Tears of Rage: The Great Bob Dylan Audio Scandal

Modern Times 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 …)