audio: music reproduction in reverse

TheScraper mused in response to Gizmodo’s post about reconstituting an early recording:

I sometimes wonder if current audio recording techniques will ever improve. When we think we’ve hit a brick wall, something else comes around. I remember when I first saw a film on DVD, I was engulfed by a feeling of amazement, thinking that it was the best thing ever; then BluRay came around…

Sadly music reproduction hasn’t just hit a brick wall, it is actively getting worse. But “it” means several things:

  • Recording techniques are unquestionably going downhill. The “breathy singer recorded in her bedroom” music in TV commercials, and Katy Perry 130 digital tracks overlaid on a laptop are both in a different universe from quality recordings made by professionals armed with dozens of microphones and a deep understanding of getting the best sound out of musicians in a custom-built studio room. There’s a reason people sample Led Zep drum breaks.
  • Producing techniques are a disaster. The ridiculous compression introduced by the loudness war wastes the dynamic range of CDs, and producers consciously aim for lowest-common denominator earbuds in noisy environments. (Although Motown was perfecting their recordings for crappy transistor radios, and many of their recordings come staggeringly alive on a good stereo.) Go to Amazon and read reviews from fans sobbing that the 20th anniversary edition of their favorite recording sounds like crap because the re-release producer couldn’t help tweaking the sound mix.
  • Recording formats are fine. Hardly anyone can reliably distinguish high-bit rate 320kBs MP3s from CD. Higher bit-depth and bit-rate recordings are available: a trickle of DVD-Audio and SACD disks continue to be released and you can buy higher-rate digital downloads online at places like www.hdtracks.com. In my opinion the reason to go for vinyl or hi-def digital recording is not that CD or 320kBs MP3 is a bad format, but because the mixes for vinyl and hi-def are less likely to have the life compressed out of them in the %$#@! loudness wars (hear the proof here).

Audiophiles are simultaneously seeking better reproduction of treasured vinyl and the ultimate playback of high-res digital files. But most music recorded nowadays is not recorded or produced in a way to make it worth bothering. If you like any music from the 50s through 80s then try to hear it on a top-notch stereo in a good room, it can be a thrill.

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