When I was nine or ten, I'd mistune my pocket AM radio to add distortion to the sound. The static fuzz fascinated me, but my mother couldn't understand what I was doing, and would leave the room. Clearly, distorted sound can sound good to only some ears, some of the time. If I'd been 40 years old in 1969 and a big Sinatra and Bennett fan, I'm sure that the music of Jimi Hendrix and Led Zeppelin would have sounded like noise to me.
Distortion in rock had begun in 1954, with Link Wray's "Rumble," and it was cranked up to 11 with the Kinks' "You Really Got Me" and Blue Cheer's cover of Eddie Cochrane's "Summertime Blues." Keith Richards managed to pull glorious grunge out of his acoustic guitar for the Rolling Stones' "Street Fighting Man" by playing to and overdriving his tiny Philips cassette recorderthat was the only way he could get the texture he wanted for the tune. Greg Lake's massively distorted vocals in King Crimson's "21st Century Schizoid Man" jumped out of the radio in 1969. Lou Reed's Metal Machine Music and Neil Young's Arc are albums of unrelenting guitar feedback and distortion. There are countless other examples. Ear-shredding distortion has its admirers, there's nothing new about that.
Of course, all of that was 100% analog distortion. Today's hyperdigital compression has a very different character, and winds up sounding offensively harsh, gritty, and fuzzy to tender baby-boomer sensibilities. We don't have a problem with distortion per se, but 21st-century digital clipping presses the wrong buttons for us oldsters. The under-35 crowd doesn't seem to mind. Can you say, "generation gap"?
The aesthetic of reproduced sound, from acoustically recorded Edison cylinders to electrically recorded 78s, LPs, cassettes, CDs, SACDs, DVD-As, MP3s, and FLACs wasn't a straight line to perfect sound forever. The limitations of each format changed the sound of music, and other than audiophile and some classical labels, no one ever really tried to make lifelike-sounding recordings.
Producers and engineers are after a sound, not fidelity. For example, in real life a rock singer and his acoustic guitar could never be heard next to fully cranked electric guitars, bass, and drums, but with a mix engineer's tastefully applied compression, the balance can sound surprisingly natural. Of course, the engineer isn't trying to accurately capture a complete performance by the band; bits and pieces of music are Pro Tooled and tweaked, and vocals are recorded later, then Auto Tuned and mixed to be audible above the fray. Dynamic-range compression and limiting are definitely part of today's sound, but I assure you that compression was an essential part of the sound of every classic rock album in your collection. It's always been here.
I recently bought the new Spoon album, They Want My Soul, and while I loved the tunes, the sound is nasty and grating. I kept listening anyway. It's a terrific album, as good as anything they've done, and as I listenedat home, through my Zu Audio Druid V speakers, and on the go, with Sennheiser IE 800 in-ear headphonesI began to understand: The harshness is part of the music. So I stopped gnashing my teeth and went with it. It wasn't easy to recalibrate my ears to listen through the sound, but once I got there, I could focus on the music. It was the same with Arcade Fire's last two albums, Reflektor and The Suburbsthey were rough on the ears, but now I'm learning to listen through the grit. Newly remastered old titles on CD and LP frequently suffer from overt dynamic compression, to make the music sound more contemporary.
We can clutch to our chests our 180gm LPs of Dark Side of the Moon and Aja and reject all new musica lot of folks my age checked out long ago, even before the late 1990s, when the Loudness Wars of ever-escalating compression crunch began. That's fine, but if you want to hear what's happening now, you'll have to accept that young bands aren't going to change their ways.
Then again, a friend, mastering and recording engineer Bob Katz, claims that, on streaming services such as Spotify and iTunes Radio, there's an ongoing shift to loudness normalization: the levels of individual tunes are automatically adjusted to all have the same overall perceived loudness. Loudness normalization doesn't compress dynamics within a track; instead, it automatically adjusts the volume level from song to song. Katz believes that, as loudness normalization becomes more widespread, mastering to maximize loudness will be futile.
We audiophiles can be appalled by the sound of contemporary music all we want, but we can't impose our preferences on everyone else. I'm sorry, Bob, but I can't see the crunchy aesthetic reversing course anytime soon. Over the long term, suremaybe sonic realism will be the next big thing . . . in 2025.Steve Guttenberg