Journal Music Blog

The Loudness Wars: Why Music Sounds Worse

Loudness WarI stumbled across this excellent article from NPR. It addresses the over-compression of music (which is why most of the old-timers like me can’t stand the way modern music sounds overall). Among other issues, the article address digital compression;

Digital compression is the process that allows a song to go from being a very big sound file in its natural state to a very small file in your iPod — so you can carry your entire record library in your pocket. But at what cost?

Dr. Andrew Oxenham is a professor in the psychology department at the University of Minnesota. His specialty is auditory perception — how our brains and ears interact. He also started out as a recording engineer.

Robert Siegel asked him to explain digital compression.

“Really, the challenge is to maintain the quality of a CD, but to stuff it into a much smaller space,” Oxenham says. “Let’s think about how digital recording works. You start out with a very smooth sound wave and we’re trying to store that in digital form. So we’re really trying to reproduce a smooth curve [with] these square blocks, which are the digital numbers [the 1s and 0s that are used to encode sound digitally].

“Now, the only way you can make square blocks look like a smooth curve is by using very, very small blocks so it ends up looking as if it’s smooth. Now using lots and lots of blocks means lots of storage, so we end up using [fewer] bigger blocks. Which means we end up not representing that curve very smoothly at all.”

Lost? Go back and re-read it — you’ll get it.

From my perspective, music simply doesn’t sound as good as it used to. Most people automatically assume that you’re saying Nickelback isn’t as good as The Beatles (okay, anyone really want to squabble over that one?), but I mean in the literal sense. Modern recordings don’t have the same sense of space and dynamics that older recordings did, and that has a lot to do with how dramatically our listening environments have changed. Now people run around wearing ear buds and listening to mp3’s in noisy environments. They could care less about individual dynamics. But as I’ve often stated when arguing with people considerably younger than I am, if you’ve grown up listening to music from an iPod, you’re not going to know the difference, because you’ve never experienced the difference.

This article is a great read. It addressing a very real problem. I’ve often wondered where we’ll go from here. Mp3’s sound horrible to me, but most people use them. Where do you go once someone comes up with an algorithm to make the music files even smaller? Are our grandchildren going to bemoan the days of “mp3 quality”?

I encourage you to read this article.


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