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.