Tears of Rage: The Great Bob Dylan Audio Scandal

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Modern Times by Bob DylanAt the outset, I should say that I am no extreme hi-fi buff, in my own estimation; perhaps not even a moderate hi-fi buff. It’s well that I remember being a teenager and how intensely I enjoyed music, some of which I still listen to today, on some of the worst equipment imaginable: a monophonic compact cassette player that would eat up my precious tapes; an old portable mono phonograph with a buzzing speaker and a tendency of the arm to skip right down a perfect brand new album. Ah, my poor deprived childhood! It was a hellish effort just to hear the stuff at times, but the music I loved was heavenly to me. I knew then, and still believe, that the goodness and heart of a great piece of pop music can come across on all kinds of equipment. Today I don’t spend thousands on speakers or other audio components. I own very basic equipment that works. I care about hearing music properly and I make an effort to do so, but there’s a red line of expense that I’d never personally cross in the pursuit of audio perfection, and that red line figure is quite low. Additionally, I am no vinyl fetishist. I do not contend that the audio reproduction of a vinyl long-playing record is inherently better than that of a compact disc. Others may claim such; I remain agnostic on the subject. I own a turntable so that I can listen to what old records I still have and occasionally pick up some interesting bargains and rarities in thrift stores and the like.

I state these things in order to make clear that this piece is not the ranting of an obsessive audiophile, but rather a genuine howl of outrage from a fan of Bob Dylan’s music.

Put as simply as possible: It has become undeniable to me, based on research and ultimately through direct personal comparison, that the CD editions I purchased of both of Bob Dylan’s albums Modern Times and Together Through Life contain significantly damaged versions of Bob Dylan’s original recordings. The vinyl long-playing records of both of these, by contrast, contain the recordings as I believe they must have been intended by the artist to sound to the listener. The difference between the two is not minor and is not dismissible, I think, even by the most average listener, although the average listener is not likely to be consciously aware of it without a side-by-side comparison. Nevertheless, even the average listener is going to suffer the consequences of the difference, and is going to enjoy these CDs considerably less over time than he or she would if they contained Bob Dylan’s undamaged recordings. This, to me, is a terrible shame, and more, an abomination, and I think that any fan, on really understanding what’s taking place, is likely to feel the same way.

What is for me a newly-gained insight on the kind of damage being done to Dylan’s CDs is already very well-documented by people who are more serious and dedicated audiophiles, and it goes far beyond the work of Bob Dylan alone, affecting the music of many popular artists, in particular that which has been released over the course of the last decade (including many reissues of older material). My personal discovery is simply that the problem is very real, very serious, and — in relation to Bob Dylan specifically — it is causing people to miss out on the full quality and worth of some of the greatest music he has ever recorded: that which is featured on his latter-day albums.

My first conscious perception of a problem with the sound of Bob Dylan’s recent albums came with Modern Times (my CD copy being purchased in the U.S. at the time of release). What it amounted to was this: The album had some great songs. The musicians’ performances appeared to be excellent. Bob’s voice was great, and he was obviously putting a whole lot of focus and art into his singing. Yet, after the initial excitement of hearing the album faded, I found myself oddly less and less inclined to listen to it. As great as it seemed to be on paper (so to speak) something about it didn’t really get me over the longer term. It was very hard to put a finger on, but over time I would look at my rows of Bob Dylan CDs and almost any of them seemed more appealing to listen to than that one. And yet, there was nothing about the songs or performances that I could say troubled me. It had to be the sound. There was something excessive about it. It was too bright maybe; too brittle; too … too something; just too much. Was it the digital recording process? Was it some flawed aspect of Bob Dylan’s self-production? It seemed to me that it might be a lot of things, or a combination of factors. (And this is exactly where I now believe I was wrong.)

Of-course I’d heard about the perceived problems with modern recordings, and Dylan himself had complained of them, like when he said:

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. Even these songs probably sounded ten times better in the studio when we recorded ‘em. CDs are small. There’s no stature to it. I remember when that Napster guy came up across, it was like, ‘Everybody’s gettin’ music for free.’ I was like, “Well, why not? It ain’t worth nothing anyway.”

He said this around the time that Modern Times was released. Hearing him talk like this, it seemed fair to think that he himself would do everything that he could to avoid the pitfalls of modern recordings, right? What didn’t seriously occur to me, however, was that something drastic might be done to his recordings after he delivered them.

Being a fan of music but not a determined audiophile, as such, I left my concerns to sleep in the back of my head. Something seemed wrong with Modern Times, but it was basically beyond me at that point.

So, we reach the Year of our Lord 2009, and the release, in April, of Bob Dylan’s most recent album, Together Through Life. The anticipation for this album was justifiably intense. It was known to be the organic product of a period of intense inspiration for Dylan. Bob went into the studio for the purpose of recording one song for a film soundtrack, but was so taken with the musicians he had, the sound he was getting and the overall feel of things that he recorded a whole album’s worth of songs. And the preview clips just whetted everyone’s appetite for more. There were great grooves and rough edges: accordion, trumpet, soul, vigor and vim. This was definitely going to be a classic Bob Dylan album.

And it arrived. And there were songs that I loved very much, as songs, like This Dream of You, I Feel A Change Comin’ On, and It’s All Good. And the performances just seemed to be dynamite. Bob’s singing was earthy and on target. The musicians were playing with both spontaneity and tightness. It was great. And yet … and yet, as time went on, it was a little like deja-vu all over again. I wasn’t listening to the album anywhere near as frequently as I ought to have been, all things being equal. I felt that it should have been like Desire, like Blood On The Tracks, or even Infidels — Dylan albums which I can still listen to with great pleasure and hear little nuances and depths that are fresh to my ears. Together Through Life just didn’t seem to be affecting me like it should, given the nature of the songs and performances. Again, it seemed that there was something wrong with the sound of the album, but what? And what recourse does a listener have, anyway, under such circumstances? You can only listen to the thing that you’ve bought, after all. It was frustrating.

As the months passed I remembered that I had read a blog post by someone comparing the CD version of Together Through Life to the vinyl version, right around the time of release. It had been somewhat interesting, but I was more concerned at that point with just hearing the album rather than worrying about possibly arcane audio issues. Now, given my difficult-to-pin-down disappointment over the album’s sound, I went back to that post. It was by Pete Bilderback at his music blog called Flowering Toilet.

It dealt with the subject of dynamic range compression, and it unfavorably compared the music of the Together Through Life CD to the music of the vinyl release, illustrating the difference with pictures of the respective wave-form representations of the song Beyond Here Lies Nothin’. This time, I followed the link in the post to a previous piece on Modern Times, which made an even more damning comparison between the CD version and the vinyl.

I’d heard about this issue of compression. It’s not the kind of compression that is used to create mp3 files; that is a compression of data, for easier portability, which undoubtedly results in varying degrees of fidelity loss, but is a completely different subject. Dynamic range compression (see Wikipedia here), on the other hand, has long had legitimate uses and still does, but lately there had been complaints that it was being employed excessively on popular music CDs, with the goal of making the music just sound louder, so that it would seem to pop out more on radios and computer speakers and music players of every description, and people would presumably be more likely to notice it and to buy it. A simple example of this process in action is the way in which commercials on TV generally sound louder than the TV shows themselves. At some point some of those who work for record companies decided that it would be good to make their artists’ music jump out of speakers also, in order to better grab the attention of listeners.

Intrigued now, I read up further on the so-called “loudness wars”. The more I read, the more that what I read spoke to me regarding the very problems I seemed to be having listening to the latest Bob Dylan albums. Dynamic range compression reduces the distinction between the quiet parts of a recording and the loudest parts, making every part of the recording sound louder. In some ways, this might seem a good thing, because it means you won’t miss the quiet parts.


A very decent and very brief illustration of the problem.

A recording so compressed might even sound better and brighter to your ears on first listen. But, especially when abused and taken to extremes, what the process does is flatten out the entire recording, removing all nuance both at the upper and lower levels. What you’re left with is a recording that is stripped of its natural variation and complexity. It is, if you like, static, in the sense of being relatively unchanging, all the way through. It is as if every aspect of the recording is just blaring out at you with equal force.

In the end, many believe that what it does is render the music boring to your ears and to your brain, although you may not realize it at first, and you may never quite figure out what’s wrong without having a point of comparison. There is a term for it: listening fatigue. Instead of your ears and your brain enjoying the almost endless complexities of a natural and warm musical performance, what they’re perceiving is more like just one unchanging level of sound. It is the direct opposite of what music has always been, whether in live performance or on recordings dating back to the dawn of audio technology. And when a recording has been compressed in this way, the effect will be carried over no matter what equipment you use to listen to it. Certainly, the effect will be most notable on good equipment in an ideal setting, but the loss of the natural dynamic range in the music will still be there even after it’s been shrunk to mp3 size and listened to on a cheap player with lousy earbuds. You just can’t get that quality of the music back once it’s been taken away, and you will miss it, whether you’re conscious of it or not.


However, for me, merely reading about all this was never going to clinch the issue. Inspired by Pete Bilderback’s comparison of the vinyl Bob Dylan albums to the CDs, I made the decision to order the vinyl editions of Modern Times and Together Through Life.This was no small expense, by my standards. I’m frugal by nature, and I have excellent reason to be so these days. I certainly can’t see buying music twice (although thanks to changing formats there are quite a few albums I’ve bought three times during my lifetime, so far). But Bob Dylan’s music is important to me. Something was denying me the enjoyment I should be getting from it, and this was the best lead I had yet found on what that something might be. Could it be that this issue of dynamic range compression was in itself the beginning and the end of the problem? (Click for page two …)

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36 Responses to “Tears of Rage: The Great Bob Dylan Audio Scandal”
  1. Thanks for this good writing on the subject. I've got Together through Life on vinyl, and it came with the CD, and no question the vinyl sounds better. I still have to get the vinyl Modern Times though. I can't understnad how Dylan lets this happen.

  2. Sean, one puzzling aspect you didn't touch upon (despite having covered a multitude of points) is how do these recent flawed mastering jobs compare to recent re-releases – both the Bootleg Series and the reissued proper albums.

    It would appear that a very different approach and different engineer is being utilized.

  3. Rich: Very good point. It requires a lot of legwork to really sort all that out. I think that of all the recent releases that I've heard, nothing sounds as BAD as "Modern Times," but the quality of each of the others, including the reissued ones, no doubt would have to be evaluated on a case by case basis, and I'm not necessarily the most qualified person to do that. I did mention "Tell Tale Signs," which is part of the Bootleg Series. Looking at some of the waveforms from it says that it does have some excessive dynamic range compression being applied, but it is not so bad-sounding to my ears as the three original Bob albums of the 21st century.

    As to specific engineers: I don't know if the guy credited on the sleeve as doing the mastering on each album is really responsible for the bad result that we get on the CD. It may be so, but I prefer to blame nameless Sony/Columbia villains.

  4. Yes! I've been aware of this issue for a while, and there's an article in the current Wired about how "good enuf" stuff is going to win out. It's also part of the long march away from live music brought on by recorded music, a real cultural shift that still hasn't played out.

    The light really went on for me when a sound engineer I hired to master a CD for me mastered a homemade CD of mine for free just to show what he could do. It's just solo electric keyboard with music (Bach, Handel, Renaissance and some of mine) played slowly to be used as relaxation music, or background for body work sessions. When I first listened to it, couldn't believe how much more alive and inviting it was, and couldn't figure out what he'd done. When I asked he said he'd decompressed it, that is made softs softer and louds louder, increasing the dynamic range.

    The problem with being aware of this issue is that once that's the case, you hear it everywhere, whether you want to or not.

    Coincidentally, just did a post on my blog about how there's a primitive part of the inner ear that can trigger the release of endorphins when exposed to rhythms louder than 90 decibels. That's part of why so many think louder is better.

  5. the problem has always been sound versus convenience. it took me years to buy a CD player, both because of the antiseptic sound quality and the ridiculous price that the record companies charged for a cheaper technology.
    but the world moves on, and the unreleased Dylan recordings I bought from AJ Weberman on reel-to-reel tapes (yes, honestly) that you could get on LPs or cassettes were suddenly available on CD and then downloadable, in better quality than ever. So it's swings and roundabouts at the end of the day.? But honestly, who really cares about 'Modern Times'. I'm listening to "'Blonde on Blonde" as I write, that sound is still as magical as it was forty years ago.

  6. Wow, what a thorough analysis of a nasty problem!

    It explains why I was underwealmed by Together Through Life. I kept saying to myself, "these are good songs. whats wrong with me?"

    I love "Jolene" but the other songs just didnt hold my interest like previous albums. I enjoy them, but they just dont stick with me.

    I never noticed it with Modern Times or Love and Theft.

    The music industry has been ripping-off its consumers for decades. Remember 1980's Tom Petty lawsuit? So the cynical side of me thinks there are already plans in the works to re-issue "remastered" versions of these CDs to generate more income.

    Guess I gotta get my turntable dusted off and operable!

  7. I read someone's analysis a little while ago in which he declared that Modern Times on CD sounds like an electric album, Modern Times on vinyl sounds like an acoustic album with some electric instruments. I think that there's something interesting in that idea

  8. I encountered the same problem when buying Johnny Cash's album 'The Man Comes Around' from iTunes. Looking at the waveform on those tracks showed much of the louder parts 'chopped off' – and the sound was distorted. I bought the physical CD from Amazon! Has anyone else found an even bigger degradation of sound on music downloaded legally from sources such as iTunes?

  9. Fascinating article. I used to share a flat with an audiophile who was also a BBC sound engineer. His hearing (or at least his knowledge of his hearing if you know what I mean) was far better than mine. He was a vinyl fan, and he believed that there was something that you unconsciously hear from vinyl that you don't from digital. Although I couldn't rationalise it, I know what he meant. I don't get that frisson from CDs that I used to from a good quality vinyl. Vinyl used to make me jump up and down – I thought I was just getting old, but maybe I'm not hearing what it was that made me want to do that.
    It's worth bearing in mind that in the early days of CDs, they were often better than vinyl simply because the LPs were produced in huge quantities on thin vinyl from increasingly worn plates – MJ's "Bad" was notorious for this – early pressings were good, later ones from worn plates were supposedly horrible.
    I always wondered why Modern Times left me cold. I loved many of the songs but the experience of listening to the album left me a bit "meh".
    I actually really discovered the strength of the songs when I started singing them myself with the guitar. They have a delicate beauty that doesn't seem to be there when listened to, despite careful and considered performances from Bob and the musicians.
    I may just bite the bullet and give the old overdraft an airing and get these on vinyl. I'll need to get a turntable too, but it sounds like it might be worth it. Hey, anything that impoves "Thunder on the Mountain" must be worth the money.

  10. Great piece
    Awaiting the new CD's of The Beatles repertoire I am still scared about the quality that is going to be offered. If the problem of DYNAMIC RANGE is not dealt with properly EMI has a huge problem with music lovers. Of course they say compression is applied only slightly, on less than 5% of the music. Holy sh… that is about a half an hour of spoil music.
    Yet the first reviews of the mono albums are disturbing. Your review is informative in ways unexpected.
    Thanks for such a good piece on the quality of sound, and you bet I am going to by the vinyl-versions of the Dylan albums.

  11. Great story. One point though, compression will always make a singer sound better. You will appear to hold notes longer etc etc. Most live acts use them.
    A mediocre or damaged voice will "come up"" 100 percent. A weak high register will sound as strong as a powerful lower-you get the idea. I reckon that Dylan requires substantial vocal compression, given his ruined voice.
    BTW less compression for Vinly because the "cutters" can impress very wide dynamic range on the grooves of LPs- the cartridge's ability to reproduce is another matter.

  12. Regarding Dylan's voice: one thing I noticed quickly when listening to the uncompressed vinyl version of "Modern Times" was that there was more going on in Dylan's voice than I had previously noticed, little weaknesses that I hadn't heard. These would be imperfections in a singer to whom we look for technical excellence — a Pavarotti — but for a singer like Dylan imperfections are part of the package. They're an element of his humanity and character and why we love him. They carry emotional resonance. So, smoothing these things out with excessive dynamic range compression is a terrible crime.

  13. It should be noted that compression has been used on recordings for decades, digital or not. Dylan's voice would be recorded with it at the source as would other individual tracks at the time of the recording. Compression is a very important tool for recording and mastering engineers and shouldn't be abused to the point of those graphs presented. Dylan being a producer would be more than aware of this problem at the mastering stage so I find it hard to believe that he didn't okay the final proof. Brickwall limiting IMO is sucking the life out of great recordings and needs to be exposed more. Great article……

  14. So are all the recent Dylan remasters subjected to the same treatment? Has "Blonde on Blonde" undergone dynamic range compression?

  15. Personally, I'd only want to say "Not necessarily." I don't want to set myself up as the judge of all these CDs. I'm confident about what I've said in the article here, but I'm not a bona fide audiophile. But there are sites like <a href=”http://www.stevehoffman.tv” target=”_blank”>www.stevehoffman.tv with forums where specific recordings get discussed in great detail.

  16. The problem is Dylan's voice. He might be putting all kinds of effort into it but his vocal cords lost their ability for good after Street Legal as far as I can tell. His last live concert with any vocal strength seems to be at Budokon (although I'm sure it was still strong in the Australia shows that immediately followed Japan and preceded Street Legal's recording). But after Street Legal — and I'd love an explanation because I've never seen such a precipitous loss of vocal quality in any other singer — his vocals have been thin, strained and without force. I mean now…his vocals sound like he's singing through the worst strep throat…it's really too bad…because the writing is great. I keep wondering if he'd stop touring for a couple years and rest his vocal cords if he'd give them a chance to heal. Any doctors out there who can offer thoughts on this?

  17. [...] release date of November 24th and a current price of $23.99. In the light of Sony/Columbia’s recent history of putting an inferior, excessively loud mastering of Dylan’s music on their CD…, while putting a superior version on the LPs, many might prefer to wait for the [...]

  18. People will always argue about Dylan's voice, but that's not the issue in question here.

  19. you gotta get the modern times vinyl, the guy is really not exaggerating

  20. If this is really is a scandal, let's start the online campaign to get the label to offer dynamic digital downloads of these albums immediately, to every poor sap who shelled out for the compressed abominations. They can save some face by calling it a special service for "audiophiles." Anybody in?

  21. I'm sure I'd sign such a petition, though I'm not personally inclined to organize one.

  22. [...] A  fairly recent blogpost by Sean Curnyn takes up this statement and turns it back on Dylan. Curnyn refers to a series of posts by Pete Bilderback on his blog Flowering Toilet, giving graphical examples of the difference in dynamic range between LP and CD versions of the same songs. [...]

  23. I disagree with you, Sean. The voice is the big factor, not the recording technology. And I'd suggest this truth is in the subtext of what you wrote in your original piece. You wrote, " [Bob Dylan] was obviously putting a whole lot of focus…into his singing. Yet, after the initial excitement of hearing the album faded, I found myself oddly less and less inclined to listen to it."

    You're spot on. " Focus" instead of "feel" is what you have on Modern Times. Focus is what Mr. Dylan must go with now to get anything sounding musical out of his ravaged vocal cords — because Bob's cords just don't respond to feel anymore — with some notable exceptions (songs like Netty Moore work well). Poor recording technology can't destroy the power of truth. Listen to Caruso. Or listen to Bob's singing on Blood on the Tracks on the junkiest sound system. The power is still there.

    Great discussion! Good job.

  24. NPR just posted a similar article (4 months later) : http://www.npr.org/templates/story/story.php?stor

  25. Generally speaking, no. The remasters of Dylan's older material has mercifully not been overly compressed. The CD remasters generally sound quite good and are an obvious improvement on the original CDs.

    Sundazed has released mono versions of the early albums on LP, and IMO these are essential listening as well.

  26. Sean–I just came across this article after narcissistically googling myself (yeah, I know everybody does it). This is a really great analysis, and I'm glad my own humble posts spurred you to think about this subject in depth. Keep up the good work.

  27. Pete: Thanks very much. It's those, like you, in the vanguard of the anti-dynamic-range-compression movement who will truly earn the statues in the town squares some day!

  28. I'm sure it's not just Bob Dylan's albums, why isn't anything happening to prevent this?

  29. [...] most of the Bob Dylan CD releases of the 21st century so far, and which I’ve previously raged about at length. One would like to assume that CD releases issued solely with the aim of recreating the sound of [...]

  30. This is pretty interesting to me as i want to get into the music business someday. I just did an experiment where I loaded two songs into Audacity. The first was “End of A Century” off Blur’s album Parklife, which was the original CD from 1994 that I’d got off eBay. The second was a song I’d downloaded, “Rill Rill” by Sleigh Bells, who have a bit of a reputation for being loud. I was amazed. End of A Century had a lot of hills and valleys and grooves, whereas Rill Rill was almost a big blue strip across the screen.
    What was interesting was I then put in a Blur song I’d downloaded from iTunes called “Advert”. While that one was a LOT quieter, I also noticed again it didn’t have the hills and valleys, mostly a blue strip.
    So what happened in roughly fifteen years?

  31. The vertical scale on your waveform graphics (which appear to be from Audacity) is linear. Since we ‘hear’ logarithmically’, the graphs should be logarithmic, ie; in ‘db’ ). The differences you are trying to show are exaggerated when displayed with the linear scale. (However in Audacity, you then have to use a consistent range when making comparisons, eg; 96 db or something less. Try it yourself, just open an audio file and change the display from Waveform to Waveform (db) ).
    Regards,
    Glen
    P.S. Nice to see a year old article on this still getting comments/generating discussion!

  32. Very much enjoyed reading this article. I guess I’m somewhat of a vinyl LP snob; I’ve long been aware that most CDs are mastered poorly, compared to the LP versions.

    At this moment I’m trying to snag a vinyl copy of “Love and Theft” (out of print) — which is becoming increasingly difficult to do, unless you have about $100 burning a hole in your pocket.

    — WC

  33. [...] actual sales rankings, Radio Impact, Listener ratings and Hearing loss, all show better results for music with a higher dynamic [...]

  34. [...] actual sales rankings, Radio Impact, Listener ratings and Hearing loss, all show better results for music with a higher dynamic [...]

  35. [...] War actually over? It would be very good news. I noticed a lot of traffic on my old post about the problems with Bob Dylan’s 21st century CDs a few days ago. It turns out that March 25th was “Dynamic Range Day” — a day set [...]

  36. In the case of Dylan, I find this especially frustrating – considering his great band for one and also his outspoken distaste for sloppy music production. It’s not like the guy even needs Sony to get his records out there. And yet, massive compression all over his new stuff for all the world to hear (and see).

    There’s some really good material on Modern Times, but I’m definitely not getting a record player just to be able to hear it. I guess a real aficionado could do the world a favor by recording the vinyl version to decent flac-files.

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