Bob Dylan and the Wall Street Journal on Bad Sounding Music

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From the Wall Street Journal Online, “Are Technology Limits In MP3s and iPods Ruining Pop Music?”

If it seems like you are listening to music more but enjoying it less, some people in the recording industry say they know why. They blame that iPod that you can’t live without, along with all the compressed MP3 music files you’ve loaded on it.

Those who work behind-the-mic in the music industry — producers, engineers, mixers and the like — say they increasingly assume their recordings will be heard as MP3s on an iPod music player. That combination is thus becoming the “reference platform” used as a test of how a track should sound. (Movie makers make much the same complaint when they see their filmed images in low-quality digital form.)

But because both compressed music and the iPod’s relatively low-quality earbuds have many limitations, music producers fret that they are engineering music to a technical lowest common denominator. The result, many say, is music that is loud but harsh and flat, and thus not enjoyable for long periods of time.

[…]

This shift to compressed music heard via an iPod is occurring at the same time as another music trend that bothers audiophiles: Music today is released at higher volume levels than ever before, on the assumption that louder music sells better. The process of boosting volume, though, tends to eliminate a track’s distinct highs and lows.

As a result, contemporary pop music has a characteristic sound, says veteran L.A. engineer Jack Joseph Puig, whose credits include the Rolling Stones and Eric Clapton. “Ten years ago, music was warmer; it was rich and thick, with more tones and more ‘real power.’ But newer records are more brittle and bright. They have what I call ‘implied power.’ It’s all done with delays and reverbs and compression to fool your brain.”

This kind of thing has been discussed and analyzed elsewhere, and that will continue for a long time to come. Of-course, bringing it all back home to Dylanesque considerations, Bob himself made comments that are not completely unrelated to the topic in an interview last year with Jonathan Lethem:

“The records I used to listen to and still love, you can’t make a record that sounds that way,” he explains.

“Brian Wilson, he made all his records with four tracks, but you couldn’t make his records if you had a hundred tracks today. We all like records that are played on record players, but let’s face it, those days are gon-n-n-e. You do the best you can, you fight that technology in all kinds of ways, but I don’t know anybody who’s made a record that sounds decent in the past twenty years, really. 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.'”

Of-course that’s a more generalized criticism than the stuff specific to mp3s and compression in the WSJ article. Dylan’s aware of the problems at least, though to what extent he understands where they’re coming from is another question. He was his own producer on Modern Times. Yet, if you ask me — although I don’t pose as a masterful audiophile — that CD suffers from some of the issues outlined here. To my ears it sounds too uniformly loud. There are not the right nuances and dynamics. Don’t get me wrong — I’m not dismissing the record, but just saying the released version is not all it ought to be. By contrast, I don’t perceive the same problem (or not to the same extent) with “Love and Theft”, which was recorded five years earlier and also produced by Dylan himself. So, if my ears are correct, something changed in the interim. I can’t imagine it’s Bob himself saying, “Make it louder! Make it all louder, yeah!” So I would think it’s more of post-production process. It’s a shame.

I guess, however, we can all look forward to a bright future of re-releases, when the music that is being released in inferior form today is re-packaged and marketed to us with lots of hoopla and slogans like, “Hear it like it was meant to be heard!” There’s nothing like selling the same thing back to people over and over again in slightly different forms. Today’s flawed music is like an investment in the future for the music industry.

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