Friday, August 01, 2008

Digital compression.

In the summer of 1999, I was living and working in Calgary. While I was there, the Red Hot Chili Peppers came out with their first post-Navarro album, Californication (which I have since gotten rid of).

I bought the album at a local Future Shop, took it home and put it on my then-new bookshelf stereo system... and was puzzled. The thing had to be defective — not only was the EQ showing the levels blasting at the top of the gauges, but the thing sounded all distorted and crackly and shitty. So I took it back to the store, explaining to the salesperson that I thought there had to be something wrong with the thing, because it sounded so crappy. She said that was weird, but since I had my receipt, I exchanged it for a new one, which sounded exactly the same.

I didn't realize it at the time, but this album was, and is still, one of the most prominent examples of a ridiculous amount of audio compression (and apparently an online petition has begun to get the band to re-release it, without so much compression). The whole thing is just extremely loud; what should be the quiet parts of songs are at ear-splitting volumes, instead of being, you know, quiet. This is something called the loudness war, and it's getting ridiculous.

Fast-forward to today, and the relatively new album from The Apples In Stereo, New Magnetic Wonder. I'd only ever listened to this on an iPod in settings with lots of background noise, but this afternoon I sat down in my somewhat-quiet apartment and attempted to listen to it.

I made it through about three songs.

The whole thing just blasts at you with both barrels, even for the songs which you would expect to be on the subtle side. The first song on the album pleads with the listener to "turn up your stereo", but why would anyone want to? Studies have apparently shown that music which has been squashed into a uniform loudness is not as emotionally satisfying as something which has a bit of dynamic range, and this album has it in spades. As much as I'd like to like this album... it just hits me like a wall, and not in a good way.

Lemme tell ya, right now I'm listening to the simiarly-genre'd Beta Band from the late '90s, and it's infinitely more relaxing and satisfying. The quiet bits are quiet, but when they want to crank it up, they do. Then they turn it back down. Novel concept, eh?

I'm starting to wonder if one of the reasons Nirvana and the Pixies are/were so good is because they knew how the loud/soft dynamic worked, and consciously exploited it in their music. They also did their thing before recordings were all compressed to hell (apparently so they "get your attention" on the radio), so that might have something to do with it too.

Anyway, the moral of the story is that new music sucks, and this is but one reason. I should really listen to Beck's latest, Modern Guilt, with the same ear and see if it suffers from the same shitty sound quality that befell the Apples in Stereo.

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