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  • Sunday, December 04, 2005


    The Death of Music

    My housemate and I have long wondered about trends in rock music production. By production, I mean the mixing of the final product, the blending of the separate tracks of vocals, instruments and such. It seemed to us that the mix has become more and more "muddy," difficult to pick out the actual instruments and notes.

    Music production values go through fads like everything else in popular culture. Certain styles of putting the guitar high in the mix or being bass heavy or putting a slight echo on the vocals will be popular for several years, then fade out. We know from experience that music producers listen very carefully to other recent releases, particularly if they were big sellers, to figure out the tricks being used in the production.

    There has been an obvious trend toward "pushing" the levels of the finished product to higher saturation of all frequencies. One explanation is that this allows the songs to play and seem louder (particularly on the radio) than music mixed without pushing the frequency. Some people might attribute it to the influence of "grunge" on production values but that's not the whole story.

    While researching and trying methods of recording and importing my vinyl LPs to the computer, I made a startling discovery. CDs often have shitty sound. It's not just in the mix. It's the sound as it is played.

    Like many people, neither my stereo or my computer is particular high end. My stereo amp/tuner is nearly twenty years old, completely non-digital, and wasn't much above the low end of the scale at the time. The turntable is an Akai, bought for $70 around the same time. My computer doesn't even have a separate sound card. It's part of the motherboard. The speakers are just two pieces (no 2.1 or 5.1) of low to mid-level no-brand desk speakers.

    Since I've been planning to import my vinyl for years, I've tried not to duplicate items I already have on vinyl when buying new CDs. I had a CD retrospective of Patti Smith's career called Land but I also wanted to have all of her album Wave so I recorded it from the vinyl. There were some overlapping songs that were duplicated like Dancing Barefoot and Frederick. I listened to the CD and vinyl versions side by side and was astonished at the difference in the sound quality. The vinyl copies were far and away superior. I don't mean a little better. I mean like listening to an oldtime radio show and listening to something live. It was that apparent even on the crappy computer speakers. You could hear every little cymbal strike, the rocking of a finger on a guitar note, the breath of the singer.

    Lest you think I'm comparing an MP3 ripped from a CD with a larger audio file from the vinyl copy, I'm not. I compared both full sized CD tracks and the large .WAV files from the vinyl. Then I compared the compressed and reduced MP3s from both sources. It didn't matter how it was done. The vinyl copies showed obviously greater clarity and tonal range than the CDs.

    This isn't earth-shaking but it is rocking my world. I thought it was just my crappy computer speakers accounting for the dull sound on the computer. Now it seems that the fault is in the CDs themselves. I always thought the audiophiles bleating about the "flat" sound of CDs was just griping about distinctions and subtleties a schlub like me couldn't possibly hear. Lo, I find they may have a very good point. It's a little like rediscovering music.

    Perhaps much of this is because I am working directly with an analog source transferring to a digital format. But that makes no sense. The original CD files are probably created from excellent source material. I admit to bafflement on this point. All I know is I'm feeling very dissatisfied generally with CDs if this factor shows through consistently.

    I resisted buying CDs for many years because it seemed very obvious that the music industry was using the changeover to the new format to jack up prices outrageously. (I believe this was proven in court and, in the settlement, music companies were required to donate large numbers of CDs to libraries. The companies used the opportunity to dump massive amounts of excess "D-list" inventory on the libraries.) Eventually I succumbed because of the convenience and because some new releases were being shipped only on CD.

    Of course, there's not much in the way of alternatives. MP3s ripped from inferior sounding CDs yield inferior MP3s. Still, I'm feeling very grumpy towards the mainstream corporate music companies at the moment.

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