Modern Times Bob Dylan

Tears of Rage: The Great Bob Dylan Audio Scandal

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(Cont’d from page one.) A couple of weeks later, I received the long-playing records in the mail. Now, I do not want to risk overstating it, but, in all honesty, when I put the needle down on Modern Times, and heard Thunder On The Mountain, a chill went up my spine. It went on and on, and into the delicate Spirit On The Water, and in no small way I felt as if I was hearing the album for the very first time. This was a Bob Dylan album. This, in fact, was a great Bob Dylan album. It was alive, it was natural, it had depth and nuance and poignancy and richness and warmth. My ears and my brain (and indeed my heart) had plenty to keep them interested and occupied. There was nothing boring and nothing blaring about these recordings. The producer “Jack Frost” had nothing to be ashamed of after all: his production was beautiful.

Illustrations:

Spirit On The Water -- CD version
Spirit On The Water — CD version

Spirit On The Water -- LP version
Spirit On The Water — LP version

On Together Through Life, the difference was there again, although a tad less dramatically. But I could feel the songs and performances on the LP getting me in my gut, in the way that great Bob Dylan songs are supposed to, where the CD versions had become strangely wearisome to me.

I Feel A Change Comin' On -- CD version
I Feel A Change Comin’ On — CD version

I Feel A Change Comin' On -- LP version
I Feel A Change Comin’ On — LP version

Comparing the CDs with the LPs and using my own ears left me in no doubt. In an effort — apparently — to make the music more marketable, somebody at Sony/Columbia has been applying extreme levels of dynamic range compression to Bob Dylan’s recordings as mastered for CD, hoping that they would therefore compete better with other contemporary music and jump out of radios and other audio players. Meanwhile, the versions marketed to those audiophiles who are motivated to purchase the vinyl LPs were being left intact, as if those buyers would be the only ones interested in hearing the actual recording with all of its natural quiet parts and loud parts.

The question must be asked: Is Bob Dylan himself aware of this? Well, there are reasons to think that it could well be a case of “something is happening here but you don’t know what it is.” I quoted Dylan earlier in this piece, seeming to struggle (at least in 2006) for a way of describing the problem he heard in modern recordings, but not coming up with a specific diagnosis. Further, in the recording session for a 2005 song called Tell Ol’ Bill, a copy of which has circulated among fans, Dylan at one point is heard saying words to the effect of: “Well, it sounds great in here. I don’t know what it’ll sound like on the record …”. Is it possible that he doesn’t know what’s ultimately happening to the recordings, even though he’s producing the recording sessions himself? We know that he works with recording engineers in the studio, who handle the technical aspects. He’s not into turning knobs and pressing buttons, but he knows what he likes to hear and what he doesn’t like. When he’s recording an album, he ends up with something that he’s happy with, obviously. It may well be unknown to him that the version mastered for the CD later has this dynamic range compression process applied to it, and what that even means might not be properly understood by him. He may have heard the term — indeed, how could he avoid it? — but he may not have a tangible sense of what it does to his own recordings. Perhaps he’s one of those who just presumes that vinyl must be inherently better than compact disc, as a medium, and he thinks that this is the explanation for what he hears and doesn’t hear on his CDs. (Yet, in reality, the compact disc as a medium can handle even greater dynamic range than a vinyl record, if called upon to do so.) There certainly are artists who are aware of the problem and who protest it. Dylan so far has not publicly and explicitly done so.

In any case, this is what I believe: Anyone who bought these CDs has in effect been cheated. They are not getting the music as it was intended to be heard. They are in a true sense not getting what they paid for. (And this includes myself.) I think that there’s a heckuva class-action lawsuit waiting to be brought against the music industry on this issue. Realizing what is going on here makes me lose all sympathy for executives who complain about declining sales and what online file-sharing is costing them. As Dylan himself said in 2006, “It ain’t worth nothing anyway.” Indeed, there is a case to be made that the very distortion of popular music through excessive dynamic range compression has itself impacted sales. When music gives you little pleasure — whether you’re aware of the reason for it or not — you will be less inclined to spend money on it.

People will say: “Well, Bob Dylan has had two number one albums in a row! How can you say there’s a problem?” It’s not complicated: People bought those CDs based on their impression of what kind of music they would contain; an impression influenced by a whole variety of factors. Initially, they would also be likely to be quite happy with the content. It is over time that the music would become dull to their ears, and for reasons that are not going to be obvious to the average listener. (If you don’t know what you’re missing, you’re not going to miss it; not consciously, at any rate.)

So what is any listener to do, who already has the CDs, in advance of the record company deigning to rectify the issue? If you own a turntable, then you at least have the option of buying the LPs. It is obviously an awful thing that anyone should have to purchase the music a second time in order to hear it properly, as I know too well. And if you don’t own a turntable, you understandably will be quite loathe to invest in the purchase of one just for the sake of hearing a couple of albums properly. (Really, you’d have to be nuts.)

Someone who does own the vinyl versions could, of-course, make digital copies of them. The legality of this and in particular of sharing the result with others is naturally open to question, even if those with whom you are sharing it have already spent the money to buy the damaged CD version. Mind you, making high quality digital copies of vinyl records is not always the easiest process. But it can be done, and good copies of the vinyl versions, burned to CD, will be head and shoulders above the officially released CDs (at least the ones which sit on my CD shelves, never to be listened to again).

But the sad reality is that the genuine recordings of these Bob Dylan albums are simply not going to be heard by most listeners, until and unless Sony/Columbia releases corrected versions of them. The most infuriating potential scenario is that, some years down the road, when this issue is more widely understood and accepted, and the era of the “loudness wars” is universally scorned, the record company will actually issue “remastered” versions with great fanfare, so inviting fans to buy the albums all over again. As if they’re doing us all a favor!

Continuing to research this whole issue in relation to Dylan, it seems likely to me that it began in earnest with the “Love and Theft” album (and the LP version of that one is not even in print anymore). My copy of Time Out Of Mind (from 1997) appears to be fine, when the wave-forms are analyzed, and this reflects what my ears hear too. Tell Tale Signs unfortunately betrays the, ah, tell-tale signs of dynamic range compression.

I should note, though, if it hasn’t been clear up to this point, that this issue is also always one of degree. A recording might reflect some signs of dynamic range compression, or it might be more extreme, like what’s called “brickwalling.” (The exact nature of the music on the CDs you own can also depend on when and in what market you purchased them.) In Dylan’s case (and going by the copies I own), it seems to me that Modern Times was the the most heavily compressed in this fashion and therefore suffered the most damage. But it now seems clear enough to me that all three of Dylan’s proper studio albums of the twenty-first century have had excessive dynamic range compression applied, such that a listener’s enjoyment cannot but be impacted over time.


Even more than this makes me angry, it makes me sad. Bob Dylan has been amazingly creative and on-the-ball since entering his seventh decade of life back in 2001. He’s been producing his own albums, really for the first time, and displaying great confidence and skill, and a mastery of all kinds of musical styles and textures. He has written some damned good songs. He’s put down some superb performances, along with the musicians he’s hand-picked to play with him. It is a special and a stellar stage of his long and incredible career, and he has appeared to be professionally happier and more at peace than at any other time. Yet, all along, we have just not been hearing the music as we ought to have been hearing it, if we’ve been listening to these CDs. To my mind, the only word that can properly be applied to this is scandal.

In addition to Pete Bilderback’s analysis on this subject (for which I’ll be forever grateful), another good link to follow to find out more about the general issue (from the point of view of a fan of the band Rush, rather than a Bob Dylan fan) is this one, from way back in 2002, but obviously still highly relevant: Over the Limit.

……

30 thoughts on “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?

    1. 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.

    2. 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.

  15. 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?

      1. 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.

  16. 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?

  17. 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.

    1. 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!

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

  19. 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?

  20. 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!

  21. 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

  22. 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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