Thursday, July 31, 2008

None Of This Has Happened Yet

Bruce Springsteen's Magic was one of my favorite albums of 2007. But in my end-of-year roundup, even as I praised the music on the album, I expressed some reservations about the sound quality of the CD: "I like Phil Spector's 'wall of sound' as much as the next guy, but the mix here is just too in-your-face and lacking in dynamics and subtlety." I also wondered if their was a chance the LP would sound better than the CD: "Does anyone know if the LP features a less compressed mix (as is sometimes the case)? If so, I'd buy it again, because the songs are really, really strong."

I didn't get any responses to my query, so it seemed the only way to find out would be to shell out $15.99 for the 180 gram virgin vinyl pressing of the LP that had been sitting around In Your Ear Records (formerly Zingg Music) in Warren, RI for several months. After a modest infusion of birthday cash, I did just that.

The short answer to the question (at least as far as I'm concerned) is, "Yes, the LP sounds better."

In my first post on the subject of dynamic range compression, I cited Magic as one of the worst offenders in the race to the sonic bottom that has become known as the "loudness wars." Take a look at the snapshot of the waveform for the track "Livin' In The Future" taken from the CD:

Bruce Springsteen - "Living In The Future" CD (2007)

Nearly everything has been pushed up to the 0dB limit, so there's no room for any dynamics. In my experience when a song is this severely compressed it results in a sound that is tiring in its relentlessness.

Now take a look at the same track ripped from LP and normalized to -.3dB in Soundbooth so that the loudest part of the track approaches the 0db limit:

Bruce Springsteen - "Living In The Future" LP (2007)

You still have a fairly compressed looking waveform, but there is some room for natural dynamic peaks in the music, which are clearly visible.

What does the difference sound like? Honestly, I hardly trust my own subjective impressions in these comparisons anymore. After repeatedly "seeing" differences like this between LPs and CDs I have to admit to the possibility that my brain has become pre-conditioned to "hear" the differences experience and/or my own personal biases have led me to expect.

Nevertheless, to my ears, the LP version was easier to listen to. The relentless, fatiguing qualities I noted with the CD were mostly absent. The most obvious difference was in the treble region. The CD sounds much brighter than the LP, and as a result the CD's treble has a harsh quality that is mostly absent from the LP. Some people might find the CD's brighter treble appealing. I am not one of those people; on the CD cymbals didn't sound much like cymbals to me, they sounded closer to an irritating mechanical noise like a spray can. By contrast, on the LP cymbals sounded more like what I think cymbals should sound like, and they were less of a source of sonic fatigue.

It's important to note that whatever differences I heard, they are not a result of the limitations some people attribute to digital audio in general. I was comparing one digital file (sourced from the CD) to another digital file (sourced from the LP). Further, I'd be shocked if Magic wasn't recorded digitally and in ProTools in the first place. It is also entirely possible that the inherent flaws in LP playback "added" something to the music that I just happen to find appealing, but that others might not. I strongly suspect that most of the differences I heard are a direct result of the way the LP was mastered compared to the CD, but there is no way for me to be certain of that.

Also, I don't want to exaggerate the differences I heard between the CD and the LP. Some people might not notice them at all, or for that matter care about them even if they do. And while I thought the LP sounded better than the CD, it still wasn't the kind of recording audiophiles prize and use to discern differences between speaker cables. I simply found the version I ripped from LP less fatiguing to listen to, and for me that's enough. Magic is a very good album, and I suspect I'll listen to it more often now.


Guy said...

Have you ever heard Bruce Springsteen's version of The Tootsie Frootsie Ice Cream scene? It ranks right up there with The Guess Who's take on the "Open The Door For Mr. Muckle" sequence from 'It's A Gift.'

Pete Bilderback said...

Springsteen's version of "Tootsie Frootsie Ice Cream" is horribly over-compressed. I can't even listen to it.

Joey JoeJoe said...

You are right. The CD is tough to listen to, while the LP is gentler. I'm no audiophile, either. That's how poorly done the CD is. Even a shlub like me and tell the difference and tell you which one is "wrong".

Benny said...

Seriously though, "Girls In Their Summer Clothes" is one of the best songs Springsteen has ever done and it is almost ruined by the muddy production that buries the vocals and turns the music into sludge. "Radio Nowhere" is a decent rewrite of "57 Channels and Nothing On" but again it's totally drained of life.

Pete Bilderback said...

I feel there is some irony in the fact that "Radio Nowhere" could easily be interpreted as a condemnation of the overly loud sound the album itself succumbs to.

"Girls In Their Summer Clothes" is excellent.