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.

Friday, July 25, 2008

It All Started With A Mixtape...

My wife just got her first iPod, and a couple days ago she asked me if I could re-create the first mixtape I gave her in an iTunes playlist. Could I recreate a mixtape I had made nearly thirteen years ago for her iPod? Yeah, I could do that. If she had asked me to do something simple like change a diaper or take out the garbage, I probably would have said "in a minute," then promptly forgotten about it. But creating a playlist for my wife was something I was willing to get to work on immediately.

The timing of her request was fortuitous because today happens to be our tenth wedding anniversary, and re-compiling that first mixtape provided a good opportunity for a trip down memory lane. To make a long story short, I am a lucky guy. Very lucky.

Beyond my eternal eagerness to fuss with my music, I was touched by the sentiment behind my wife's request. It showed me that after all this time (though I shouldn't need reminding) that she still thinks of me as something more than the father of her children and husband (not that those are unimportant things). Even though she knows me so well now, she still thinks of me as an interesting person, someone whose ideas and passions are worth exploring. I find this thought comforting because I know I feel the same way about her.

It didn't take me very long to put the playlist together because I had already loaded most of the tracks onto my own iPod. I exported tracks from my iTunes library and imported them into hers. Then I purchased the one track I didn't already have on my iPod from the iTunes store rather than rip it from vinyl. Next I scanned the original cassette cover, cleaned the image up a bit in Photoshop, then pasted the picture to the tracks' meta-data to replace the original artwork. Viola! A perfect digital simulacrum of an analog cassette mixtape (minus the added analog hiss and plus some artifacts from lossy compression).

The speed and ease with which I was able to complete the playlist was somewhat disturbing. I remember the amount of time it took me to create the original tape. Back then I had to do everything in real-time. I couldn't just drag, drop and be done with it. I had to listen. I had to give things some thought. I had to carefully match the sound level of each track, making sure the volume never peaked too high on my cassette deck's VU meter, all the while maintaining a relatively consistent volume level.

Today iTunes makes everything a little too easy. If two tracks don't flow together properly, there's no need to rewind and erase, just move the offending track elsewhere in the mix. iTunes also automatically normalizes the volume of the mix with its "sound check" feature (though, it must be said, not as well as a skilled mixtape wizard would have). And of course there's no need to actually listen to the thing (if indeed you can still call it a "thing") before you finish it.

Back in the day, putting together a good mixtape was hard work. Some might call it a lost artform. I wonder what a young man seeking to impress a special lady does these days without the mixtape as an ally? Do they loan their potential sweetie a flash drive or email them a Rapidshare link? The RIAA might have something to say about that. Do they gift some very special tracks via the iTunes store? That could get expensive fast (90 minutes of music would cost considerably more than a good blank type II audio cassette). And besides, what if that special somebody you have your eye on has already downloaded the She & Him track you just know will win her heart? You just wasted 99 cents buddy. Cripes, what if she owns a Zune instead of an iPod? Life today is complicated. I'm glad I did my romancing during a simpler era. I wasn't very good at it then, but I don't think I would have the skills needed to pass along my genetic code in the brave new world of digital media.

Listening to the simulated mixtape on my own iPod, it is clear to me that I gave this tape some serious thought. However, it's not always clear to me exactly what I was thinking. Flying Saucer Attack? Spectrum? I could have easily given my future wife the (entirely unfounded) impression that I was a frequent recreational user of prescription cough-syrup. Knowing what I now know about Marjorie's attitude toward drug abuse, that could have been a fatal mistake. What if this mix had given her the wrong idea about me? My mind spins toward all sorts of invariably-unpleasant alternate realities (most of them involving permanent bachelorhood and my parents' basement). I get a sick feeling in the pit of my stomach and I have to shake myself back to reality. Mercifully, I'm not living in some alternate universe where an ill-considered mixtape cut short a promising romance. I can hear Marjorie and our two children quietly breathing as they sleep. I'm not sure how I ended up living in this the best of all possible worlds, but one thought is inescapable: I am a lucky guy.

I find it slightly embarrassing to remember that Marjorie was not the first woman for whom I had made a mixtape. As best I can recall, before Marjorie these tapes were almost never warmly received. I strongly suspect most of them were discarded before they were even listened to (I could almost see the the silent thought bubbles these tapes would engender: "What no Peter Cetera? What kind of freak is this guy?"). Einstein once defined insanity as "doing the same thing over and over again and expecting different results." So why did I keep doing it? Why did I make a mixtape for Marjorie when I should have known it was most likely a waste of a perfectly good type II cassette? Because I hoped things would turn out different this time. Because I wanted her to like me. And by that I mean I wanted her to like me, Pete Bilderback, the kind of doofus who thinks it's a good idea to put a cheesy instrumental produced by Joe Meek or a song warbled by Will Oldham on a mixtape for a woman he's trying to impress. Miraculously, she did!

Somehow it worked. I don't know how. I don't know why. But it worked.
She liked the guy who made her the mixtape. A few years later she agreed to marry him. A few years after that she gave him a perfect son, then a perfect daughter. Maybe it didn't really start with the mixtape, but not a day has gone by since we got married ten years ago that I haven't counted myself lucky. Every day I have spent with this marvelous woman has been a gift and I want to thank her for everything she's given me. Thank you.

Non-Dairy Tape

Side one:
Air Miami - "I Hate Milk"
Number One Cup - "Divebomb"
The Tornados - "Telstar"
Love - "Stephanie Knows Who"
Barbara Manning - "[Untitled]"
Stereolab - "Doubt"
Kendra Smith - "Stars Are In Your Eyes"
Flying Saucer Attack - "In The Light Of Time"
Spectrum - "Undo The Taboo"
Yo La Tengo - "Flying Lesson (Hot Chicken #1)"
Cardinal - "Silver Machines"
The Moles - "Already In Black"
The Velvet Underground - "Sweet Jane"

Side two:
Son Volt - "Windfall"
Palace Music - "New Partner"
The International Submarine Band - "Blue Eyes"
The Byrds - "Reputation"
Camper Van Beethoven - "Heart"
Fairport Convention - "Si Tu Dois Partir" and "Matty Groves"
The Magick Heads - "Standing At The Edge"
The S.F. Seals - "Joed Out"
Sally Timms - "Half Past France"
Buffalo Springfield - "Flying On The Ground Is Wrong"
Opal - "Fell From The Sun"
The Bats - "The Other Side Of You"
Barbara Manning - "B4 We Go Under"

Monday, July 21, 2008

Free Bruce Springsteen!

Free this week at Rock's Back Pages, a few choice Springsteen articles:

Simon Frith struggles to come to terms with Bruce, live in London (Creem, 1975).

Biba Kopf feels dragged backwards by the Springsteen machine at Wembley (NME, 1985).

David Sinclair senses a fading of the light in Bruce, live (Rolling Stone, 1993).

Dave DiMartino on Bruce in solo acoustic mode (Mojo, 1996).

Rod Tootell wonders how well served Springsteen has been by his official live albums (Rock's Backpages, 2008).

[I tend to agree with Tootell that the best officially-released Springsteen live album is the little noticed Hammersmith Odeon, London '75 CD that was also included with the Born To Run box as a DVD.]

Update: Also this week Variety suggests Springsteen deserves some credit for the fall of the Berlin Wall.

Fetchin' Bones now on iTunes, etc.

I noticed that Fetchin' Bones three (long out-of-print) Capitol albums are now available as downloads on iTunes, and at Amazon. I'm pretty sure this is Bad Pumpkin's debut in any digital format, never having been released on a certain shiny silver format that was popular in the later part of the twentieth century.

I still have the first album and Bad Pumpkin on LP, but somewhere along the line I lost my copy of Galaxy 500, which may have been my favorite album by the band. So I took the opportunity to download it from iTunes. Listening to Galaxy 500 again is like a visit from an old friend (and not the kind of old friend who stops by to complain about their kids and boring job either, the kind of friend who still knows how to party). Beholden to no genre or conventions, Fetchin' Bones' music still sounds incredibly fresh to my ears.

I consider the digital reissue of albums like this a very encouraging sign. Fetchin' Bones aren't that obscure, but the bulk of their music has been unavailable commercially for years. With the multiple digital distribution models available today, there's no good reason for even relatively obscure music not to be made available in a way that allows artists and their labels to earn royalties on their work. Of course, if more obscure indie-rock gets re-released officially, I'll have little left to post beyond my Chipmunk Punk album. [Actually, I see Chipmunk Punk is available through the Chipmunks' iMunks website, so forget that.]

My only complaint is that the download of Galaxy 500 did not include the original CD-only bonus tracks, including their earth-shattering take on "Superfreak." (If any of my readers have a copy of that let me know, I'd love to offer it here.)

Perhaps I should give Monster another chance too?

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

Tuesday, July 15, 2008

Impossible Germany

Wilco's Sky Blue Sky was one of my favorite albums of 2007. The track I chose to examine, "Impossible Germany" is exactly what I imagine Television would have sounded like had they signed to Asylum instead of Elektra and hung out in Laurel Canyon with Jackson Browne and The Eagles instead of The Bowery with Patti Smith and The Ramones. (And I mean that in a good way.)

As you can see in the graphs below, there is likely some added compression on the CD compared to the LP, but far less than on most contemporary pop and rock releases. The CD actually preserves most of the dynamic range evident on the LP. Relative to most contemporary CDs this album will sound "quiet." You might find yourself tempted to turn the volume knob on your stereo up a couple notches when you listen to it. Nothing wrong with that. After all, isn't that why God created the volume knob?

Not coincidentally perhaps, the album sounds excellent on either format. The CD does not fall victim to the harsh and fatiguing sound that characterizes so many contemporary over-compressed CDs. Meanwhile, the LP manages to avoid many of the shortcomings typically associated with vinyl due the the excellence of the mastering and pressing: this is one of the quietest LPs I have ever heard (although a very small amount of surface noise is still audible during the quietest passages when listening on headphones). I highly recommend this album on LP, but there is no denying the CD sounds excellent as well. I wish this were the rule rather than the exception.

Nonesuch includes a cute slipcased CD in the package with the LP, making the cost of the premium LP pressing seem pretty reasonable (I think I paid around $20 for mine). Whatever format you chose, this album is a keeper. Well done all around.

Wilco - "Impossible Germany" CD (2007)
Wilco - "Impossible Germany" LP (2007)

Monday, July 14, 2008

No Hiding Place Indeed

Another comparison, another similar result. This time out it's a track from Elvis Costello & the Imposters' MOMOFUKU, which I posted about earlier. Once again, you can see that whoever mastered the CD managed to squeeze nearly all the dynamic range out of the music. No wonder Costello reportedly wanted to release this album exclusively on LP. This isn't as bad as some recent CDs, but it isn't particularly good either.

I'm only going to comment on these in detail when I see or hear something that surprises me.

Elvis Costello & the Imposters - "No Hiding Place" CD (2008)

Elvis Costello & the Imposters - "No Hiding Place" LP (2008)

Paul Chastain - Halo

I wanted to take a break from my current obsession with dynamic range and compression to offer some really sweet pop music.

Paul Chastain is best known as a member of the long-running indie-rock band Velvet Crush. As I have discussed before there is a long and confusing pre-history to Velvet Crush, involving band names like Bag 'O Shells, The Springfields, The Choo-Choo Train, The Paint Set, and many, many others. It's a history worth exploring. Many of Paul Chastain and Ric Menck's early recordings are chronicled on two excellent CDs: The Ballad Of Ric Menck focuses on the material originally released by The Springfields, while Hey Wimpus: The Early Recordings Of Paul Chastain and Ric Menck reissues material by The Choo-Choo Train (if you poke around Parasol's site, you'll find a few free MP3s from those albums).

But there are many remaining tracks from one or both halves of Velvet Crush's dynamic duo that deserve to be rescued from obscurity and reissued as well. Primary among them is this 1985 EP released by Paul Chastain. The title-track "Halo" is a three-minute blast of perfect pop music. The jangling guitars immediately remind me of early R.E.M., but there is a lightness and sweetness to the track that suggests Chastain was as equally enamored with The Hollies as with The Byrds.

Halo is a very difficult release to track down. I've only ever seen one copy, which I borrowed from my friend Adam. Unfortunately, side-two of his copy has been totally destroyed by what looks to have been an attack by a creature that excretes rubber cement. I have no idea what could have caused this, but there are blotches of goop all over side two that no amount of scrubbing and vacuuming could remove. I considered taking extreme steps like using lighter fluid to dissolve the goop, but since it's not my record I didn't want to do anything too radical.

In any case, in my opinion, this is one of the finest tracks I've ever featured on this site.

Friday, July 11, 2008

Mountain On The Thunder

I'm not even going to bother to do any analysis on this one. I just want to ask a simple question. Which one of these looks more likely to be a visual representation of music?

Bob Dylan - "Thunder On The Mountain" CD (2006)

Bob Dylan - "Thunder On The Mountain" LP (2006)

Thursday, July 10, 2008

Born To Compress


I wanted to follow up on the post I did on dynamic range compression in popular music. Actually, I plan to do a series of posts on the subject in which I compare recently released CDs to their LP counterparts. Today I compare the 2005 remastered reissue of Bruce Springsteen's Born To Run to a garden-variety 70s or 80s pressing of the 1975 LP.

Before I get into this, I want to say a few things upfront: I am not an expert on audio engineering and I don't claim to be. I've never set foot in a recording studio or even spoken to an audio engineer. I have absolutely no familiarity with the tools audio engineers use to record and master albums. I'm just a music fan with a set of ears, a computer, and a passionate interest in music. I don't claim there's anything scientific or definitive about what I'm doing. I'm sure there are valid questions that could be raised about my methodology (I have some myself), and I'm happy to answer them as best I can as they come up. Basically, I'm doing this to satisfy my own curiosity, and if I shed some light on the subject in a way that others find illuminating, great. So consider those caveats in reading my analysis, and see the comments section for technical details--how the vinyl to digital transfer was done, equipment used, etc.--if that sort of thing interests you.

I'm also not looking to generate a discussion about whether LPs or CDs sound better. I have my own feelings about that, and I'm sure you have yours. If you're looking for that kind of thing, there are many, many places on the internet where you can satisfy that desire. In my experience, debates about the relative merits of audio formats tend to go nowhere: they typically devolve into orgies of name-calling, accusations of deafness, and ultimately allegations of allegiance to Hitler. I don't want to go there. Whatever you happen to like is fine with me.

As I noted in my previous post, I suspect that Sony's remastering engineer added some extra dynamic compression to the 2005 reissue of Born to Run in order to bring the CD more in line with current industry conventions (i.e. to make it sound louder). After having ripped the title track from my LP copy of the album and comparing it to the CD version, I am further convinced of this.

I used Adobe Soundbooth to analyze the tracks this time. Unlike Fission, Soundbooth shows you both the left and right channel separately. It also shows a volume level reference in dBs on the right hand side of the diagram (you can click on the diagrams below to see them enlarged). Otherwise, what you see in Soundbooth is pretty similar to what you see in Fission. The closer the green lines are to the top and bottom of the chart, the louder the sound is at any given moment.

The most obvious difference between the two tracks is that, on average, the remastered CD is much louder. Excluding the fade out at the end, the remastered CD track ranges from around -6 db to just below the maximum limit of 0 db. But as you can see, quite a lot of the music is up very close to the 0 db limit. By contrast, the LP track ranges from around -12 dB to close to the limit of 0 dB. Also, relatively little of the the LP track goes all the way up to 0 dB. In fact, it only gets that loud for a very brief moment near the end of the song (right around 4:20). The average volume of the remastered version is probably around -2 dB, while the LP probably averages around -6 dB (I'm guessing here, anyone who knows how to calculate RMS in Soundbooth, let me know).

Bruce Springsteen - "Born To Run" CD (1975, remastered 2005)

Bruce Springsteen - "Born To Run" LP (1975)

Other than that the tracks actually look pretty similar. Loudness aside, in many respects they sound pretty similar to my ears too. I must say, I hear a certain muddiness in the LP version that has been at least partly cleaned up in the remastered version. The remaster sounds a bit "cleaner" and brighter to my ears. It also must be said that while there is very little evident dynamic range in the 2005 remaster, there is not a tremendous amount of dynamic range in the LP version either. Springsteen was going for a "Wall of Sound" presentation on this track and he succeeded. It's worth noting that this was a relatively compressed recording to begin with.

But there are a few moments on the LP version where the dynamic range is much greater (seen as brief "spikes" on the graph). I want to focus on a couple of those moments because these are the kind of contrasts that are inevitably lost when a mastering engineer chooses to push the average sound level as loud as is the case on the 2005 Born To Run remaster. The sounds made at those moments are still there on the CD, they just don't stand out as much with respect to the rest of the music as they do on the LP. Loudness has its price.

As anyone who has ever heard a performance of Tchaikovsky's 1812 Overture can tell you, sudden changes in dynamic range can have a tremendous impact on the way the human brain perceives music. When music suddenly gets much louder or softer it can startle and surprise us. Used properly sudden shifts in dynamics can create a shock or jolt that makes a piece of music more exciting, and can increase the listeners' engagement with and emotional reaction to the music. "Born To Run" is a textbook example of that in the realm of popular music recording.

The best example of this in "Born To Run" occurs right around 3:00 minutes into the song; the music builds to a dramatic crescendo, then briefly quites down. Next you hear the Boss count off "1, 2, 3, 4..." Bam! The band suddenly kicks in at full force again "Highway's jammed with broken heroes on a last chance power drive..." It's the song's single most dramatic moment, and fortunately the dynamic shift in that section is relatively well preserved on the CD remaster. Without it, you really don't have the same song.

But there are other similar, but more subtle, examples of this technique that get completely obscured by the remastering job. At right around :50 into the song you can see a very brief peak on the LP version that is buried in loudness on the CD. That's the exact moment Spingsteen sings "baby" on the first chorus of "Tramps like us, baby we were born to run." It makes a difference. Springsteen packs a lot of emotion into that one word, and hearing it at a higher volume relative to what's around it emphasizes that.

Another good example occurs almost at the end of the song, right around 4:20. That big peak you see on the LP version is the final cymbal crash before the fade out. The relative loudness of the cymbal crash puts a sonic exclamation point on everything that's come before it. Unfortunately, the CD remaster does not preserve that dynamic moment. The cymbal crash is still there, but it's no louder than anything else, so it doesn't have the same visceral impact as on the LP.

There are other moments like this on the LP that are mostly lost on the remastered CD. But what--if anything--do these differences mean in terms of listening experience? In a word "goosebumps." For me personally, the LP version, despite its relative murkiness, never failed to deliver goosebumps. Whether I was listening to it in my car, on headphones or on my home stereo, I consistently had a more visceral reaction to the LP track. I tapped my toe and pumped my fist more often when listening to the LP version. I just felt the music in my gut more. It's not like listening to the CD was painful. In fact, on an intellectual--if not visceral--level, I appreciated the added sonic clarity of the remastering job. With the CD it sounded like a slight layer of sonic murk had been scraped off the music, and I appreciated that. I wish that clean-up operation could have been combined with the superior dynamics of the LP version.

The experience of listening to the two versions was not the same, and invariably in ways that did not favor the remaster. The LP version of "Born To Run" is a one-of-a-kind, rock-and-roll thrill ride. It's the equivalent of a ride on Coney Island's Cyclone, while the remastered CD was more like a ride on one of those generic "Himalaya" style rides that travel from town to town with the carnie folk. It's true that the carnie rides go around and around really fast (and they're often really loud too), but they're never very exciting. A ride on the Cyclone though, that's something you never forget.

Tuesday, July 08, 2008

Headphones

With gas prices being what they are I've been taking the bus to work more and more often. It's not that I suddenly can't afford to drive to work, but the higher gas prices have forced me to think more about the impact of my actions on the planet. I've always considered myself an environmentalist, but it's time to put my money where my mouth is, so I'm taking public transportation as often as I can.

Obviously, the bus is the perfect place to enjoy my iPod. But with the noisy environment the bus provides I find myself in need of a pair of in-ear headphones to block out external noises. I'm hoping to get a recommendation for a decent pair of in-ear headphones (the kind you insert in your ear canal to reduce the volume of external sounds).

I currently use a pair over-the-ear style iGrado headhones with my iPod. I love the sound of these. They have a rich, well-balanced sound with a bit of sparkle in the treble, but they don't sound harsh or spitty. Unfortunately, they can't block out enough of the outside world to be used on a bus. Buses are loud, and to hear my music I have to crank the Grados loud enough to cause hearing damage and annoy my fellow passengers. I also have a pair of Grado SR-80s, which sound even better, but are too bulky for portable use and wouldn't reject external sounds any better.

If Grado made a pair of in-ear headphones I would buy them in a second. If Grado made a toaster or a bird-bath I would buy them too. Every product I've ever heard by Grado--whether it's a phono cartridge, pre-amp or headphone--excels at it's price point. Maybe it's because Grado is a family-owned, artisanal business--most of their products are hand-made in Brooklyn--but invariably Grados got soul.

Unfortunately, Grado doesn't make an in-ear headphone, and my experience with headphones outside of Grados has not been good. I had a pair of Sennheiser earbuds that fell apart within weeks after I purchased them. They sounded okay, but they didn't have soul. Then I tried a pair of Apple in-ear headphones. I can't really tell you how they sounded because they never stayed in my ears long enough to form an opinion.

Then I was given a pair of inexpensive Skullcandy Ink'd in-ear headphones. They sounded somewhat tinny and hollow with a sucked out midrange and little bass, but at least they stayed in my ears. So when I saw a pair of top-of-the-line Skullcandy FMJs marked down to $25, I took a chance on them. They look kinda cool, even if they are a little too "skate-punk" for a gentleman of my age and social standing. But I figured if they gave me a better balanced version of what the Ink'd phones offered they'd be good enough for the bus. Certainly they are impressively constructed with their molded aluminum enclosures and laser-etched logos. And they stay in my ears comfortably. And they sound...hideous. The FMJ's definitely don't got soul. They don't even got treble. They barely got midrange. They got bass though; lots and lots of tubby, exaggerated, undefined bass. The cheap-o buds that came free with my iPod sound considerably better. I feel really sorry for anyone who paid the $60 MSRP for these aluminum clad turds. Mine are for sale on Amazon's Marketplace if you want to experience their earth-shattering awfulness for yourself.

So maybe one of my readers can help me out. I'm looking for a pair of in-ear headphones that are relatively cheap and sound good. They don't have to have soul like the Grados do, but they shouldn't make me want to set my ears on fire to make the pain stop either. I know that Shure and others make supposedly good sounding in-ear models, but I won't spend that much on portable headphones. I'm looking for something with a MSRP of $50 or less (hopefully with a significantly lower street-price). They should be relatively durable and be able to fit in my smallish ear canals. Any ideas? I've read some good things about JVC's cheap in-ears, but I'm looking for personal recommendations.

Sunday, July 06, 2008

Yo! Turn It Down!


"You listen to these modern records, they’re atrocious, they have sound all over them. There’s no definition of nothing, no vocal, no nothing, just like — static." -Bob Dylan

"Loudness is killing music, and I'm not talking about the 80s Japanese Heavy Metal band." You've probably heard some audiophool, musician or music geek say something like that over the past couple years. But what are they talking about, and what exactly is wrong with loudness?

Loudness is actually a somewhat misleading term, because there is nothing wrong with playing music loud (so long as it's not loud enough to cause hearing damage). What is actually going on is that most contemporary pop music is getting all of the dynamic range squashed out of it by means of dynamic range compression. Dynamic range is the difference between the loudest possible undistorted sound and quietest sound that is audible above the noise floor of the recording. Dynamic range compression limits the difference between the loudest and the quietest sounds. Subjectively, compression makes for a louder sounding recording. It is also a practice that is currently being taken to absurd extremes.

Dynamic range compression is not new. Producers of popular music have been using it for decades, and--used in moderation--it is actually an essential tool in producing good sounding pop and rock recordings. But over the past several decades producers, mastering engineers and recording artists have engaged in a race to create the loudest possible sounding CDs (the so-called "loudness wars") and in doing so have severely restricted the dynamic range heard in today's popular music recordings. This was probably in part a result of the advent of the CD changer. No one wanted their CD to be the quietest one in your CD changer, so we inevitably got louder and louder CDs (and now digital music files as well, because no one wants their song to be the quietest one on your iPod either).

Here is a visual representation of an R.E.M. track, "(don't Go back To) ROCKVILLE" recorded in 1984 and released on CD in the mid-to-late 80s. The dark blue lines represent the peak sound levels at varying points across the recording. The top and bottom of the light-blue area represents the loudest possible point attainable on a Compact Disc. So the closer the blue lines are to the top and bottom of the diagram, the louder they sound. During the 1980s, R.E.M.'s music was exceptional, but in terms of peak levels and dynamic range, this recording is pretty typical of the era.

R.E.M. - "(don't Go back To) ROCKVILLE" CD (1984)

Notice how the mastering engineer chose to leave some "headroom" at the top and bottom, and not push the sound levels to their maximum possible level. From an audio engineering standpoint this is a good practice because your CD player will sound its best when it is not pushed to the limits of its performance abilities. This is no different from the way your car engine runs more smoothly at 55 mph than 135 mph. Technically, it may be able to go that fast, but it's best not to push it that hard. Notice also how there is a decent amount of dynamic range in the recording, not all the lines are at the same level.

Now take a look at a track from R.E.M.'s most recent album, Accelerate. The mastering engineer chose not to leave any headroom--the loudest points are exactly at the maximum limit allowed by the medium. What is more, there is relatively little dynamic range, because everything has been pushed toward this limit. The result is a recording that might sound good in a high noise environment like an automobile, but will sound fatiguing and drained of life on a decent quality stereo system. This is what Dylan is talking about when he says recent popular recordings sound like "static," pushed to these extremes the music starts to take on the quality of white noise.

R.E.M. - "Living Well Is The Best Revenge" CD (2008)

Ironically, while digital-to-analog converters, CD players and other digital gear have gotten substantially better over the past twenty years, the typical CD sounds worse than ever. It's also ironic that despite the fact that R.E.M. just produced the best set of songs they have in decades, Accelerate has been sitting around my house largely unplayed after the first couple of times I listened to it. Have I chosen not to play it because of it's relative lack of dynamic range? It's tough to say for sure, but I suspect it's a factor.

I'm not trying to pick on R.E.M. here, they are simply following what has become standard industry practice among both major and independent labels. Take a look a this track, "Star Sign" from Teenage Fanclub's 1991 release Bandwagonesque on Geffen records. As with the early R.E.M track, the mastering engineers left some headroom and dynamic range in the recording.

Teenage Fanclub - "Star Sign" CD (1991)

Now take a look at a track from Man-Made, Teenage Fanclub's 2005 release on the independent label Merge. The dynamic range has been compressed out of this recording at least as badly as on a typical contemporary major-label release.

Teenage Fanclub - "It's All In My Mind" CD (2005)

Man-Made is another album that made a favorable first impression. I thought it contained a batch of good songs, in many ways the equal of the more popular material on Bandwagonesque. But I haven't listened to it often after my initial purchase several years ago.

One of the worst sounding recordings I've heard recently has to be Bruce Springsteen's most recent release, Magic. Looking at this track I understand why. Every bit of life has been squashed out of the recording by dynamic compression. The result is like Phil Spector's "wall of sound" taken to a near unlistenable extreme. Where Spector's wall was impressive and imposing, Springsteen's is merely impenetrable. It's a pity really because again it's a strong batch of songs, especially this one, "Livin' In The Future."

Bruce Springsteen - "Livin' In The Future" CD (2007)

Now you might say, "Sure, but Springsteen has always utilized that compressed 'wall of sound' approach, it's part of his artistic aesthetic." This is true to a limited degree, but take a look at his classic track "Darkness At The Edge of Town" from 1978 for comparison. The relatively large amount of dynamic range apparent in this recording relative to "Livin' In The Future" gives the recording some room to breathe, and allows the drama of the song's narrative to unfold before the listener's ears.

Bruce Springsteen - "Darkness At The Edge of Town" CD (1978)

You might be forgiven for thinking Springsteen's recordings always featured the ultra-compressed sound featured on his latest release if you had only heard Sony's recent remastering of Born To Run. For this release the mastering engineers reduced the dynamic range almost to the current popular standard. No one would have been able to master a recording like this back when Born To Run was initially released on LP in 1976 because of the very real limitations of the vinyl LP format. Pushing the sound levels this loud would have caused the needle to jump out of the groove on a typical turntable. So while technically the CD is capable of better than 30dB greater dynamic range than the vinyl record, the typical popular or rock music LP exhibits far more dynamic range than today's average CD.

Bruce Springsteen - "Born To Run" CD (1975, remastered 2005)

Perhaps all is not lost, as some producers seem to be backing away from the loudness wars. This track from Duffy's terrific debut album Rockferry displays a considerable amount of dynamic range relative to most recent popular music recordings. The mastering engineer still pushes the volume to the very limit at times, but has mercifully left in some dynamic range. The result is an enchanting and relatively good sounding recording.

Duffy - "Warwick Avenue" CD (2007)

Others are doing things the right way. Does Sharon Jones' "100 Days, 100 Nights" make me want to dance because she and her band the Dap Kings are funkier than hell or because the CD hasn't had all the life compressed out of it? No doubt it's both.

Sharon Jones - "100 Days, 100 Nights" CD (2007)

And not every remastering of an older recording gets "modernized" in the manner that Born To Run did. Dennis Wilson's highly recommended Pacific Ocean Blue retains all the dynamic range of the original master tapes, and it sounds sublime.

Dennis Wilson - "River Song" CD (1977, remastered 2008)

Bob Dylan diagnosed the problem pretty effectively. The ultra-compressed recordings that are the current industry standard sound like crap. Their relative lack of dynamic range results in recordings that might grab your attention at first listen on a cheap radio, but are fatiguing and unrewarding in the long-run. Now I've got a quote for Bob: "Physician heal thyself."

Bob Dylan - "Thunder On The Mountain" CD (2006)

Wednesday, July 02, 2008

It's Not A Reunion, But After Seventeen Years The Feelies Are Playing Together Again

The New York Times brings us some good news for a change. The Feelies have reunited are playing together again just in time for the 4th of July 2008. In addition to a few sold-out live gigs--including one opening for Sonic Youth on July 4th--the band reports they are also working on new material.

When the Feelies last played together I had just turned legal drinking age. Today I get mail from the AARP. But don't tell the band that this is a reunion. That's just too pretentious a word for a band that has always made a point of keeping things low-key. According to Glenn Mercer, "We just stopped playing, as we had done periodically since we got together." You see, seventeen years is just a tiny break. If I recall correctly that's the same thing he said back when the Feelies started playing again back in 1983.

Personally, I consider this extremely good news. In many ways the Feelies are exactly the kind of under-recognized band I started this blog to honor. And while there have been a couple nice albums from Brenda Sauter's band, Wild Carnation, and an excellent Glenn Mercer solo album to fill the gaps, after seventeen years the world is in serious need of a genuine Feelies fix.

There has been a quite renewal of interest in the band of late. "Let's Go" appeared in a car commercial. The Times reports that the band owns the rights to both Crazy Rhythms and The Good Earth, and that reissues are in the works (no word on whether the A&M material is slated for reissue). When I look over my site stats, I've noticed an increasing number of people show up here after using the google to find information on the Feelies.

I probably saw The Feelies live close to a dozen times back in the 80s. For me seeing the Feelies live was comparable to the way some people felt about seeing The Grateful Dead or Bruce Springsteen. I never followed them around the country or anything, but within reason I never passed up an opportunity to see them play. The interplay between the two guitars and the drums and percussion never failed to inspire. Plus they were always sure to surprise with some cool cover. I'm looking forward to seeing them live again, and purchasing a new album.

In the meantime, here's a couple rare-ish Feelies tracks, both of them covers taken from A&M promo releases. Enjoy.

Barstool Blues [right click to download]
Egyptian Reggae [right click to download]