[JPL] The Death of High Fidelity

David Kunian dkunian at bellsouth.net
Fri Dec 28 13:24:44 EST 2007

More on mastering/dynamic range:



Jim Wilke wrote:

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> 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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