Modern Sounds

"You listen to these modern records, they're atrocious, they have sound all over them. There's no definition of nothing, no vocal, no nothing, just like—static."—Bob Dylan, interviewed by Jonathan Lethem. Rolling Stone, September 7, 2006

Maybe it's just me, but the music on Bob Dylan's new record feels old—almost as old as Dylan himself. What's modern on Modern Times (CD, Columbia 82876 87606 2) is the sound—dynamically compressed to the hilt, with no top-end air or detail, muddy bass, and a soundstage leaner than Paris Hilton's talent. In the Rolling Stone interview, Dylan includes Modern Times in the long slide to sonic oblivion: "Even these songs probably sounded ten times better in the studio when we recorded 'em."

I believe him. Dylan's rasping vocals are way too prominent in the mix and, worse yet, a thick veil separates Bob from his band. I wish I could blame a hack producer for the lackluster sound, but Dylan's alter ego, Jack Frost, produced Modern Times. The new music is comparable with his last few highly praised releases, Time Out of Mind and "Love and Theft", and Modern Times's sound is more or less on a par with them.

According to Dylan, the "small" sound of the Compact Disc might account for the rush to download music for free. He figures the sound is already trashed, so the downloaders aren't missing much. But Dylan could still make a great-sounding record if he wanted to. More than most commercially oriented pop artists, Dylan is free to make recordings with the sound he wants, work with any producer and any engineer, and record in any studio in the world. Over the course of the Rolling Stone interview, Dylan never spells out exactly what constitutes good sound. I've read elsewhere that he rates Highway 61 Revisited and Blonde On Blonde as his best, and I couldn't agree more. Those albums capture Dylan at the peak of his creative powers, and their sound is completely in sync with the music.

When I've queried nonaudiophile friends about the sound quality of Modern Times and other recordings, they don't get more specific than "I like that, it sounds good" or "Geez, take that off, it sounds like crap." It doesn't take too long to see that most people, my musician friends included, can't describe why they like the sound of a particular recording. "Sounds good" is what sounds good to them, and that's cool with me.

I like records that sound as if they were made with musicians playing "live," and the singer was actually singing with the band. That's rarely the case anymore, but when a recording conveys at least that illusion, I'm happy. It's just that now that most recordings are assembled on Pro Tools workstations, the chances of transferring the musical essence of the original performance to the final product—LP, SACD, CD, or iTunes download—are getting smaller all the time. Few studios even bother to deliver the finished tape or hard drive to the mastering house anymore; they're content to send the music over the Internet. To the record company, the music is product—a collection of zeros and ones that might make them lots of money. Something's going on, but they don't know what it is, or was.

Most of our favorite recordings aren't particularly transparent, and don't have wide bandwidth, unlimited dynamic range, or remarkable soundstage depth—that audiophile stuff isn't an indispensable part of the mix. The sounds of Led Zeppelin's first two records still get my mojo workin', and Motown's biggest hits are loaded with distortion. I've listened to those great recordings over countless high-end systems and have always loved the sound and the music. That said, you don't need a set of Wilson Audio MAXX 2 loudspeakers to hear the immediacy of any decent recording from the 1950s, '60s, or '70s. Compare, say, Roy Orbison's "Oh Pretty Woman" to any of the tunes on Modern Times. Sorry, Bob, the spark is missing.

Why? Besides the fact that the Orbison tune was recorded with vintage microphones feeding an all-analog, all-tube recording chain, his engineers had fewer opportunities to mess with the sound. Sure, they added reverb, probably from a bona-fide echo chamber (ie, a tiled room with a speaker at one end and a microphone), and used a tube compressor to hold Orbison's vocal to the right level in the mix. Otherwise, the sonic diddling was minimal. I've read that Patsy Cline's greatest hit, "Crazy," was laid down in a single take. No overdubs, no pitch correction, no fixes in the mix were required—just a great singer wrapping her pipes around a great tune.

Dylan recorded Bringing It All Back Home in three days—January 13, 14, and 15, 1965. Legend has it that he wanted to lay down "Mr. Tambourine Man," "Gates of Eden," and "It's Alright, Ma (I'm Only Bleeding)" in one continuous take, and he almost nailed it. One thing's for sure: during those sessions, no veil separated Dylan from his band—the connection between singer and songs was total. While I have no idea how long it took to record, mix, and master Modern Times, I'd bet the production stretched out for more than a few days. Not to put too fine a point on it, but when the technology no longer serves the music, it obscures it. Maybe that's why recorded music can no longer hold the attention of most nonaudiophiles. Music has been relegated to a background soundtrack to other activities: jogging, washing the car, frying eggs—anything but active listening.

Out in the real world, Modern Times will be enjoyed over $20 computer speakers, the freebie earbuds that come with Apple iPods, and expensive car audio systems with knee-level speakers. Listening at home over any sort of decent stereo or home theater system has become, unfortunately, the least likely scenario.

But even against those odds, if Dylan truly wanted to make great-sounding records again, he could. That's my fantasy: Bob Dylan making music that moves people and stirs their souls. If that happened, who knows? They might start really listening again.