Friday, October 06, 2006

Ow. My Ears Hurt.

This post will probably be boring as hell to most of you, but I’m writing it anyway, because when I read the article this post is about, it was a real “Ah-ha!” moment for me.

I was reading an article on audio engineering.

A few weeks ago I was listening to a CD. I liked the band, I liked the songs, but about three tracks in, I had to turn it off. For some reason the music was irritating me. I’d heard the songs numberous times before, and liked them.

So why did it feel like fingernails down a blackboard? Why had a LOT of songs recently started to make my hair ache?

Well, this article explained it. It’s compression and ‘loudness’.

Basically, when a CD is being recorded, bands have taken to over-compressing their music and upping the loudness to an amazing degree.

The reason for this is simple. It makes the sound fuller and more vivid.

But it also comes with problems. It ‘flattens’ out the range of sounds.

If you’re listening to live music, or an older music CD, you’re exposed to a wide range of sounds at different volumes. You have the lead vocals up front, the guitars slightly behind etc.

When songs have been compressed to the level of ‘modern’ music CD’s, all sounds are perceived by the ear at the same volume. In other words, if you put an older CD into your player, and slowly turn down the volume, you’ll find certain sounds become inaudible before others. With many ‘modern’ CD’s, you’ll find you can hear all the sounds at the same level as you turn down the volume.

So, why is this a problem?

Simple answer. Fatigue. Your ears just can’t handle sounds with no dynamic range for very long. You get tired, the music starts to irritate you…and you don’t know why. You heard the song on the radio and loved it, but listening to it on a CD on a decent sound system, and we get fingernails down the blackboard.

Basically, they’re engineering sounds to where they have the same characteristics as a car alarm. Notice how a car alarm or an alarm clock is irritating to listen to, even if it’s off in the distance and not at a loud volume?

Well, bands have started to do this, because in many ways, the car alarm is ‘good’ for music. It’s very noticeable, it’s ‘full’ and ‘in your face’…unfortunately, you can’t listen to it for very long.

Like I said, this is probably boring to most of you, but for me, it was finally an explanation as to why certain songs, even though I liked them, have started to irritate me to the point where I can’t listen to them.


delmer said...

A couple of weeks ago I took a 100-mile ride on my bicycle. I knew it was going to take a while and thought I'd rig some music to play using my MP3 player and a cheap speaker.

After about an hour I had to turn it off -- it was irritating the hell out of me. I don't know if what you describe applies, but the last several hours of the ride were a lot more pleasurable.

MC Etcher said...

I wonder if this flattened loudness has anything to do with mastering tracks with the MP3 format in mind.

Interestingly, CDs were touted as the great new thing because of their quality over cassettes and vinyl - with MP3s, the only plus seems to be portability.

I wonder if we'll see formats that require more memory but offer better quality become more popular - especially now that the memory capacity of MP3 players has grown so large - who really needs to carry 5,000 songs in their pocket?

OzzyC said...

Interesting concept. I've always been a fan of live music. If a band can't perform live, they can't hold my interest, because I know that anyone can do studio work.