The unbearable loudness of recording

LoudQuietLoud is the title of a documentary about one of my favorite bands ever, the Pixies. It refers to one of the band’s simple but devastating trademarks: the contrast between very loud and spectrally soft passages, transitioned suddenly. It’s a simple but devastating device, and one that’s been frequently imitated.

Such contrast is hard to find in more recent recordings, not because it’s out of style, but because recorded music today is engineered to have no contrast between loud and soft passages. I first learned about this phenomenon a while back, through reading pages like this one or this one. An IEEE Spectrum piece — recently linked on Slashdot — brings the issue to the fore again.

For those of us already unhappy with the music industry’s bungling of the transition to digital distribution, here’s another thing we can blame them for. Seeking to have their products “stand out,” they entered a sonic race to the bottom. The links above can give you the full technical picture, but all you really need to do is look at the images comparing waveforms today and decades ago.

The irony is that we can only perceive loudness through contrast, so the contemporary recordings sound miasmic, not punchy. When you crank up all the dials to, as Spinal Tap would say, 11, everything sounds the same, your ears get tired, and you wonder why music doesn’t sound as good as it did when you were younger. You’re not just succumbing to nostalgia.

[tags]audio, dynamic compression[/tags]

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