Sunday, March 28, 2010

Why all the music sounds the same...

Thanks to Twitter friends, I read with interest this article in the Word from February 2008 on "why all records do sound the same." It's a very detailed piece, but although it does explore some of the technical background to contemporary music-making it explains it very well. I was going to write a piece for this blog on songwriting, but that's already grown into a longer piece - I'll get back to it when I can - but the "sound" of records really interests me.

There seems a point in recorded history where ambition and technology reached a "sweet spot." When Dylan toured Britain and was called "judas" it was the first time that such a massive P.A. had been heard in British halls - so indeed, the sound of this rock band drowning out the words was new - and a foretaste of what was to come; when the Beatles and George Martin headed to Abbey Road to record Sgt. Pepper they created an "eight track" by linking two four track machines together. Ambition, in these cases, was beyond the technology available at the time. Over the next few years that would change and it's not incorrect to say that for the first half of the seventies, ambition, money, talent and the recording environment were all in sync. For the home consumer the "stereo", the quad system, the 8-track, the thick cut vinyl before the oil crisis, allowed replication in the home of the impressive audio engineering feats happening in the studio. FM radio in the US showcase high fidelity records. If you're going to test out a new stereo even today, you can't go far wrong with using "What's Going On", "Innervisions", "Something/Anything" or "Can't Buy a Thrill" as a test recording.

The Word article makes a good distinction between how records were made - a band playing together in an acoustic space - with how they are made today - using the Protools system, and fixing the glitches in the mix and the edit. I'm a fan of progress, and believe that good recordings - whether The White Album, Definitely Maybe or "Beat it" - are not a bad thing. I certainly wonder what "The Smiths" would have sounded like if Rough Trade had paid for a better recording. (The BBC versions on "Hatful of Hollow" have always been preferable in most cases.) Although manipulating that "live band" has been common since the Beatles, tape splicing was an imprecise art, and liable to deterioration. I'm pretty sure that most people would be surprised that even non-electronic bands are ProTooled to death these days, yet it isn't a surprise to me - what is a surprise, or rather, what is sad, is that the "sound" of a record now is not about how good it sounds, or what is right for the music, but how much like other records it sounds.

Anyone who has DJ'd with CDs, vinyl, 7"s and 12"s knows the difficulty of working with different levels of tracks - and many of the early CD remasters were notoriously bad (and rarely "remasters" at all.) What I'd not realised was the importance of LOUD. I'm listening to Red Hot Chilli Pepper's "Californication" now, a record I do rate, and hearing it after reading about the mixing of it in the Word article, I can hear how the songs sound both very "dry" and very "loud." Come to think of it - the singles off this album were jukebox staples around the millennium. A record that could, in many ways, be the last great rock album of the 20th century, is up there and in your face - and mixed that way on purpose. Organic it is not. I remember seeing Oasis live before their first album came out, and they were one of the loudest bands I've ever seen (loud without distortion - which is a distinction) - so the news that their second album was also one of the loudest isn't that surprise. (Though, to be fair, their albums were amongst the first to be CD-generation records - too long for a single vinyl album, not long enough for a double.)

Yet, I also listen to contemporary music and think that regardless of the music and songwriting, there is something in the sound that I don't quite like. Its not about "sonic perfection" a la Steely Dan; as there's something equally appealing about the scratchiness of those early Smiths records, (and lo-fi music ever since); but it's fascinating that the Strokes' "This is it" could be recorded on an old Apple Mac, but then be tarted up in an expensive studio. (Rough Trade have certainly learnt a trick or two over the years.) I'm not sure the Word article gets the whole story. I think there's a whole different thing going on than just making Maroon 5 records sound catchy but innocuous on the radio (a band as mediocre as Maroon 5 need all the help they can get); the ubiquity of modern R&B in particular seems distilled now for the MP3 file, the iPod, the personal stereo. There's a shrillness to modern production which - though undoubtedly done via ProTools and using plugins like AutoTune - has a certain sparseness that one has to, if not admire, accept for what it is. A record like the Black Eyed Peas "Boom boom pow" sounds remarkable everywhere other than the high quality home stereo - only there, when you're perhaps looking for nuance, does a whole album of this stuff pall. Whether its the homegrown Ting Tings, or abominations like Soulja Boy, the song as jingle, the song as ringtone, the song as skippable download is the current currency, like it or not. Any DJ will tell you that some records just don't work - whether its because of their tempo, their production, or their lack of hook - so there's nothing new about all of this...

...what is new is the sense that if a record doesn't sound like this it won't get any headroom. In the past, a new sounding record - think of when "Billie Jean" came out; or "Slide Away", or even "Jack Your Body" - could ride past everything else to the top of the charts. It punched its way out of the radio's mediocrity. Whether you can hear a good v. bad production via Spotify, or on your MP3 player is a moot point. There are certainly songs from the past that will lose much of their quality in that medium. (I found the honesty box download of "In Rainbows" for instance, a disappointment because of hearing it only as an MP3).

I'm an optimist though - technology can always be used for both good and bad purposes. When Kanye West used Autotune so blatantly on "Love Lockdown" in 2008, it blew me away, easily my favourite song of that year. The compression algorithms that can be used so easily by every identikit ProTools user can also be used in different ways. Just as I can find quite a fondness for the big, empty reverb sound of early 80s FM synthesis programmed drums and the DX7, there's something oddly life-affirming about the ultra-dry, ultra-loud sounding "I Gotta Feeling" by Black Eyed Peas - in some ways its taking us back to the days of the mono 7" before George Martin, Brian Wilson and Phil Spector came along and complicated things.... of course I love that complication, as well, but maybe the directness of the current sound du jour, which is, after all, available not just to the big studios but to the little guy with their laptop, may develop into something new and interesting. And, even if it doesn't, a very different sounding record like LoneLady's recent album, "Nerve Up" or Bon Iver's debut album, can sound even more exciting as a result. (I kind of think the interest in these types of records has probably been at least partly because they sound so different than the pap.Please note, Mark Thompson, when next you're listening to commercial radio and radio 6 and saying they're the same "demographic.")

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