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:
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.)
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.
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.
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.