Imperfect Sound Forever Revisited
he article Imperfect Sound Forever has received a lot of feedback. A quick rush through Google shows it’s been linked to and discussed at length on music messageboards, on pro-recording forums, and on loads of blogs. It’s even been discussed on a couple of forums where I occasionally read and post normally myself, without them knowing it was written by me, which has been a strange thing to watch. One guy on one forum told me that if I thought music was too loud that I should just “TURN IT DOWN”—I don’t think he understood. I wanna turn it all the way up but I can’t if the waveform’s clipped because it hurts my head.
I’ve got a list a mile long of comparisons, notes, ideas, records by the same band that are compressed at different levels to suggest you play back-to-back (play Takk after Agaetis Byrjun and see how flat it feels, how the bass is like a plank of wood to your head rather than a tunnel to your guts). Points about how a flat, undynamic sound could well be (and almost certainly often is) an aesthetic, deliberate, artistic choice, as opposed to an unfortunate side-effect of the futile pursuit of loudness. Most of the mastering and mixing engineers I spoke to, and read opinions by, said that the lust for volume came not from record companies or A&R people though, but instead from artists and managers. Which is worrying. Mixing or mastering “for radio” is a lie, I’ve learnt—they compress it again anyway, so an already over-compressed piece ends up sounding even worse, and quieter!
I'm seeing all these crazy holistic links now too, like over-compression begets Popism because it erodes the attention-span. Part of me wonders if this whole loudness war/dynamic range compression thing affects far more than just mixing and mastering levels though; does it seriously affect songwriting and sequencing of albums too? Like, Coldplay's songs don't change—they never seem to have tempo, dynamic, or melodic shifts (“Fix You” changes tempo and thus jumps out of their catalogue yelling "hi! I'm Coldplay's best song!" just because, in the context of the rest of their work, it seems exciting), and is this why they’ve conquered the world? Because they sound even and flat and consistent on the radio or in the car?
People always say there's nothing wrong with the "instant gratification" culture but there may well be—how long have we been downloading, living via textmessages, IM, and so on? Fuck all time in the grand scheme of things. We don't know if it's a good or bad thing. I suspect it's a bad thing, and a very bad thing at that. Gnarls Barkley, for crying out loud! From their interview in Observer Music Monthly this month;
"We had longer attention spans back then,” Danger Mouse continues. “When we were young we had tapes, and you listened to every track. You didn't fast forward in case you overshot. And songs you didn't like turned out to be your favourites, because the album became a person. It grew on you. Now, if kids don't like the first few bars, they're gone. You've got to grab them. I tell you what the problem is—it's downloading.”Which is why they’ve put out a 14-track album that gives you change from 38 minutes, and which is so loud and so compressed that all the instruments bleed into each other’s frequencies and you can’t hear them. I think it's a good record, but I can't be sure…
Compression will continue to be abused in the pursuit of loudness for as long as the recording industry believes that louder shifts units. I don't think the loudness war is causing tangible increases in sales anymore than I think the actual notes and words and beats of music are getting "worse" though—global album sales are falling year-on-year, far less mega-million-selling records are occurring (maybe more few-million selling records—i.e. less Thriller, more James Blunt), and I think this is because the clamour to make music louder has made it less loveable, and in the long run loveable sells more. Record company people sadly don't always seem to get this though.
As additional further reading for anyone interested in dynamic range compression, Graham Sutton sent me the following link, which is intensely technical, but makes a lot of sense if you stick with it, and actually offers solutions for the recording industry. If, of course, the recording industry wants them. Music is a science as well as an art, and a lot of people would do well to remember that, as much as they would do well to remember that it is an art as well as a business.
As additional further listening, try The Drift by Scott Walker. He made a point in interviews of stating that they used little or no compression during its production, and the dynamic leaps and clarity of sound are absolutely staggering as a result. Frighteningly so, on many occasions. Also pretty much anything mixed by Jim O’Rourke, who has leapt in my eyes (ears?) from being interesting to being a hero in the space of two months. The Guillemots LP, out in early July, is also an example of how great things can sound if done properly.
I READ ANOTHER PIECE ABOUT THE LOUDNESS WAR WHICH VISUALLY REPRESENTED THE IDEA OF OVER-LOUD MUSIC BY PRESENTING A NORMAL-LENGTH PARAGRAPH WITHIN THE BODY OF THE TEXT ENTIRELY IN LARGE CAPITAL LETTERS. APPARENTLY THERE’S CONSIDERABLE PSYCHOLOGICAL RESEARCH INTO THE WAY THE BRAIN RECEIVES AND DECODES SIGNALS WHICH SUGGESTS THAT THE BRAIN LITERALLY CANNOT EFFICIENTLY FOLLOW SIGNALS DELIVERED AT CONSISTENT LEVELS. THAT MEANS THAT YOU’RE PROBABLY HAVING DIFFICULTY READING THIS PARAGRAPH, AND APPARENTLY THE THEORY TRANSFERS ACROSS TO MUSIC TOO. WE NEED FLUCTUATIONS AND NUANCES, PEAKS AND TROUGHS, UPPER AND LOWER CASE, FOR OUR MIND TO PROPERLY INTERPRET SIGNALS—IF THE SIGNAL IS FLATLINED AS CAPITAL LETTERS OR DIGITAL ZERO VOLUME, OUR BRAIN ESSENTIALLY PERCEIVES IT AS NOISE ON A FUNDAMENTAL LEVEL.
The article itself was mainly about Rush, but other than that is very good, and delves more effectively than I into the actual science and technology of the thing. You can read it here.
If you’ve got an Apple Mac of some sort running Garage Band, or any other computer program for music editing that allows you to look at a visual representation of a piece of music’s waveform, drop a track from The Drift in there and then drop a track from, say, the new Snow Patrol album. Or even the new Belle & Sebastian album—you wouldn’t expect B&S to be over-loud, would you? Stick them side-by-side and compare the waveforms. The Drift’s song will be jerky, jagged and varied across the whole range, with long passages of almost-silence (a near-flat line in the middle) and eruptions of loud sound (big spikes towards the outer limits of the diagram). The Snow Patrol and Belle & Sebastian will pretty much flatline at the top and bottom of the range the whole time. This is called “brick walling.” There are graphics of waveforms from Rush songs in the Rip Rowan article, but trust me, the new Snow Patrol will be worse. And I quite like the songs on it.
“Remastered” is a pretty dangerous tag too, because often a remaster is done with “modern tastes” in mind, meaning that “making it louder” is a more important consideration than “making it sound better.” Even for things you wouldn’t expect—the remaster of Heaven Or Las Vegas, probably my favourite Cocteau Twins album, is pretty deadening, getting confused at high levels and bringing on headaches. The Can remasters are really good, though—just listen to “Soup” from Ege Bamysai; they managed to make it more vibrant, warmer, and more detailed without making it totally undynamic. Talking Heads I need to spend some more time with. Pulp are apparently getting the treatment in August, replete with bonus tracks and DVDs and all manner of shite. Why? Their albums sound great. Why not just do a b-sides compilation? Because, of course, that wouldn't make as much money.
Part of this obsession of mine (if that's what it is) is an urge to escape the pace of the modern world perhaps, to regain my concentration span and learn to appreciate things a little more. Of course there’s a point, a line to be crossed after which you find yourself listening to sound instead of song, and the emotion and magic that captured your imagination and heart in the first place is gone. No one wants that. But equally no one wants to wake up one day and realise this thing they've been passionate about is a placatory device rather than a magical one, a flawed and avaricious and greedy little thing that makes itself ugly in pursuit of your wallet rather than your heart.
I remember a quote from the first copy of What Hi-Fi magazine I bought, years ago (to this day I've still only bought about five copies—every time I do I end up spending money on gear though), which said something like "when your collection is getting sizeable, say 100 discs," and thinking firstly that referring to CDs as "discs" was rubbish and secondly that I already had several times that number of "discs" and that perhaps I ought to get a decent stereo to play them on. I have dozens of books that I have bought and never read, because I intend to read them later, when I have the time to "enjoy them" and "appreciate them." There are dozens of CDs bought for the same reason. An unread book or an unplayed CD is just an ornament. DVDs are given as gifts in huge numbers, never to be watched. They are the porcelain puppies of the 21st century. Owning them is becoming increasingly about consumption rather than enjoyment, I fear.
Maybe I should cull my record collection of the deadwood…