begins to occur. Do not use files that are smaller than 320 kbps.
Spotify Premium and Apple Music allow users to download local files for “offline” listening at settings that are equivalent to 320 kbps. This is a good option.
Use local files instead of streaming. All music files should be local, meaning they have been downloaded and live on a computer or device in your possession. This is the only way to have high quality files that play consistently. Streaming services provide lower quality music (defaulting between 96 to 256 kbps) and the average Internet connection, especially using Wi-Fi, is usually not reliable enough to stream hours of music without some kind of interruption. Spotify Premium and Apple Music allow users to download local files for “offline” listening at settings that are equivalent to 320 kbps. This is a good option.
Check the quality of your files. It is only necessary to do this when using iTunes to work with files that were not downloaded from Apple Music; that would include music ripped from CDs, transferred from friends’ computers, and downloaded from various places on the internet. In iTunes, this is done by highlighting the song in question and hitting Command-I. This opens a small screen with a number of buttons at the top; click on the one furthest to the right that says “file.” This will open another window that contains a list of information about that file. One section is called “bit rate,” and after that, it should say 320 kbps. Consider replacing files that are smaller than this. This does not apply to Spotify because, although it allows you to add files to playlists from sources other than the Spotify library, it does not offer a way to check the quality of files once they have been uploaded. With files that did not originate from Spotify, it’s important to make sure they are good enough beforehand.
Have music import settings at 320 kbps or better. Again, this only applies to iTunes. Spotify does not let you adjust the import settings. Under “Preferences” go to “Import Settings.” Then click on “Import Using” and select “MP3 Encoder.” There will be a slider that allows you to select the number of kbps. Slide it to 320. If you don’t see the slider (because you have a different version of iTunes) then select “custom” and then you will be able to move the slider to 320 kbps. All music files that go into iTunes from then on will be converted to 320.
Files convert down, not up. Information that is lost in the process of converting a larger sound file to a smaller one is gone forever. Technically speaking, you can take a 128 kbps file and convert it to a 320 kbps file but it will always sound like a 128 kbps file.
Sourcing music from commercially produced CDs is good. Commercially produced CDs generally have very good sound quality, using files that are much richer than MP3s. Rip them into your iTunes if your computer still has a CD drive.
Use good headphones. They will produce the best quality sound and be more comfortable for long sessions. Most headphones were designed to be worn for an hour or two at the gym. Good studio headphones are designed to be worn for a full work day and are therefore significantly more comfortable. I use a pair of Beyerdynamic dt-770 headphones; they sound wonderful, last forever, and have comfy velour ear pads that completely cover the ears, blocking out external noise and immersing the listener in the music. These headphones also have a ten-foot cable, which is nice if the listeners want to move around or situate themselves away from the stereo. Headphones, especially good ones, will reveal the quality of music files.
Do not use Bluetooth wireless speakers or headphones. They generally result in noticeably lower resolution sound. The sound quality of Bluetooth headphones is getting better but is still not as good as their wired counterparts. Wireless technology is still largely unreliable, and can drop out and stutter for a variety of reasons. Wired headphones also will never run out of batteries.
Do not ever use earbuds. They produce low quality sound and are damaging to the ear because the speaker is jammed into the ear canal, which, when compared to other headphones, can increase the volume of the music by close to 10 decibels without the listener noticing. Earbuds also don’t adequately block external sounds, which encourages the listener to crank up the volume and cause even more cochlear damage.
Noise cancellation is unnecessary. The treatment room should be quiet enough, and the music immersive enough, that there is no need for noise canceling headphones. The main problem noise canceling phones could present in a psychedelic therapy context is that they are so effective that they can make it difficult to communicate with the person who is wearing them.
Check files and playlist ahead of time. Listen to each playlist all the way through. It is worth doing this to ensure the subjective flow of the experience intended for the listener, but it is also important as an opportunity to catch flaws in the files. Downloaded songs, especially pirated copies, can be corrupted, have glitches, drop-outs, and bursts of digital static that sound like having sandpaper dragged across your eardrum. Replace any tracks that have issues.
Have the playlist backed up on a second device, such as an iPod. Devices can glitch and die unexpectedly.
Back up all music files on a drive or in the cloud. Terabyte drives and iCloud subscriptions are both affordable nowadays. Local files need an insurance policy.
Trust your ears. If something sounds wrong, go thru the above steps to troubleshoot. If the problem persists, consult with someone who knows about audio.
Once you have achieved good audio quality, please don’t think about any of this much longer. Focus on being with the music and constructing the best playlist experiences possible. The deeper you go into this work, the clearer it will become that the music itself is just as powerful a form of medicine as MDMA or psilocybin. This means that it should be treated with the same reverence as any other part of the process. Good luck.
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