Wednesday, July 16, 2008

Mudcrutch Uncompressed

It's an iconic story. A rock band torn apart by external forces over thirty years ago reunites to see if they can recapture the old magic. Against all odds they do, and the now middle-aged rockers find their belated debut album on the bestseller charts. It's a story that would carry the force of Greek Mythology were it not for the inconvenient fact that one of the members (a guy named Tom Petty) has a day job as one of the world's most successful rock-stars, and two others (Mike Campbell and Benmont Tench) punch the clock as members of his long-running backing band the Heartbreakers. Guitarist Tom Leadon and drummer Randall Marsh haven't kept quite as high a profile over the past thirty odd years, but from the sounds of the album they have lost none of their considerable chops.

I was intrigued when I heard that Mudcrutch planned to release a limited-edition double LP of their belated debut album accompanied by a special "Full Dynamic Range" Audiophile CD that would sound different from the standard, dynamically compressed, mass-market CD. I figured this would be the version of the album to get, so I special ordered it from my local brick-and-mortar retailer.

As with Elvis Costello's latest release, I suspect the decision to release the album in this way suggests what lurks behind the recent resurgence of interest in vinyl LPs; namely a widespread and growing dissatisfaction among both recording artists and consumers with the way CDs and digital downloads sound. It also suggests to me that major labels are exploring the viability of a bifurcated popular music market: one big one comprised of people who don't care much about sound quality (and are as likely to steal music as pay for it), and another smaller (older?) market of passionate music fans who do care about sound quality and are willing to pay a premium for it.

And let's be clear, if you want to hear the "uncompressed" Mudcrutch album you will pay a premium price: the LP/CD package retails for $30 with few discount opportunities. By contrast, the standard CD retails for $19, but can easily be purchased new for $10. A digital download will set you back between $8 and $14 (or nothing, I suppose, if you steal it). I don't know whether $30 LPs with special uncompressed CDs on the one hand, and sonically crippled CDs and lossy compressed downloads on the other is the best situation for music lovers, but it's the place we find ourselves at the moment.

The big story here, I think, is that the decision to create two sonically distinguishable CDs is a startling admission on the part of a major recording artist that something is rotten in the state of CD mastering, and it did not escape the notice of The New York Times and USA Today:

Mudcrutch engineer Ryan Ulyate says he and the musicians felt they had to compromise on the mass-market CD. That's because, in general, most popular music CDs are mixed to sound louder for use in cars and for conversion into MP3s. "That makes it really unsatisfying to listen to," Ulyate says. "We have this loudness war that has destroyed the way CDs sound, and we're trying to find a way to get off this spiral."

The original studio recording "has life and dynamics," Ulyate says, "but we are the only people getting to hear that now." He says the audiophile CD is "hands-down better" than the current CD for listening at home.

While it may sound like Ulyate is saying that the Mudcrutch CD most people are going to purchase is "really unsatisfying to listen to," I don't think that's what he means. I'm pretty sure his point is that current tendency to make CDs sound as "loud" as possible leads to unsatisfying recordings in general. Ulyate states elsewhere he thinks the standard Mudcrutch CD is a "good compromise" between the loudness level expected of a contemporary rock CD and an album that will sound best on a high-quality home stereo system. I highly recommend watching the three part interview (part 1, part 2, part 3) posted on Warner Brothers' Because Sound Matters website in which Ulyate discusses the thinking that led to the decision to release two distinct versions of the album. (If you're pressed for time, start with part 2, which is where he really starts discussing issues of sound quality.)

You might think that if the band is taking the extraordinary step of releasing a second CD version of the album for people who care about sound quality that the mass-market version must sound really bad. But this is not the case at all. Taking a look the version of "Scare Easy" from the standard Mudcrutch CD in Soundbooth, you can see that even the standard CD has considerably more dynamic range than the average pop or rock music CD released today. Notice how many more visibly distinct peaks there are on this track compared to "Living Well Is The Best Revenge" from R.E.M.'s 2008 release Accelerate. Compared to most of what's out there these days the standard version of "Scare Easy" sounds really good, and not just because it's apparent Petty has been inspired by working with his old band mates.

Mudcrutch - "Scare Easy" Standard CD (2008)

R.E.M. - "Living Well Is The Best Revenge" CD (2008)
But when you compare the standard "compressed" version of "Scare Easy" to the "uncompressed" CD version, and the version I ripped from the LP, it is clear that there is a lot of dynamic range that has been squeezed out of the standard version in order to make it sound louder (though still not as loud as current standards).

Mudcrutch - "Scare Easy" Uncompressed CD (2008)

Mudcrutch - "Scare Easy" LP (2008)

Mudcrutch - "Scare Easy" Standard CD (2008)

As you can see, the uncompressed versions have an organic form to them that represents the ebb and flow of the music as it naturally gets louder and softer throughout the song. Much of that is missing from the compressed version.

But what does this difference--clearly visible on these graphs--sound like in practice? Well, it's pretty much as Ulyate describes it. The uncompressed versions have a greater sense of punch and clarity. The drums especially have more impact in the uncompressed versions, especially when played back loud. There is also a greater sense of space and definition around the instruments and vocals. The overall effect is much as I described the difference between the two versions of Bruce Springsteen's "Born To Run." I consistently had a more visceral reaction to the uncompressed versions of the recording. I found myself tapping my foot more often, and my pulse was more likely to quicken while listening to the uncompressed recordings. The uncompressed recordings were more likely to elicit a strong emotional response, and for me that is what music is all about.

One area where I disagree with Ulyate's assessment is that he claims the standard version of the CD will sound better on an iPod due to the limitations inherent in the electronics in the unit. That was not my experience. Listening on my iPod, it was clearly evident that the compressed version of the album lacked the clarity and impact of the uncompressed version. The compressed version didn't sound bad, and the difference wasn't as pronounced as on my stereo, but it was clearly audible. The uncompressed version of the album was simply more enjoyable no matter how or where I listened to it.

The music itself--compressed or otherwise--is fantastic. It sounds like a cross between late-period Tom Petty, The Flying Burrito Brothers and Clarence White era Byrds (Untitled's "Lover Of The Bayou" gets covered, and guitarist Tom Leadon's brother Bernie was a member of the Burritos). It would be tempting to say that Petty was newly inspired by reuniting with his old mates. Tempting, but overly facile considering his last album, Highway Companion, was also among the best of his career. Petty is one of the few mature recording artists who consistently releases music that is the equal of his hit-making period, and this album has many highlights (two of which you can watch being recorded live-in-the-studio below).

While I congratulate Petty, his band mates, Ulyate, Warner Bros. and all involved with this project for keeping good sound alive, I want to question the underlying rationale for two differently mastered releases. Tom Petty has never been afraid to buck the music industry and his own label on major issues, even at his own financial peril. So if Petty feels the need to release an admittedly sonically compromised CD for the mass market, I would assume the institutional and marketplace pressure to do so is enormous.

Obviously, someone (either Petty, his management or his label) believes a lot of money stands to be lost by releasing a CD that is not "loud" enough relative to other contemporary pop and rock releases. But I'm not sure that is the case. I strongly suspect Tom Petty, Bob Dylan, Bruce Springsteen, R.E.M., Elvis Costello, Wilco, etc. are not fighting for the same part of the market that is buying super-compressed Mariah Carey and Timbaland albums. By and large the market for these established rock artists' albums is older. It's a group that may be young enough to own an iPod, but is old enough that they still have a dedicated stereo too. And generally speaking, they're not looking for a music experience that is, in essence, an all-out technological assault on the senses.

My sense is that there is a large group of music lovers in between the tiny group of audiophiles who buy $30 vinyl LPs and the kids who crank their tunes through Skullcandy headphones while skateboarding. These music lovers are not currently being well served by the music industry. I suspect a lot of people in this group have drastically curtailed their CD purchases (whether they realize it or not) due in part to the seriously compromised sound quality of the typical contemporary CD.

The over-compressed recordings the music industry has been releasing over the past several years are unsatisfying in the long run because they are fatiguing to listen to. The human auditory system craves dynamic contrasts in music. Relative change in volume is (along with pitch, rhythm, melody, harmony, tempo and meter) one of the fundamental building blocks of what the human brain recognizes as music, and CDs are currently delivering very little of it by design. After buying a certain amount of literally un-musical CDs that end up doing little more than collecting dust after a few listens, it's only natural that consumers would start to find other places to spend their disposable income.

Could falling music sales be partly a result of the "loudness wars" that have demonstrably disfigured popular music? I don't know. Probably I'm just hopelessly naive. I'm not a music industry insider and there are a lot of facts I'm not privy to--I admit that. But I am one of the music industry's most loyal (some would say most foolish) customers, and I know why I am buying fewer CDs these days, and it's not because I'm stealing them on file-sharing services.

The Mudcrutch Story

Mudcrutch - "Scare Easy" Video

Mudcrutch - "Lover Of The Bayou" Video


shaolinpunk said...

Hey, nice blog. Can you re-up the 3 Mudhoney tracks from the "You're Gone" single? Can't dl them, says you're bandwidth has been exceeded? Been looking for these for an age! Thanks

Pete Bilderback said...

Check back in a few days on the Mudhoney tracks, my bandwidth should have reset by then. Sorry about that. I haven't had great luck with Fileden.

shaolinpunk said...

Thanks man, much appreciated! Been looking for You're Gone for ages, near impossible to find. I have the european 12" release from when it was released but no deck anymore & no way to digitise it! D'oh!

Pete Bilderback said...

It's hard to understand why this material was left off March To The Fuzz. My fileden account says 1 day till my bandwidth refreshes, so check in tomorrow. If it hasn't reset by then, I'll move the files over to another service. I'm planning on transitioning to another service anyway.

Pete Bilderback said...

I uploaded the Mudhoney tracks to hotlink files, so they are available again. Who knows when my Fileden account will reset.

shaolinpunk said...

Thanks man, much appreciated. You made my day! The You Make Me Die link is bringing up Thorn though.

Pete Bilderback said...

Sorry about that. The link should be fixed now. Enjoy!

Jim said...

I really enjoyed the first Mudcrutch album. It just has such a fresh sound- something that I haven't heard from Petty for a while. Don't get me wrong, I love most Tom Petty songs, but it seems he kind of lost his energy during the last couple of albums. I really enjoyed "Highway Companion", especially because of his work with Jeff Lynne, but it did seem to lack the sparkle of this Mudcrutch album.

I'm glad the album did well, but I do have to say that I don't agree with the repackaging of the album. I always feel like I'm not getting the whole picture when I buy an album, especially after Petty came out with that expanded edition of "Highway Companion" a few months after the initial release.


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