Wednesday, December 06, 2006

Well That Explains it!

As of late I have noted that I am less and less inclined to listen to the latest in music. It just doesn’t seem to speak to, connect with or resonate with me anymore. Yes, of course there are exceptions to this rule, but by and large this has become the norm. Then of course I remembered as a teen saying that my parents just didn't "get it" when it came to the music I listened to. So this prompted me to consider what had changed for me vis-a-vis my appreciation of today’s music. Was this a factor of age or perhaps of some other variable that I was unaware of?

Then I came across this article by Nick Southall in Stylus Magazine: “Imperfect Sound Forever and became enthralled. He forwards that:

  • One result of [overcompression] is that modern CDs have much more consistent volume levels than ever before. But when is it desirable for music to be at a consistent volume? When it's not being actively listened to; i.e. when it's intended as background music.

  • Music isn't meant to be at a consistent volume and flat frequency; it's meant to be dynamic, to move, to fall and rise and to take you with it, physically and emotionally. Otherwise it literally is just background noise ...

  • Music is about tension and release. With very "hot," un-dynamic music there is no release because the sensory assault simply doesn't let-up.

  • ... people I see out and about wearing walkmans or MP3 players seldom seem to tap, or nod, or hum along at all though; instead their gazes seem fixed with a steely resolve, their bodies tense and their minds seemingly tenser. To me that isn't the body language of someone enjoying music.

  • People are forgetting how to listen, and who can blame them?

Now this would explain why I tend to gravitate to music that was recorded in the 70's, 80's & early 90's:

Take a look at these two graphs. The original is Abba's "One of Us" as recorded in 1981. You can see a wide dynamic range. The second graph is "One of Us" remastered in 2005, compressed to make all of the sound-wave "big" and louder.

Pull out a record from the 70s or early 80s, and listen to it. Odds are it'll have a big dynamic range -- it'll be whisper-quiet in some parts and booming loud in others. You'll pick up new nuances every time you listen to it. Now listen to any music track recorded in the last ten years, and it'll be radically different. That dynamic range is gone: The entire track is loud, all the way through. The sound sounds a lot more intense, and it "grabs" you more quickly the first time you hear it. But does it still reward re-listening?

Southall argues that the "loudness wars" are destroying music. Record labels for decades have tried to make records louder, on the mostly-correct theory that louder music is more likely to pull you in on first listen. But the way you make music louder is via "compression". In a normal recording of music, the loudest parts -- the peaks -- are much higher than the quietest ones, the valleys. Compression shrinks the difference between the peaks and valleys, so there's less dynamic range; this frees up more room up top so you can boost the whole volume of the entire song.

So now I get to feel better about telling my 12 year old to turn her music down - after all it's all Muzak to an old geyser like me isn't it?


Collin said...

I've consistently argued with technophiles that my vinyl records sound better than any CD I've ever owned...and I still believe that to be true. I still buy vinyl when I can get it. Kate Bush sounds better on vinyl any day.

I have to admit that I do download a lot of music now and I'm about to purchase my first iPod. Yes, it's inferior sound, but I'm a victim of the times. Sigh

Susan Och said...

Classical cds still feature what our piano teacher calls "dynamics". It makes them harder to use as background music, or to listen to in the car where the noise of the car drowns out the sweet quiet parts.

shann said...

That's the first cogent explanation I've heard to explain 'new' music- I don't dislike all of it, but so much of it seems dull, relentless and now I see why.