[JPL] The Death of High Fidelity

Jim Wilke jwilke123 at comcast.net
Fri Dec 28 13:08:29 EST 2007

A recording engineer friend said to me a few years ago "Who'd have  
thought the next big thing in audio would be a decrease in quality?"   
Although I've never thought of Rolling Stone as an arbiter of sonic  
quality, this story sums it up well for the uninitiated.

I like the analogy of looking at art with sunglasses on, and as for  
mastering with mp3 being the intended final product - I can believe it!

Jim Wilke
Hatchcover Productions

On Friday, December 28, 2007, at 07:56  AM, Jazz Promo Services wrote:

> URL:
> http://www.rollingstone.com/news/story/17777619/ 
> the_death_of_high_fidelity
> Rollingstone.com
> 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."
> Want to continue the sound quality conversation? Click here to discuss  
> this
> story in the comments section of our Rock & Roll Daily Blog.
> 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 conven- ience 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."
> (On the next page: Top artists and producers sound off on the sound  
> wars.
> Plus: Check out waveforms to see what dynamic compression looks like,  
> and
> more.)
> Want to continue the sound quality conversation? Click here to discuss  
> this
> story in the comments section of our Rock & Roll Daily Blog.

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