Sunday, December 30, 2007

Unnaturally Perfect

The Death of High Fidelity

In the age of MP3s, sound quality is worse than ever


Posted Dec 26, 2007 1:27 PM

David Bendeth, a producer who works with rock bands like Hawthorne Heights and Paramore, knows that the albums he makes are often played through tiny computer speakers by fans who are busy surfing the Internet. So he's not surprised when record labels ask the mastering engineers who work on his CDs to crank up the sound levels so high that even the soft parts sound loud.

Over the past decade and a half, a revolution in recording technology has changed the way albums are produced, mixed and mastered — almost always for the worse. "They make it loud to get [listeners'] attention," Bendeth says. Engineers do that by applying dynamic range compression, which reduces the difference between the loudest and softest sounds in a song. Like many of his peers, Bendeth believes that relying too much on this effect can obscure sonic detail, rob music of its emotional power and leave listeners with what engineers call ear fatigue. "I think most everything is mastered a little too loud," Bendeth says. "The industry decided that it's a volume contest."

Producers and engineers call this "the loudness war," and it has changed the way almost every new pop and rock album sounds. But volume isn't the only issue. Computer programs like Pro Tools, which let audio engineers manipulate sound the way a word processor edits text, make musicians sound unnaturally perfect. And today's listeners consume an increasing amount of music on MP3, which eliminates much of the data from the original CD file and can leave music sounding tinny or hollow. "With all the technical innovation, music sounds worse," says Steely Dan's Donald Fagen, who has made what are considered some of the best-sounding records of all time. "God is in the details. But there are no details anymore."

The idea that engineers make albums louder might seem strange: Isn't volume controlled by that knob on the stereo? Yes, but every setting on that dial delivers a range of loudness, from a hushed vocal to a kick drum — and pushing sounds toward the top of that range makes music seem louder. It's the same technique used to make television commercials stand out from shows. And it does grab listeners' attention — but at a price. Last year, Bob Dylan told Rolling Stone that modern albums "have sound all over them. There's no definition of nothing, no vocal, no nothing, just like — static."

In 2004, Jeff Buckley's mom, Mary Guibert, listened to the original three-quarter-inch tape of her son's recordings as she was preparing the tenth-anniversary reissue of Grace. "We were hearing instruments you've never heard on that album, like finger cymbals and the sound of viola strings being plucked," she remembers. "It blew me away because it was exactly what he heard in the studio."

To Guibert's disappointment, the remastered 2004 version failed to capture these details. So last year, when Guibert assembled the best-of collection So Real: Songs From Jeff Buckley, she insisted on an independent A&R consultant to oversee the reissue process and a mastering engineer who would reproduce the sound Buckley made in the studio. "You can hear the distinct instruments and the sound of the room," she says of the new release. "Compression smudges things together."

Too much compression can be heard as musical clutter; on the Arctic Monkeys' debut, the band never seems to pause to catch its breath. By maintaining constant intensity, the album flattens out the emotional peaks that usually stand out in a song. "You lose the power of the chorus, because it's not louder than the verses," Bendeth says. "You lose emotion."

The inner ear automatically compresses blasts of high volume to protect itself, so we associate compression with loudness, says Daniel Levitin, a professor of music and neuroscience at McGill University and author of This Is Your Brain on Music: The Science of a Human Obsession. Human brains have evolved to pay particular attention to loud noises, so compressed sounds initially seem more exciting. But the effect doesn't last. "The excitement in music comes from variation in rhythm, timbre, pitch and loudness," Levitin says. "If you hold one of those constant, it can seem monotonous." After a few minutes, research shows, constant loudness grows fatiguing to the brain. Though few listeners realize this consciously, many feel an urge to skip to another song.

"If you limit range, it's just an assault on the body," says Tom Coyne, a mastering engineer who has worked with Mary J. Blige and Nas. "When you're fifteen, it's the greatest thing — you're being hammered. But do you want that on a whole album?"

To an average listener, a wide dynamic range creates a sense of spaciousness and makes it easier to pick out individual instruments — as you can hear on recent albums such as Dylan's Modern Times and Norah Jones' Not Too Late. "When people have the courage and the vision to do a record that way, it sets them apart," says Joe Boyd, who produced albums by Richard Thompson and R.E.M.'s Fables of the Reconstruction. "It sounds warm, it sounds three-dimensional, it sounds different. Analog sound to me is more emotionally affecting."

Rock and pop producers have always used compression to balance the sounds of different instruments and to make music sound more exciting, and radio stations apply compression for technical reasons. In the days of vinyl rec- ords, there was a physical limit to how high the bass levels could go before the needle skipped a groove. CDs can handle higher levels of loudness, although they, too, have a limit that engineers call "digital zero dB," above which sounds begin to distort. Pop albums rarely got close to the zero-dB mark until the mid-1990s, when digital compressors and limiters, which cut off the peaks of sound waves, made it easier to manipulate loudness levels. Intensely compressed albums like Oasis' 1995 (What's the Story) Morning Glory? set a new bar for loudness; the songs were well-suited for bars, cars and other noisy environments. "In the Seventies and Eighties, you were expected to pay attention," says Matt Serletic, the former chief executive of Virgin Records USA, who also produced albums by Matchbox Twenty and Collective Soul. "Modern music should be able to get your attention." Adds Rob Cavallo, who produced Green Day's American Idiot and My Chemical Romance's The Black Parade, "It's a style that started post-grunge, to get that intensity. The idea was to slam someone's face against the wall. You can set your CD to stun."

It's not just new music that's too loud. Many remastered recordings suffer the same problem as engineers apply compression to bring them into line with modern tastes. The new Led Zeppelin collection, Mothership, is louder than the band's original albums, and Bendeth, who mixed Elvis Presley's 30 #1 Hits, says that the album was mastered too loud for his taste. "A lot of audiophiles hate that record," he says, "but people can play it in the car and it's competitive with the new Foo Fighters record."

Just as cds supplanted vinyl and cassettes, MP3 and other digital-music formats are quickly replacing CDs as the most popular way to listen to music. That means more convenience but worse sound. To create an MP3, a computer samples the music on a CD and compresses it into a smaller file by excluding the musical information that the human ear is less likely to notice. Much of the information left out is at the very high and low ends, which is why some MP3s sound flat. Cavallo says that MP3s don't reproduce reverb well, and the lack of high-end detail makes them sound brittle. Without enough low end, he says, "you don't get the punch anymore. It decreases the punch of the kick drum and how the speaker gets pushed when the guitarist plays a power chord."

But not all digital-music files are created equal. Levitin says that most people find MP3s ripped at a rate above 224 kbps virtually indistinguishable from CDs. (iTunes sells music as either 128 or 256 kbps AAC files — AAC is slightly superior to MP3 at an equivalent bit rate. Amazon sells MP3s at 256 kbps.) Still, "it's like going to the Louvre and instead of the Mona Lisa there's a 10-megapixel image of it," he says. "I always want to listen to music the way the artists wanted me to hear it. I wouldn't look at a Kandinsky painting with sunglasses on."

Producers also now alter the way they mix albums to compensate for the limitations of MP3 sound. "You have to be aware of how people will hear music, and pretty much everyone is listening to MP3," says producer Butch Vig, a member of Garbage and the producer of Nirvana's Never- mind. "Some of the effects get lost. So you sometimes have to over-exaggerate things." Other producers believe that intensely compressed CDs make for better MP3s, since the loudness of the music will compensate for the flatness of the digital format.

As technological shifts have changed the way sounds are recorded, they have encouraged an artificial perfection in music itself. Analog tape has been replaced in most studios by Pro Tools, making edits that once required splicing tape together easily done with the click of a mouse. Programs like Auto-Tune can make weak singers sound pitch-perfect, and Beat Detective does the same thing for wobbly drummers.

"You can make anyone sound professional," says Mitchell Froom, a producer who's worked with Elvis Costello and Los Lobos, among others. "But the problem is that you have something that's professional, but it's not distinctive. I was talking to a session drummer, and I said, 'When's the last time you could tell who the drummer is?' You can tell Keith Moon or John Bonham, but now they all sound the same."

So is music doomed to keep sounding worse? Awareness of the problem is growing. The South by Southwest music festival recently featured a panel titled "Why Does Today's Music Sound Like Shit?" In August, a group of producers and engineers founded an organization called Turn Me Up!, which proposes to put stickers on CDs that meet high sonic standards.

But even most CD listeners have lost interest in high-end stereos as surround-sound home theater systems have become more popular, and superior-quality disc formats like DVD-Audio and SACD flopped. Bendeth and other producers worry that young listeners have grown so used to dynamically compressed music and the thin sound of MP3s that the battle has already been lost. "CDs sound better, but no one's buying them," he says. "The age of the audiophile is over."


Saturday, December 29, 2007

Assholes/Fuck-Ups Of The Year, Beautifully Compiled By Bill Maher

Michael Vick

Stop saying what he did is a cultural thing, just one of those things black folks are known for, like jazz. He's not one of the Scottsboro boys, he electrocuted dogs.

Erik Prince

We used to have rent-a-cops. Now we have rent-a-soldiers. As CEO of Blackwater, the most notorious private-security contractor in Iraq, Prince has his own navy, air force and spy agency. This guy is building nothing short of a parallel national-security apparatus. Not that there's anything wrong with that, but he's a super-Christy Jesus freak who looks on the Crusades the way rednecks pine for the Confederacy.

Sen. Larry Craig

A man who consistently voted against gay interests, but turns out to be not just gay but the kind of gay who likes to get it in public restrooms. Don't people like Larry Craig and Ted Haggard and Mark Foley prove that being gay really is a hard-wired thing — not, as the conservatives always claim, a "lifestyle choice"? If anyone could choose not to have gay sex, it would be these guys, since their whole careers are built on not having gay sex.

Sen. David Vitter

Even more disgusting than Craig. Caught dead to rights as a customer of the D.C. Madam, and explained it away by saying, "Several years ago I received forgiveness from God in confession." Oh, well, all righty then, it's all good, then you're obviously not a disgusting, horrible hypocrite who runs on family values and then fucks whores at home and in Washington.

College Republicans

The place where cutthroat, amoral putzes like Karl Rove cut their teeth. They're all staunchly for the Iraq War, although none have volunteered to go, even though they're the same age as the grunts doing the fighting they say is so important. Doughy losers who, at age twenty, care more about tax cuts than girls. And lately they've been holding these "Catch an Illegal Immigrant" parties around the country where they basically play hide-and-seek with one lucky player posing as the wetback. Usually you have to be older and married before you start hating life so much you try to blame the Mexicans for all your problems, don't you?

The Solid Quarter

That twenty-five percent of America who would not desert George Bush if he ran over Dakota Fanning with his pickup truck on the White House lawn. Is it a coincidence that twenty-five percent is also the number of people who, in an AP poll of predictions for 2007, said they expect Jesus Christ to return this year!? I don't think it is.

Alberto Gonzales

At the Bush White House, a constitutional crisis is when somebody actually reads the Constitution. Gonzales obeyed Karl Rove's orders to decimate the Justice Department by firing the U.S. attorneys who weren't Bush loyalists to the point of corruption, then told Congress, I can't recall who put together the list of which attorneys to fire. But I stand by the decision to fire everyone on the list. Which I never read. Also, nothing improper occurred. And I know, because I can't recall.

George Bush

Come on, no list of assholes and fuck-ups could be complete without the Dipshit in Chief. Who will tell this president what everyone but him already knows? The theory of evolution. And the times tables. And where the sun goes at night. And that Iraq is going to be three different countries. And that everyone hates us and we've run our military into the ground and the Taliban is back and we still haven't caught bin Laden and the economy is tanking and we wasted eight years blowing the oil companies while the Earth is melting. We had a pretty nice house when this Cat in the Hat of presidents came in and made the mess of all time. And who's going to clean it all up — Rudy Giuliani?

Rudy Giuliani

A phenomenon I still don't understand. Rudy says if a Democrat is elected in 2008, we'll be at risk of another 9/11, because . . . he was mayor of New York when they attacked the World Trade Center the first time? His slogan should be "Not on my watch . . . again." And if that's not enough of a reason for him to make this list, try this: The year before he was elected mayor, the NYPD made 720 arrests for marijuana misdemeanors. In the year 2000 under Rudy, that figure was 59,945. That's an increase of . . . a lot, dude. Why am I confident that he'll be on the list again next year?

Thursday, December 27, 2007

Worth A Million In Prizes

According to Iggy Pop, Bowie's celebrated riff on "Lust for Life" was inspired by the Morse code opening to the American Forces Network News in Berlin.
At various points in the song the melody is doubled by the entire band; in Carlos Alomar's words, "You can’t play a counter-rhythm to that, you just had to follow".

Just wanted to share. Goodnight.

Lust For Life - Iggy Pop

Wednesday, December 26, 2007

Ah, The Metaphorical Powers of Mr. Asimov

British chemist Joseph Black (1728-1799) was able to show that the mere quantity of heat was not all there was to "hotness," or to temperature, as it is properly called. Suppose you take a piece of iron and a piece of lead, both weighing the same and equally hot. You place each into a separate container of cold water. In each case, the metal loses heat, which flows into the water, so that the metal cools down and the water warms up till, in each case, the transfer of heat is complete. You would expect that the water would be warmed equally in both cases, but that is not so. The water in which the hot iron is immersed is distinctly warmer than the water with the hot lead in it. Both metals were equally hot, and therefore had an equal temperature, but the iron contained more heat.

- Asimov

Saturday, December 15, 2007

The Warmth Of Your Love's Like The Warmth Of The Sun

Amoeba today--50-year-old harmless weird dude talked to me about my record choices (of course, this is a regular occurrence), they kept saying "Logan, you have a phone call" over the PA and it threw me off (it's this girl Melissa Logan who's worked there forever; we figured out a while back that she has the inverse of my first and middle names), I got Eric Donaldson ("Cherry Oh Baby") and Os Mutantes on vinyl, and they put on The Zombies like 20 minutes into my shopping experience. That song "This Will Be Our Year" came on, and it's just so ridiculously pretty and melodic; as soon as it began I stopped rifling through the stacks and looked all around at the sea of Amoebic humanity and grinned like I remembered being a teenage girl in 1968. I get this disgusting ability to get filled with an overall sense of well-being upon hearing the opening notes of a song from my parents, two people who have based their lives on Crosby, Stills, & Nash and Joni Mitchell albums. Thanks, anonymous record store employee who put on that album. You, sir or madam, must've sensed how my own warmth got rejected recently and you knew I needed to feel better--warm and cozy, if you will. Now, if you could just keep the 50-year-old weird dudes from commenting on my shopping patterns and making me even more self-conscious than I thought was humanly possible ("I saw you all over the store! You have some eclectic musical tastes!"), you would be a perfect and shining example of a human being.

[Just for the record (punny), I love weird dudes. I just don't like being abruptly made aware that some random dude has been watching me during my shopping time. It's embarrassing and makes me feel like my privacy has been invaded.]

This Will Be Our Year - Zombies

Thursday, December 6, 2007

Shut The Fuck Up, Irv Gotti

Get off my TV. Thank you.

- the management

Sunday, December 2, 2007

When You Got So Much To Say It's Called Gratitude...

I don't know what it is about today. It's Sunday and I've done nothing but go to the grocery store, change a light bulb, watch the NFL pregame show, and read the newspaper; mundane things them all, but for some reason today I had the recurring thought that I have been blessed so much it's ridiculous, and I have nothing to complain about. (I reserve the right to complain about things/life/politics/ism & schism in future entries, as I deem appropriate). This sense of well-being and pleasant amazement was no doubt compounded by the fact that I witnessed a lot of traffic courtesy (you know what I mean--people letting other people into traffic, then giving that little wave of acknowledgment) when I was driving around. That kind of stuff makes me feel like there's hope yet for humanity. I have a delicate psyche; what can I say.
I love my rooftop, the bright sunshiny reflections off the tall buildings in my neighborhood, my mom's reminders of things that really help me out (get quarters for laundry, test out the new iron on a less-valuable article of clothing before using it on work clothes), my dad's encouragement that I keep doing the Sunday crossword puzzle even though he and I don't live in the same house anymore and can't collaborate on it, Prefuse 73 at the Troubadour, my favorite red comfy romper, and home-cooked meals tonight (ribs, green beans, salad). I love drinking tea and reading the newspaper at my kitchen table. Also, I believe the children are our future, and I like puppies and rainbows.

Really though. Thanks and praises.