Ever put a bunch of CDs on random in your disc changer, only to find yourself scrambling for the remote to turn down the volume when you go from a relatively quiet record to one that blasts? Ever wonder why different CDs are mastered at different volumes?
DKNY once explained to me that record companies have for years been pushing new CDs ever louder, in the belief that louder somehow equals awesomer. And it’s true that on cheap stereos and crappy headphones — the sort of equipment owned by, say, teenagers — the additional loudness can give a record some extra power.
Unfortunately, the effect is achieved through a process called compression, in which the dynamic range of the recording is squeezed, so that the quietest sounds become louder and the loudest sounds become quieter. Then the whole reduced-range package is given a higher overall volume. An article in the Austin-American Statesman goes into greater detail about both the technicalities and the industry issues behind them. This tends to smooth the music into a roaring mass of sound that is fatiguing to the ears. It’s a trick Phil Spector used and was probably right to use: he was making three-minute ditties to be played on AM radio, surrounded by far less densely recorded songs. But it’s why entire CDs of Spector hits are so exhausting. Eventually the wall of sound crushes you.
On today’s 70-minute pop CDs, though, the effect can be intensely wearing. So why do producers do it? Partly there’s an element of competition: when your disc comes up in the changer, you want people to hear it. Likewise when they listen to your song in MP3 form in the car or the subway, where it has to compete with background noise. And I will admit that while commuting, I often skip songs with a lot of quiet bits in them.
Music has always been affected by the requirements of loudness. Jazz went from tuba to upright bass when electrical amplification made the latter audible over the uproar of the brass, and this allowed a looser rhythm that became known as swing. Louis Armstrong’s trumpet and Caruso’s tenor had the clean, clear wave forms necessary to punch through the static of 78s, while new hi-fi technologies ushered in the crooners of the 1950s. Electrification of guitars was initially a way to make them louder, with distortion considered a problem to be avoided, as its name implied; only after Jimi Hendrix did musicians start using distortion as its own instrument. And I have posited that the high-treble tendencies of 1970s heavy metal — the squealing guitar solos and Robert Plant-inspired screeching — had much to do with the fact that people listened to this stuff on FM radio in their cars, where bass notes and baritone voices would be buried under the rumble of engine noise.
Will we pull back?
Trends in recording come and go, and we are in a moment that has particular respect for sheen. It’s an 80s retro moment, among other things, and 80s pop production was awfully shiny and bright. En Vogue and Paula Abdul and Def Leppard and Bon Jovi had very, very clean, slick production. Ultimately that’s much of what made them sound ridiculous. Late-80s pop was knocked off its perch by the inheritors of a countercurrent in 80s rock: the post-punk murk and dynamic range of Steve Albini and the Pixies. Nirvana made their fortune from dynamic range, and alternative acts and labels with decidedly unshiny production — SubPop, Beck’s Mellow Gold, Pavement — took over the mainstream.
For a while, no record was complete without pointless feedback and studio noise tacked on. (Did we really need that extra three seconds of amp hum at the end of the song?) But like anything else, grunge ran its course, and artists who demonstrated auditory discipline and sophistication and songcraft began to sound fresh and new instead of stale and packaged. At the same, technology created another shift in the way young artists were creating music. For the first time, it became cheaper and easier to assemble sophisticated soundscapes on computer than to buy a guitar, a bass, two amps, a trap kit and a four-track. Guitar-driven garage rock lost its claim to superior authenticity, and anyone with a computer could be a record producer. To stand out as professional — to protect the guild, as it were — actual record producers have had to go searching for things to do that kids in their basements can’t do. And as far as I can tell, compression and loudness are the marks of professional as opposed to amateur CD production.
I suppose the big question is whether artists and record companies will be willing to risk musical moments that get lost when tracks are converted to low-grade MP3s and played in noisy environments. My guess is that they will, and that quieter CDs with more dynamic range will eventually be seen as a mark of sophistication. Why? Because pop music is always looking for a new sound, and its pendulum is always swinging. Some record with phenomenal dynamic range will sell a gazillion copies, and suddenly everyone will be demanding auditory Easter eggs, hidden sounds that only show up at high volume. (“Telephone call for Mr. Jones!”) It’s as likely as anything else.
Well, almost anything else. The one really unlikely scenario is that pop music will keep sounding like it does today.