The Spaces Between the Notes

"Check it out." Music editor Robert Baird handed me a CD. "He's 70 years old, it's his 13th album, he got Don Was to produce it, and it's his best yet."

1109awsi.jpgRB was talking about Delbert McClinton's new CD, Acquired Taste (New West NWA3044).

"Is it good enough for this month's 'Recording of the Month?'"

"Musically, yes indeed, but the sound is a bit funky, especially the first track. Give it a listen."

So I did.

The sound was indeed . . . funky. The overall sound was in-your-face, with rather a buzzy quality that was emphasized on that first track, "Mama's Little Baby," by having girl singers double the lead vocal an octave higher. Track 2, "Starting a Rumor," did have some light and shade and space, but Delbert's baritone still sounded raspy and rough around the edges. As Robert had said, musically Mr. McClinton was in great shape, but the sound was fatiguing. I couldn't listen all the way through the CD.

I opened the first track with music-editing program Bias Peak Pro 6. As I suspected, the waveform was continually banging its head against the CD's maximum level—zooming in on vocal sections revealed the familiar squared-off shape of a signal whose peaks have been chopped off, either by being clipped or by being hard-limited (fig.1). Interestingly, the tops of the square waveforms were slightly rounded—as if, subsequent to the brutal trimming of peaks, the signal had been low-pass–filtered to get rid of some of the spurious high-frequency energy.

1109awsi1.jpg

Producer Don Was talks about Acquired Taste in this issue's "Aural Robert" column (p.146), where he says he's against the overuse of compression. But this month, as in many months, I despaired of finding a good-sounding new release to be featured in "Recording of the Month," which is intended to spotlight recordings with great music and great sound. Fortunately, we had to hand Jim O'Rourke's The Visitor, which has light, shade, space, and dynamics aplenty (p.129).

But heavy-handed compression and even plain old distortion have become ubiquitous in what have become termed the "Loudness Wars," in which songs are dynamically squashed to the point where they sound uniformly and fatiguingly loud throughout, even when played quietly. As I've written many times in the past decade (footnote 1), when all the dynamic contrast is removed, the music is damaged. The notes—the sounds played by the musicians—are not the music, but merely the framework for the music. As Miles Davis said, the music exists in the spaces between the notes. If that is the case, it hardly seems appropriate for recording and mastering engineers to fill up those spaces, even if, in their defense, they're forced to do so by record-company suits' incessant demands to "Make it LOUDER."

I wrote in February 2008 about the efforts being made by Turn Me Up! to combat the insane trend to maximize loudness at the expense of the music. (The name comes from the fact that if the record has a wider dynamic range, it must have a lower average level, though the consumer won't necessarily know that—all he has to do to compensate is turn up the volume.) The Turn Me Up! website includes a two-minute QuickTime tutorial video as well as a growing list of links to articles on the subject.

Now there is another resource available to those who care about sound quality. In a post to the forum at www.stereophile.com, "ncdrawl" recommended the downloadable dynamic range meter to be found at www.pleasurizemusic.com, a foundation that aims to be able to label recordings with a whole-number dynamic value, giving consumers an immediate means of knowing if a recording has been over-compressed or not. The TT Dynamic Range Meter gives a number that appears to be calculated from the difference between the peak and RMS levels, which was called the "crest factor" back in the day.

Pleasurizemusic's founder, Friedemann Tischmeyer, writes that "music—as an artistic means of expression—should transmit emotions. Nowadays, this is possible only to a limited degree because dynamics—a fundamental part of expressivity—are often missing. . . . Modern mainstream music sounds like a flatly pressed board being rammed through loudspeakers and uses the greatest possible amount of intrusiveness just as advertising does—as a means of constantly trying to get the listener's attention. In this way, a fundamental aspect of music is lost."

Using the TT Dynamic Range Meter as a plug-in for Bias Peak Pro 6, I analyzed my new Attention Screen CD, Live at Otto's Shrunken Head (Stereophile STPH020-2). I had had to squash the occasional peaks of the original 24-bit files a little in the mastering to better fit the music within the CD's 16-bit window. Nevertheless, the meter indicated that the dynamic range was still 10–14dB, which is much wider than a typical electric rock recording. By contrast, Delbert McClinton's "Mama's Little Baby" got the thumbs down from the TT meter, with an average dynamic range of just 5dB in the left channel, 6dB in the right. As Robert Baird said, "funky."

In the October issue (pp.115–119), RB reports on the conversation we had had with the team responsible for remastering the Beatles CDs. After we'd listened to several of the master files for several of the new CDs, I asked project coordinator Allen Rouse if there had been corporate pressure to make these classic recordings louder, to squash them down to better match what has, sadly, become the modern norm. No, he said; while they did raise the average level of the stereo mixes by 3–4dB, to make better use of the CD's dynamic window, everyone involved was aware of the historical significance of what they were doing.

As of the time of writing, I have yet to hear the finished CDs, but record-industry commentator Bob Lefsetz confirmed in the August 28 edition of his Lefsetz Letter that Rouse was not blowing smoke (footnote 2). Of the "White Album," Lefsetz wrote: "Immediately noticeable is the low level. Today's tracks are squashed to the max, with the volume cranked. They sound like shit, but they're very loud. These Beatles CDs are not. . . . [W]hat was immediately noticeable was that the guitar sounded like a guitar, one of those things with a body, with resonance, the guitar sounded three-dimensional. As did the vocal. This was no longer a record, this was someone real singing.

"In an era where sound quality is going in the wrong direction," Lefsetz continued, "where [algorithms] remove some of the sound to squeeze songs down into tiny files, releasing remastered CDs is akin to polishing up an IBM Selectric. Still, maybe these finally pristine releases can be a beacon. Maybe the younger generation will invest in better speakers, [and] techies will invent new file formats that allow people to hear music the way it was truly made."

From Bob's keyboard to God's ears.



Footnote 1: See, for example, "As We See It" in December 1999, June 2003, and February 2008. I also gave an illustrated version of this essay at the October 2009 Rocky Mountain Audio Fest in Denver, CO.

Footnote 2: To subscribe to the free Lefsetz Letter newsletter, go to www.lefsetz.com/lists/?p=subscribe&id=1

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