Tuesday, January 22, 2008

Turning it up to 11

It started with Spinal Tap.

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."


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."


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.

In other words, sound quality now sucks as musicians and producers try to cut through the noise of modern life and the technological limitations of MP3s by turning up the apparent volume of their music.

While part of the blame can undoubtedly be pinned on the iPod, people also seem more than willing to sacrifice sound quality for the convenience of being able to listen to their personal music collections anywhere and any time. For example, I use my iPod almost every day -- on the subway to work, when driving my car or walking the dog -- but rarely sit down to listen to an album on my home sound system. I do appreciate good sound quality, but give me convenienceand 2,000 songs in my pocket, and high fidelity falls to second place.

Sunday, January 06, 2008

No need to make winter tires mandatory in Ontario

Anyone who has ever driven in the snow knows that winter tires are a good idea. All-season radials just don't cut it in the snowy regions of the country, particularly if they have some mileage on them.

When I lived in Montreal, I had snow tires. Montreal gets a lot of snow. It was stupid not to put winter tires on your car. Hence, Quebec's recent move to make winter tires mandatory is largely redundant. Most people use them. Those that don't get into more accidents.

In published reports, the head of a Quebec task force on road safety, Jean-Marie de Koninck, pointed to statistics showing snow tires help save lives.

"There's about 10% of the people right now that don't have winter tires on and they're involved in 38% of the accidents on the road in the winter," de Koninck said before Christmas.

The simple solution is for insurers to charge lower premiums to drivers who put snow tires on their cars than to drivers who do not. Quebec's system of no-fault insurance is probably behind its move to preempt a market solution to the problem since the driver who is responsible for an accident does not bear the full cost of the damage he causes. As a result, his future insurance premiums will reflect only the damage done to his own car.

Which brings us to Dalton McGuinty.

Ontario may follow the lead of its provincial neighbour and make winter snow tires madatory for winter driving.


Premier Dalton McGuinty has said he will consider making it a law in Ontario and OPP Commissioner Julian Fantino has already said he is behind the idea.

Have you seen car insurance premiums in this province? Get into one at-fault accident and your premiums will skyrocket. What better incentive is there to put snow tires on your car than that? That is, if you really need them at all.

Here in Toronto, we don't get a lot of snow. What we do get tends to melt quickly, aided by prodigious amounts of salt.

Do the math. If you only drive in southern Ontario and avoid driving the two or three times a season when we might get a meaningful amount of snow, it makes little economic sense to spend hundreds of dollars on snow tires. Moreover, cars with snow tires are considerably less fuel efficient. If you drive on snow-free roads the rest of the time, you will be burning extra gas.

That doesn't sound like the environmentally correct thing to do. And if the climate change lobby is to be believed, it will only hasten the rise in average temperatures in Ontario.

With winter in Ontario supposedly on the endangered list, why would McGuinty even consider making winter tires mandatory in Ontario? One can only conclude that if Dalton does go ahead with this, he doesn't believe his own hype about global warming.