Saturday, 29 December 2007

In Passing

Second verse, same as the first

Slashdot linked a Rolling Stone story decrying the excessive processing in today's (pop) music:

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," [record producer David] 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....

... 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."
Really sad, innit. All this new technology, and recorded music sounds worse. But it's always been thus. While the Stone article is a good thing from a consumer-awareness point of view, its author (Robert Levine) hasn't discovered anything that engineers, producers, and audio buffs haven't been arguing over for the last 50 years.

Today record producers get slammed for tweaking their recordings so they'll sound good after being (lossily) compressed into MP3 format. In 1965, the argument was over tweaking recordings to correct for the deficiencies of AM radios or juke boxes.[1] Today’s “authenticity” argument revolves around the use of tools like Auto-tune and Beat Detective to mask musician deficiencies. In the 70s, the culprits were multi-tracking, retakes, and tape editing.[2] The only difference is that today’s all-digital technologies allow the producer to do more radical tweaking, and do it with less effort, than the earlier analog methods. They have also made it less expensive to fix problems in the editing suite (as opposed to the studio).  At the same time it’s much easier to shoot yourself in the foot. 

But what “sounds right” remains matter of ears (and integrity), as it always has been.  As long as the same recording winds up being played in wildly different environments,[3] the finished product will have to be a compromise.[4]  Which is what producers are paid to do:  Find a workable compromise for their particular recording.  For them to run around lamenting, “Stop me before I compress again!” is a bit disingenuous.  

[1] A number of labels, Warner Brothers perhaps the most notorious, did special “singles mixes” of the particular tracks they were promoting for broadcast. These mixes would have extra level compression and special equalization. You'd hear one on the radio, go buy the album containing it, and, WTF?!?, it didn't sound the same! A cople of times around, and you learned to buy the 45 r.p.m. single, not the album, if you wanted that “radio sound.”
[2] Alex Ross:
...even Glenn Gould would have had trouble executing the mechanically accelerated keyboard solo in “In My Life.” The great rock debate about authenticity began. Were the Beatles pushing the art forward by reinventing it in the studio? - “The Record Effect” The New Yorker, June 6, 2005

[3] Witness the typical dive-for-the-volume-control scenario when trying to listen to a classical CD in the car.
[4] Anyone for a choice?  Say MP3 mix / radio mix / car stereo mix / audiophile mix?

Posted by: Old Grouch in In Passing at 19:47:01 GMT | Comments (1) | Add Comment
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1 It is said that Berry Gordy, Jr. kept an actual car radio and speaker in a studio at Motown, and used it to evaluate mixes before approving them for release.  There exists a fairly-fresh stereo mix of "Fingertips Part 2," Stevie Wonder's debut disc, and it's so clean, even antiseptic, that it lacks the energy of the horribly-rechanneled fake-stereo version, let alone the mono 45, which to me lends credence to this premise.

Our local classical station cranks up the compressor way too high; you can hear it breathe during quiet passages.

And almost every MP3 I've bought from has, according to MP3Gain, a program I use to equalize the apparent volume among the 3000 or so files I have, measurable, if not always audible, clipping distortion.

Posted by: CGHill at 12/30/07 04:21:33 (7tYOI)

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