And now: naked girls climbing a hill

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.

26 thoughts on “And now: naked girls climbing a hill

  1. Is there some way you could implement author names into the RSS feed? I pretty much knew this was you from the start, but Google Reader just shows all the articles here as “from Verbal Spew” instead of “from Verbal Spew by j. parish” which would help out immensely now that you’ve got other people’s opinions mixing in with yours.


  3. I, unfortunately, never listened to vinyl, so I can’t tell how it would sound. Your post has now got me wondering how much of my songs are without any dynamic pitch and tone. Most likely all of them.

  4. Wait, how is it possible for digital to not be better than vinyl? There’s physical crap involved there, the needle hits the record, produces sound and whatnot. With digital there’s none of that crap involved.

  5. With a really super-awesome vinyl setup, you don’t get the excess noise. The problem with digital is that it’s a destructive format — sound exists as waveforms, and analog media like tape and vinyl preserve those waves (provided the vinyl is mastered from a fully analog source and not AAD, ADD or DDD). Digital breaks waveforms into countless tiny samples. I’ve actually heard high-end analog compared to a CD and it’s really quite a difference…but for anyone who doesn’t have a ridiculous budget and a perfect, isolated listening environment, digital music is peachy. (As long as you don’t let Metallica master it.)

  6. Rip,

    The argument of analog vs. digital goes:

    Sound waves are analog, they are a continuous form with infinite variance. So a continually varying media (e.g. the grove in a record or the magnetic field on a tape) can provide a better representation of the original source. The difficulty is in accurately retrieving this information from the media (and not wearing it out in the process).

    Where CDs contain discrete samples of the original analog data at fixed periods in time. Albeit these samples are taken quite often (44,100 times a second) and quantified into a large possible number of values from 0 for silence to 65,535 (16-bit) for the loudest possible state. When reassembled these samples come close to mimicking the source, but in theory something is lost either between the samples or in having to settle on on of the 64k levels. Of course 192kHz/24-bit sampling does much to combat those arguments.

  7. My favorite group, Nightwish, performed what I believe to be an awesome version of “Over the Hills and Far Away”, a cover of Gary Moore’s version of the old song.

  8. Yea, strongly agreed on the dynamic compressino thing. Whenever I listen to my music collection it seems like the last bastion of good sound engineering is in my classical music selection. Not that there aren’t some bad eggs in there, but the percentage that are good is much higher than what I’ve experienced in other genres. Also, many thanks for saying out loud what a surprising number of people are unable to grasp regarding those iPod earbuds.

  9. Reading this reminded me of the disclaimer on the (only) Zwan album six years ago, warning customers that the cd was mastered extremely loud. Apparently someone released pre-masters of half of the tracks and listening to them for the first time tonight, I finally have noticed the difference.

  10. I took a Recording class once that was one half Mac commercial, one half “compression is ruining music!” rant. Apparently I was the professor’s first student to actually use dynamics (meaning a range of soft to loud) in the final project. Pretty distressing if you ask me. In my opinion, music is rhythm first, dynamics second, harmony third, and melody fourth. What better way to express emotion than to use dynamics?

    That’s why I kick it old school and listen mostly to classical, preferably live. You can’t compress acoustic!

  11. I think the utter nadir of terribly “hot” mastering was the last Flaming Lips album, which was not only ridiculously loud, but had digital clipping so terrible that I wound up with a pounding headache after only two songs.

    Of course, there are some albums that use compression to good, purposeful effect. I’m thinking particularly of Primal Scream’s ‘Exterminator’.

  12. Sadly I have not experienced the joy of a vinyl record, as my dad gave away his impressive rock album collection (numbering in the hundreds) before I was born. I might forgive him eventually.

    Led Zeppelin is one of those bands where you easily forget just how truly great they are because of the incessant radio repeats of the same half a dozen songs and dumb ‘jock rock’ fans.

  13. This is nothing new. Erasure tried the LOUDER IS BETTER approach eight years ago with Loveboat. Boosting guitars is one thing, trying to exponentially raise up the volume of a clean digital synthesizers and drum machines is aural suicide. I’ve never been able to make a decent rip of it, and I’ve been trying for nearly a decade (with SoundJam oddly enough providing the best results).

  14. Really, as for this stuff goes, it just depends on the music. I’m not much of an audiophile, so I never really noticed until this year, when I started listening to some of Rudy Van Gelder’s Blue Note recordings on vinyl. -That- made a difference.

    And I knew there was something wrong with that Zwan album, but (ignorant as I am in these things), I couldn’t put my finger on it. I’ll have to hunt down that older one now.

  15. Ah… I’m so proud of Parish and friends right now. Maximized levels kill everything. Shitty engineering is the reason why I don’t like any new rock music. Used to be that rock instruments sounded like something that was being created by a human. Now they just sound like GENERIC GUITAR SLAB and GENERIC DRUM SLAB regardless of who or what you’re listening to. Uggghhh, the drums… the drums were the first to die.

    With that said, not ALL newly remastered stuff is bad. Depeche Mode, Bob Dylan, Talking Heads, and Brian Eno are four groups off the top of my head who have had recent full-catalog remasters that sound excellent and are not brickwalled to the moon.

    Rudy Van Gelder’s CD remasters stink. That man is deaf and should not be trusted at the boards anymore. The late-’80s/early-’90s discs of the same albums are better.

  16. Also: digital noise reduction, also known as loud mastering’s shithead stepbrother. In extreme moderation it can do good things like make a transfer from an old, destroyed 78 more listenable. More often than not, though, it’s used completely unnecessarily and it ruins music. It’s the reason why the most recent release of Hunky Dory by David Bowie sounds like a low-bitrate MP3.

    I could go on forever about these annoyances. I used to post at a forum that was pretty much dedicated to being crotchety about them, in fact. I’ll stop now.

  17. I saved my allowance for a long time to buy this very box set when it came out in 1993. The discs are all pretty trashed-looking now, but they still work.

    As for sound quality, I’m embarrassed to say that I can never tell the difference. This mixing-for-MP3 thing that people are complaining about… I can totally see it in the waveforms, but I can’t hear it.

  18. The Loudness War is yet another stake in the coffin of the music industry. A shame. I’ve heard a few albums that have reaped the benefit of purposely “bad” mastering, though — all of Mainliner’s albums, save the last one. As for the superiority of vinyl, I tend to agree, and for reasons that are not simply fidelity-related. It’s generally cheaper (starts to get a bit expensive when you’re looking for a rare groove or something pressed on a 180 gram slab), one can have a potentially VAST library, and you can SEE the art. A prog afficianado like Parish surely must see the merits of this last point. What with prog albums having some of the most amazing and ridiculous artwork ever (read: ELP’s “Tarkus”, whatever the name of that completely mindblowing Semiramis album is).

  19. Yeah, I rip my CDs in Apple Lossless, even though I can’t tell the difference between them and a good mp3 bitrate. (I recently found out that apparently I’ve been ripping to mp3 by accident for the last several months, and never realized by sound.)

    Speaking of Led Zeppelin, anybody here listened to Robert Plant’s recent work with Alison Krauss? I’m wildly in love with it. (I may be biased on account of the presence of “Fortune Teller” on their album, one of my very most favoritest R&B songs of all time.) They’ll be performing at the (free!) Hardly Strictly Bluegrass festival in San Francisco on October 3rd, for those of you in the area. (Come early, because half the Bay Area is going to be at that.)

  20. Sak raises good points in favor of vinyl’s advantages, but its aesthetic strengths simply can’t rival the logistical strengths of digital formats. I can’t listen to vinyl on the bus, I can’t buy a single song instantly on vinyl, and I can’t be sure that my music won’t have degraded in a year or more with vinyl.

    In a related subject, what is with small bands releasing singles and EPs on vinyl only? That’s not just inconvenient, it’s insulting. “What do you mean, you don’t have a record player? Clearly, my music isn’t for you. You’re not good enough to listen to it.”

    …Also, why on earth would 8-bit music be released on vinyl? Aside from irony’s sake.

  21. Yeah, I still have a vast digital collection, and I still like digital music. A lot. I’m not the biggest audiophile, namely because I have poor hearing, so that’s not the biggest concern. Also, I’m a poor graduate student so I generally just download albums off of Soulseek. Luckily, my taste in music coincides with “albums that have been out of print for fucking years”.

    Also, I have both that Zeppelin album collection and that four CD box set that came out ages ago. I think I dig MYSTERIOUS UNTITLED ALBUM AKA ZOZO OR IV!!! best because it’s them at their folkiest (you cannot have an album where Sandy Denny sings on one track and not have it be folky to the nth degree). ALSO STAIRWAY RULES (seriously it does).

  22. Al — as to the “vinyl only” thing. I have played in bands for years, and I can assure you, vinyl is the cheapest way to get a record pressed, aside from CD-Rs (which are inconvenient to have pressed, and a lot of people think that they’re ugly — I do). In addition to this, there’s a certain amount of traditionalism and mythos that many small bands tend to want to uphold. If the band rises in popularity, all that stuff will be released on CD within a year or three of its release anyway (Wooden Shjips is an example par excellance).

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