It was the summer that Mount St. Helens blew its top, CNN went on the air, Richard Pryor set fire to himself, draft registration was reinstated, Ronald Reagan flirted with naming Gerald Ford as his running mate, the United States skipped the Moscow Olympics, and the shipyard workers struck in Poland. We counted the days Americans had been kept in captivity in Iran, and we watched Roberto Duran beat Sugar Ray Leonard. We went to the movies and saw The Empire Strikes Back and The Blues Brothers and Caddyshack and Airplane! It was the summer of 1980, and it was also the summer my friend Shark and I spent at WXXQ in Freeport, Illinois. (He called last night to remind me that our first day was 30 years ago yesterday.) I have a few photographs of myself from that summer. They show a big, hairy, extremely young-looking kid, always wearing a T-shirt and some stupid hat, behind the mike or holding a set of headphones in his hands, always grinning at the camera. And why not grin? He was playing rock and roll on the radio every night and getting paid to do it.
It’s a given in my world that radio music doesn’t sound as good now as it did then. While some of that is my geezerhood talking, that’s not all of it. Over the last few years, particularly since I got back into playing current hits on the radio in 2008, I’ve noticed a quality in a lot of current hits that I find unpleasant. It’s a harshness, or a shrillness, a brittle gloss that resembles a discordant buzz, almost. Even on songs I otherwise like, I hear it. It’s mostly on uptempo songs with a lot going on in them. Because I am not an audiophile, I have never been able to put my finger on precisely what it is, but now I think I know.
I’ve just finished reading Perfecting Sound Forever: An Aural History of Recorded Music by Greg Milner, and you ought to read it too. Milner goes back to the days of Edison cylinders and forward to the development of digital audio and the various tools used to make music today. And he’s finally sorted out what it is that bugs me about so many records I hear—they’re compressed all over the place and mastered too loud. The sound is, well, smushed, so any passage that’s intense or busy sounds overloaded. It’s where the “brittle gloss” comes from. The practice grows out of what Milner calls the Loudness War of the 1990s, when radio stations competed to be the loudest signal on the dial and record labels began demanding records be mastered as loudly as possible in response.
What so many contemporary records are lacking is dynamic range. Change in dynamics, Milner says, is one of the most most pleasing aspects of music. Think about the the end of “Stairway to Heaven,” where Zeppelin is rockin’ full out and then powers down to “and she’s buying a stairway to heaven.” That’s dynamic range, and that contrast is why the end of “Stairway to Heaven” is one of the most thrilling moments in rock. It’s also what’s been lost by the mastering practices of record companies these days. Today’s gazillion-selling pop album has a dynamic range far smaller than records had in the days of vinyl’s rule, and only a fraction of the range digital audio is capable of. In other words, digital audio, which is supposed to provide the highest fidelity imaginable, is actually low-fi, given the way records are typically produced today. Milner shows a few waveforms in his book that reveal how times have changed. Some records are mastered so hot that the digital format can’t handle the level and the signal clips, which can create an unpleasant psychological effect for many listeners.
So maybe that’s my problem.
Milner’s book frequently returns to the theme of how recorded music “should” sound—the idea of capturing a real performance versus creating a performance that didn’t exist in the real world. The latter won the battle long ago, but the digital era has introduced new dimensions into the discussion. Take a record like Exile on Main Street, re-released this week. In 1972, it sounded famously murky, and over the years, the murk became part of the album’s charm. When it was first released on CD, some of the murk was cleaned up; the new release has cleaned it up even more. The Allmusic.com review of the new edition touches on the topic of whether a crystal-clear Exile is really Exile at all.
Speaking of performances that didn’t exist in the real world: My enthusiasm over the new Exile is dampened a bit by the fact that several of the new tracks were actually completed recently, and only parts of them date back to 1972. I’ll save the gasbaggery on that topic for a future post. For now, this terrific New York Post story about the making of the album, with a guide to how much each new track is vintage, will do.