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The Death of High Fidelity

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Old 12-29-2007, 09:01 AM   #1  
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Default The Death of High Fidelity

The Death of High Fidelity
In the age of MP3s, sound quality is worse than ever

ROBERT LEVINE

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."

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 convenience 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."
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Old 12-29-2007, 10:24 AM   #2  
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I use an MP3 player in the car. It is nice to have my entire CD collection available in a device that fits in my pocket. While I have a good sound system in the car, the Ipod sounds the same to me as the CDs. This is due to the road noise, speaker quality, etc.

The house is another matter. I can tell the difference with my quality speakers and do not use the MP3 player inside.

My sister was over the other day and was amazed to hear background instruments with my home system that she never could hear in her car CD player. It will sad if the studios adjust the CD recordings so we cannot hear the background sounds even in better home systems.

Things come and go. One of the things that is exciting to me about HD-DVD / BD is the improved sound with the movies, even on my existing system. And the possibility exists to have original recording (uncompressed) sound available in future music and movie recordings. People still care about sound quality and I think it will come back into the picture again in the future.
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Old 12-29-2007, 11:55 AM   #3  
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Having come from the old days of LP records and having owned a high-end stereo shop, I am always appalled at how lousy most music sounds today. before computers, when good stereos were a highly prized item, most people seemed to want the best audio that they could afford. While the average level quality of all recorded music may have improved, the ACCURATE reproduction of music seems to have taken a nosedive! Except for the lunatic fringe of audiophilia, most people accept less quality of music reproduction these days than they did 20 years ago, IMHO.
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Old 12-29-2007, 12:40 PM   #4  
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I still use a high quality turntable for vinyl record albums and will continue to do so until they are no longer pressed and the albums I have become damaged beyond listening. I see more albums being released on vinyl and hope the trend continues as analog records just sound better than CD's.
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Old 12-29-2007, 01:05 PM   #5  
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Oh Loves2watch, you have gone and opened up a serious can of worms. I too love vinyl. But I would never make the categorical statement that vinyl sounds better than CDs. I've heard (and own) some crappy vinyl, some crappy CDs and some great vinyl and great CDs. I have vinyl and CD copies of great recordings and sometimes the former sounds better than the latter and sometimes vice versa. Depends on who made, mastered and transcribed the recording, the quality of the vinyl and other factors. When CDs first came onto the scene the recording studios rushed to capitalize on this new and promising medium and in the process produced a significant batch of crap that was so poorly mastered as to prove almost unlistenable. But they got better as the processes of digital recording became better understood. As an example, Dave Grusin's Mountain Dance and Anita Baker's Rapture lps are both better than average recordings. The vinyl is outstanding. But the CDs...more dynamic range and palpable nuance without a hint of digital harshness. But the Ben Webster At the Reinassance-Analog's Production on the virgin 180 gram vinyl blows the CD away. It all depends
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Old 12-29-2007, 01:11 PM   #6  
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Addendum. The advent of MP3 players and Ipods are killing quality music. Latest issue of Rolling Stone laments the death of quality music. But I'm afraid there may only be a few of us who really care about such things. Just as flat panel tv's rolled over CRTs, I'm afraid the convenience of these "carry an entire music library in your shirtpocket" devices will signal the death of quality music reproduction. The public often prefers convenience over quality.
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Old 12-29-2007, 01:12 PM   #7  
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My intention is the with all things being equal, analog sounds better than digital. Always has, always will. There is presence or something that digital recordings miss when compared to analog. And that too goes for SACD and DVD-Audio.
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Old 12-29-2007, 05:36 PM   #8  
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I will agree that good analog has an indefinable quality that seems to transport one closer to the music. But sometimes I wonder how much of my analysis is based on nostalgia or the fact that I grew up with turntables (reel to reel, later 8 tracks, cassettes-all analog sources) and vinyl records, with all their quirks and limitations, are somehow part of my consciousness. Objectively, CDs should sound better. The very character of the medium is such that vinyl should not even come close. There is as much as a 10db difference in CD dynamic range alone. Wow and flutter are virtually non-existent. It would be interesting to have someone say, in his/her twenties with a background in music listen blind to a good recording from each and then indicate which sounded more real. I grew up in the 50s and 60s and can not say for certain what effect that may have on my objectivity.
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Old 12-29-2007, 06:05 PM   #9  
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Old 12-29-2007, 06:26 PM   #10  
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I'm inclined to believe that someone from the CD age would side with digital media as being more "real" than analog LPs...particularly when using SACD and DVD-A. Analog proponents (myself included I admit) tend to refer to abstract concepts of flavor, depth, warmth and other intangible characteristics that are surely derived from the nostalgia you referred to.

I'm not an active proponent these days as I find myself disinterested in the act of listening to music by just sitting down in front of a quality high-fidelity audio system. The younger generation definitely can't be convinced to sit down and just listen unless it's live performances. I don't think it's a case that they truly don't care about quality as it is more about not caring to spend the time dedicated to enjoy quality music. They'd rather do their listening while working/playing on a PC...at a coffee shop or on the move. Frankly, I've already joined them in this distinction.

If ear buds could be designed/made to be just as good as tower speakers and a new lossless compression scheme were available for portable players that still allowed the carrying of one's entire library, you'd find that folks would go for the better quality.
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Old 12-29-2007, 06:59 PM   #11  
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Old 12-29-2007, 09:46 PM   #12  
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Quote:
Originally Posted by Jim Bob Jones View Post
Addendum. The advent of MP3 players and Ipods are killing quality music. Latest issue of Rolling Stone laments the death of quality music. But I'm afraid there may only be a few of us who really care about such things. Just as flat panel tv's rolled over CRTs, I'm afraid the convenience of these "carry an entire music library in your shirtpocket" devices will signal the death of quality music reproduction. The public often prefers convenience over quality.
I think it's rather the public prefers convenience over ultimate quality. Once something sounds good enough to them, they aren't interested in spending more money to make it sound better, they'd rather have more convenience.

Even the worst MP3's I've heard still sounded better than the majority of record albums I owned--which were compressed, EQ'd, limited and full of surface noise, ticks, pops and scratches.

I also have some really excellent vinyl, but that came from boutique labels that went the extra length (and charged the extra money).

Realistically, the vast majority of consumers don't have audio systems that would make any differences obvious anyhow.

For those who are interested in the highest audio quality, we can only hope that record labels will continue to support them on a niche basis, but I'm not that hopeful. I was an audiophile at one point in my younger, more carefree days and have a rather expensive audio system, but I can't even remember the last time I sat down just to listen to music for enjoyment--for the most part, I now attend live concerts to fill that desire in my life and recordings are pretty much background for when I'm working or driving.
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Old 12-30-2007, 10:24 AM   #13  
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If you want to hear LP's the way that they were MEANT to be heard, you need a first-class turntable: Try a Linn, VIP, SOTA, Roksan or an Oracle turntable in a good audio system: they make even mediocre-sounding records something pretty special! Not cheap, to be sure, but trascendant, nonetheless
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Old 12-30-2007, 10:42 AM   #14  
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Quote:
Originally Posted by tigerbangs View Post
If you want to hear LP's the way that they were MEANT to be heard, you need a first-class turntable: Try a Linn, VIP, SOTA, Roksan or an Oracle turntable in a good audio system: they make even mediocre-sounding records something pretty special! Not cheap, to be sure, but trascendant, nonetheless
Ditto that!
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Old 12-30-2007, 01:33 PM   #15  
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I have a Linn turntable with a ClearAudio cartridge, Threshold preamp, Forte Class A Amp and EPOS and KEF speakers. There's no question my Sheffield Labs, American Grammaphone and Telarc vinyl sounds great, particularly on low level material and transients, but the vast majority of albums are overproduced and overprocessed.

It doesn't matter how good a playback system you have if the content isn't good.
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