Sunday, April 25, 2010

Some Thoughts on the Loudness War

I posted these words on the Steve Hoffman Forums, dealing with the music business' Loudness War.

Most people, certainly the majority, either don't know about this issue or don't care. I guess it depends on whether you're an optimist or a pessimist to judge where that falls. The crank in me sees this as more evidence that humans are mindless sheep, shuffling along to the dictates of culture and authority. The optimist in me sees a rising awareness, a sense that something is wrong. Even if the music lover is not aware of the science of the loudness wars, they feel something is off. They simply don't listen to new music anymore, and may just assume it's a part of aging.

I knew something was off with music all through the last decade, long before I knew anything about mastering or engineering or waveform graphs. I just discovered that I wasn't playing music (mostly MP3s by this point) like I was with CDs in the '90s. I read something Dave Mustaine once said about MP3s being inferior to the wave files of a CD, and I grokked that concept, but the idea of compressing and crushing music was completely alien to me.

It was only when I bought a Numark portable turntable in 2007, and picked up an old Led Zeppelin IV for $3.20 (turns out to be a "Porky"), that the revelation hit me. I was literally knocked out of my chair, overwhelmed. I had no way of explaining why this record was soooo miraculous. The sound was deeper, richer, warmer, more alive, more real. And you could hear all these sounds, tones, instruments deep in the background, sounds that were missing completely from CD and MP3.

Like most people, I knew next to nothing about vinyl records. Turntable spins, needle, music comes out. That's it. But I felt like Dorothy stepping into Technicolor Oz.

Anyway, the whole point to this long Grampa Simpson story (did I mention that I wore an onion on my belt?) is that these larger issues of the loudness wars, analog vs digital, and the vinyl revival were completely alien to me, and I would suspect this is the same for most people. Audiophiles know the technical reasons behind these issues, but the average public doesn't. And we had to dig deep and read endlessly to learn. This is something the audiophile crowd doesn't realize. You're a small group, and you're holding on to all the secrets.

I think education is the key. You need to educate people about the art and science of music, about the loudness wars (one of nation's many uselesss wars), about analog and digital and CDs and turntables. I believe the tide has been slowly turning, and awareness is rising among music lovers and the musicians themselves. How many more bands now insist on greater dynamics, or analog recording and mastering for their vinyl LPs? Heck, the band Low (from Duluth, MN) proudly advertises "AAA" stickers on their LPs.

I wouldn't worry about winning over all the people. The smart, witty, savvy kids - they're the ones who will listen and learn. Go to the kids. Throw up a thousand videos on Youtube and educate them. Show off your stereo systems, your hi-def digital and your analog turntables. Don't count on the music industry to preserve this history. They're not leading; they're stumbling to catch up. We need to become the leaders and the teachers.

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