So, I’m listening to Led Zeppelin for the first time tonight. Well, not really the first time, but it might as well be — like I said, the last time I owned anything by the band was a very long time ago and involved tape cassettes and those flimsy, lightweight headphones with the fluffy foam pads that leaked as much sound to everyone nearby as was actually directed into the intended listener’s ear canal. Now I have the pleasure of some very nice high-end open-soundstage Sennheisers and digital audio. Yeah, fine, so digital isn’t as good as a virgin vinyl pressing played on a top-dollar turntable, but given that I don’t own either I’m content to settle for high-bitrate AAC files. Certainly there’s no comparison to those old cassettes. I’m hearing nuances and depth in the music that are pretty much only describable as “frickin’ awesome.” I randomly started with Houses of the Holy, and the first two songs alone (“The Song Remains the Same” and “The Rain Song”) were easily worth the price of the box set.
Happily, the Zeppelin box I picked up is a mid-’90s release, which means it sounds good. I’m not sure precisely when the music industry began mastering CDs for force and loudness instead of dynamism and subtlety, but the current trend of completely destroying the integrity of music during the engineering process is a major reason I’m reluctant to buy any CD published this decade. Apparently Metallica’s new album is the latest victim of this nonsense — not that I give a fat crap about Metallica, but it’s pretty depressing to see that even a band with such a huge name and, one would assume based on their reputation, such anal-retentive involvement in the recording process is powerless to keep their label from turning their work into a homogenous wall of sound.
Right, so now “Over the Hills and Far Away” is playing, and I’m trying to imagine what it would sound like with a completely flat histogram like that. The notion kind of makes me want to throw up a little bit! Instead, it looks like this:
See, music industry? That is what music looks like! Yeah, I get it. You’re selling to kids who use those terrible earbuds that Apple packs in with iPods, and you’re trying to get radio air time on stations where the music is forced to compete with commercials that are tweaked to play 10 dB louder than the songs themselves, so you’re up against rough odds and subtlety doesn’t always cut it. But could you maybe compromise a little? Maybe you could offer non-horrible editions of albums for those who actually want to enjoy what they’re listening to, kind of like how anime used to come in different VHS editions who people who thought it was less important to have English language audio than it was to avoid vocal performances by whoever happened to be sitting around the studio, actors or not. You can sell them to us in secret! No one has to know. Please, just stop turning interesting music into a deadening wall of sound.
Edit: Actually, after reading Ian Shepherd’s musings on this topic, it looks like the issues with Metallica’s new album are the fault of the band itself. So maybe the secret is to listen to music mastered by people who haven’t gone deaf from 25 years of standing in front of speaker stacks capable of filling a coliseum.