By James Pew

How do you enjoy music with an ice pick in your ear?

“You listen to these modern recordings, they’re atrocious, they have sound all over them. There’s no definition of nothing, no vocal, no nothing, just like static.” – Bob Dylan in Rolling Stone Magazine.

Bob is one voice among many expressing disdain for modern digital recordings, in the above quote he refers to the abuse of digital audio compression tools and the narrowing effect they have on the dynamic range of music. But the digital age of music has both good and evil. The good can been seen mainly in its empowerment of indie producers and indie recording artists. Digital production tools make it easier for indies to get the music recorded. Digital distribution makes it easier to get the music delivered. And the internet makes it easier to get the music the promotion. The dark side is that many digital recording/playback devices and software tools are making music something that is hard to enjoy. You want to enjoy it. You used to enjoy it. Its music you love music, its just that its getting harder to listen to. Here are a few ideas about what it is that’s damaging the enjoyment of music.

Musical audio content – And the Top 4 offenders of quality material

1. Audio Compression.

“When there is no quiet – there can be loud” – Matt Mayfield – Youtube.com

In a nutshell; when audio compression, and its more extreme form called limiting, is applied, it reduces the difference in volume between the loud and quiet parts of music, called dynamic range. In other words, it brings the quiet parts up in volume so that they are closer or equal to the loudest parts. By decreasing dynamic range, you increase the average volume level of the music, which results in something perceptibly louder than music with full dynamic range. The abuse of audio compression has made music relentless in its loudness it has been proven to fatigue your ears and affect your mood in unpleasant ways.

Known as the loudness wars, and widely considered to be the biggest problem with modern music. Many believe that the years 1996 to 2008 will be remembered as an era of extreme low fidelity in popular music. Attributed to a senseless and seemingly endless pursuit for infinite loudness. Through the abuse of audio compression, loudness is being artificially manufactured into the recordings of popular music, all because a twisted industry doctrine proclaims louder recordings stand out. This assault on the art form was originally concocted by music industry participants whose interests were mostly financial – read: big business/corporations. Once the loudness treatment became the industry norm, artists and producers began demanding that their recordings have similar treatment. Driven by a desire to have their recordings “stand up” against the other artists in their genre – this vicious cycle took hold. Its hard to believe that, in the absence of industry pressures, any recording artist would choose to have their art treated so brutally. Awareness of this confusing and contentious issue has been virtually non-existent and until very recently the only people I knew who discussed audio compression were sound engineers and audiophiles. With awareness becoming wide spread – indie music optimists believe that the loudness wars may soon be coming to an end, but the battle is far from over. Studio Manifesto aims to empower indie artists and producers to reject the loudness regime. Understand the issue and spread the word – and history will reveal 2008 to 2018 as a revolutionary movement that not only ended the corporate control of the music business; but saw the creation of inspired artful musical content… without the gratuitous loudness.Check out this inspired youtube video I Want To Break Free from Loudness Wars.

So if the music we consume comes embedded with loudness, and we turn our stereos down to compensate for this artificial loudness, does that bring balance to the force? By adjusting your volume down you are making the level comfortable, true. Except with the average levels that high, the music still pounds away until turning down the volume eventually leads to shutting off the stereo. Since music has become so painful to listen to, its no surprise that an enormous demographic of music listeners seem to have completely lost interest, leaving the corporate music industry in a fast declining state of collapse. The piracy of content is far from the only reason music sales are down. So much of todays pop music, across almost every genre, has had the loudness treatment. Also known as the Wimpy Loud Sound. Read more about digital audio compression and the Loudness Wars here.

http://www.rollingstone.com/news/story/17777619

http://www.digido.com/other-audio-articles/loudness-war-explained

There is enough awareness within the industry; but being in a state of flux no issues are being effectively dealt with, beyond the issues of content and the future of its distribution. Again, sound quality takes a back seat to more pressing matters. I don’t like it more than any other muso or audiophile, but evolution takes time, so here is what Studio Manifesto suggests indie artists and producers do to revolt against the loudness regime. Join the resistance . Start by checking out mastering engineer Bob Katz’s honor roll and compare the difference between a pre-extreme loudness war recording and a modern product of the loudness war.

Is there a solution on the horizon?

Studio manifesto thinks the people over at turnmeup.org are on to something very very interesting.

2. File compression.

“Putting on a headphone and listening to an mp3 is like hell” Neil Young

Not to be confused with audio compression, file compression deals with the resolution of audio. I always think of resolution in terms of video. Imagine looking at a video clip with poor contrast and detail – the images would look blurry and distorted because the resolution is low. File compression removes resolution from the audio, as the compression is applied. The more heavily compressed, the lower the resolution. 16-bit files, called .wav files, the format used on CDs, are the main targets of file compression. MP3s are the product of 16-bit .wav file compression, but file tampering takes place well before the file makes it to 16-bit. Modern day producers typically record in 24-bit with sample rates of 44.1KHz, 96KHz, and even higher. A process called dithering is applied to the original high resolution footage converting the 24-bit/96kHz file to the CD standard 16-bit/44.1KHz file. Leaving you with something close to its un-dithered 24-bit counterpart, but noticeably lacking in resolution if you do a close comparison. MP3 conversion is actually sonic assault round 2. MP3s and other portable player and web friendly file types, come in a myriad of differing quality levels. Ranging from good and sounding close to CD quality, to horribly distorted indecipherable sonic disasters.

Many people can recognize the sonic artifacts that go hand and hand with poor quality digital conversion to low resolution MP3s. If you need help with that click below to provide an audio example.

For downloading, click the links below

| 96 kbps | 128 kbps | WAV |

MP3s have less sonic resolution than CDs and CDs have less than DVDs (which are 24-bit 96KHz – no dithering), and now Blu Ray is available boasting 24-bit/192KHz. File size trumps sound quality. To make matters worse Peter Mansbridge recently reported that social networking website youtube.com used as much bandwidth in the year 2007 as the entire internet did in the year 2000. The social networking movement on the internet has put an intense demand on bandwidth. The experts are predicting slow downs of the internet, which means that quality web friendly audio formats may be taking another back seat until web delivery technology speeds up. We are likely going to see more low-resolution MP3s as the internet strains from lack of available bandwidth, but that will hopefully be short lived. Once the internet improves its delivery technology, and makers of portable MP3 players improve there storage capacities, a day will come that by many will be unnoticed, but for myself and countless other muso’s, it will be a day worthy of vast celebration. File size will not be of such concern once the web becomes super powered. Maybe then the 24-bit format will be adopted as the internet standard… that is until someone invents a new audio file format with larger bit depths and sample rates, and so on and so on, just like the evolution of physical formats (analog: Vinyl, 8 track and cassette, to digital: CD and DVD). Studio Manifesto views this evolution as a great thing not only for the commerce it generates but also for the inspired and excellent work of those who develop better and better sounding file formats. It won’t be wasteful in terms of physical materials, unless of course we keep up with physical formats like CD and DVD and Blu Ray, which cause all sorts of problems for the indie artist, distribution for one. The internet rules for its promotion and distribution empowerment of the indie artist, but sucks for its affect on the quality of music.

Heres a few articles about MP3 compression and suggestions on how it should be applied.

http://www.mp3-converter.com/bitrates.htm

http://www.thetravelinsider.info/mp3/makingdigitalrecordings.htm

And heres one that talks about dithering.

http://www.planetoftunes.com/computer/dithering.html

Also a factor is the quality of audio playback systems and how they are setup. You could spend a lot of time researching this stuff – Go here to do that. (http://www.audioasylum.com)

3. Indie production value.

Production quality and the sound engineering of indie recording projects.

On the one hand we have mainstream popular music that is ramped up on loudness – and on the other hand we have indie production that often sounds more like demos than works of art. Is it Guerrilla style tactics – or Ed Woodian hackery? Because of the affordability and availability of music production tools, Guerrilla style indie production is empowering for the global indie community. This means there is much more music being produced by individuals in informal settings as opposed to in institutions with formal technical methods and practices. While the empowerment side is a great thing, it does mean that a lot of unqualified hacks are recording music with cheap consumer devices and are not applying sound engineering science or method. Often indie production values can be poor to abysmal. More about this in the upcoming blog post Guerrilla production – The empowerment of the indie producer and the decline of method.

4. Playback devices and the environments they are found.

Audiophile fanaticism – or a subtle, yet needed, adjustment in music listening culture?

The three key audio playback centers are – the portable audio device – the automobile – the home stereo/computer. When engaged in music listening at one of these playback centers, it is often impossible for the acoustics and/or the ambient noise of the immediate environment to allow the audio to be given a balanced delivery to your ears. I’m not talking about audiophile stuff, or about to suggest hanging expensive acoustic treatment on your walls – I’m referring to extreme environmental conditions like;

Even in your home – if there is a lot of unwanted noise in the environment it’s hard to enjoy music.

The engine of your car and the other traffic – I’ve measured the SPL (sound pressure level) in a car, with the stereo turned off, driving in the presence of other traffic – the levels were at 85db and up. To put that in context – it is not recommend to listen to music with average levels in excess of 85 db – These levels can be very fatiguing and even harmful to your ears. It goes without saying that once the car stereo is turned on – the levels go well beyond safe listening thresholds. When music is blasting into your ears at levels beyond the pain threshold things do not feel or sound good.

When walking the streets with your iPod – the traffic and environmental noise is competing for your ears attention. Some people wear bulky closed headphones that cancel some or all of the environmental sounds – but most people wear ears buds.

Broken down to common denominators – the people involved look like this:

One extreme is audiophiles – they have great stereo systems that they take the time to ensure are set up to allow for the best sound reproduction results possible. Some of these people are geeks, some are elitist snobs, but most are normal people with decent stereos (decent does not always mean expensive) set up correctly in semi quiet spaces.

The other extreme is the casual consumer of music who pays no heed to sound quality. Their playback systems are chosen by things like affordability and portability and other convenience factors. Often their devices, being the cheapest and having designs featuring things other than sound quality, are very poor at delivering accurate and balanced audio to their ears.

Well thats it for my first blog post. If you made it this far, your bound to have some interest in future posts. Please leave comments and add to the discussion. If you would like to sign up to this blog group go here.

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Welcome To The Land Of Loud by James Pew is licensed under a Creative Commons Attribution-Noncommercial-Share Alike 3.0 Unported License

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