Tuned In To Music

Reflections from a lifetime

The dismal sound quality of some popular music and a simple solution

Most of the music we listen to on a daily basis falls under the general categories of electronic, classical or jazz.  The sound system in our main listening area is a fairly good one composed of 600 series Thiel speakers powered by a pair of Parasound JC1 monoblock amps.  The CD transport is a Sony XA5400ES and the digitial to audio conversion is handled by the DACS in an Anthem D2V processor.  This system is more than capable of letting the music recorded on standard redbook CDs shine and the music we typically listen to sounds terrific on it.  The sound is full, rich, expansive, excting and alive.

Lately we have been spending time listening to some music that is intended for a broader mass-market than most of the music we play.  The recording companies spend a lot more money producing this more popular music and promote and market it much more aggressively because they end up making much more profit from it.  In many cases – not all, but many – the music sounds terrible, especially in comparison with the other types of music we listen to.  The sound is thin, flat, limited, dull and lifeless.  The music is good, the sound of the music is dismal.  What’s going on?

One possibility is that the difference lies in our sound system.  It’s more sophisticated, refined and expensive than the sound systems many people have in their homes.  Maybe the differences we’re hearing are only discernible on very high-end “stereophile” systems.  This isn’t the problem.  The difference in sound quality is striking and although it might not be apparent on a $200 stereo-in-a-box from Best Buy, it would be easy to hear on a system that costs 5% or 10% of the price of the system we listen to.  The problem isn’t the gear, it’s how the music is produced for the consumer.

Music is mixed and mastered to appeal to the perceived tastes of the kind of listener that likes a particular kind of music.  Maybe the problem lies in the belief of the big record companies that people who listen to music marketed for mass appeal are less sophisticated, less discerning, and more easily satisfied by cheap, shitty sound production than people who listen to classical, jazz or electronic music.  This isn’t the problem either.  I don’t know what beliefs about different groups of listeners are prevalent within the large record companies but the idea that people who listen to music designed for mass appeal can’t hear the difference between well-produced and poorly produced sound is too idiotic to consider.

Music is also mixed and mastered to sound good on the playback technology on which it will typically be heard.  This is where the problem lies.  Music produced for the mass market is mixed and mastered to sound good when encoded as an MP3 and played through ear buds attached to an MP3 player because this is the preferred technology for many people who enjoy mass produced music.  Both the storage format (MP3) and the playback technology (earbuds) put severe limitations on sound quality.

MP3 is designed to reduce the amount of data used to capture music so that music files will use less bandwidth.  The general idea is analogous to decreasing the resolution of your computer monitor.  With lower resolutions there are less data to process and you can get by with less powerful graphics card in your computer.  You also get a crappier picture.  Think of the difference between current HDTV and the old-style standard TV as something like the difference between MP3 and redbook CD.  Or look at the difference between the image on your computer monitor set at 800 x 600 resolution and, say, 1900 x 1200 or 1600 x 1240.  MP3 reduces the resolution of a CD by removing about 90% of the information that is present on the CD.

That’s a lot of of information to get rid of.  What do they cut out?  This is where the limitations of earbuds come into the picture.  Earbuds can’t produce either the high frequencies that give music expansiveness and air or the low frequencies that give it weight and power.  Because of this, music that is mixed for MP3 playback through earbuds simply cuts off both the high and low frequencies at artificial levels to eliminate them from the recording.  This eliminates a lot of the original music but not enough to produce the 90% reduction that characterizes standard MP3 recordings.  To get down to keeping only 10% of the information on the original CD, MP3 thins the music it keeps by eliminating music that is claimed to be redundant or unhearable.

Dynamic range refers to the difference between the loudest and softest passages in a song.  Music produced for mass appeal has almost no dynamic range at all because everything is mixed to play back at very close to maximum loudness.  (The trend toward producing music this way is often referred to as the loudness war).  Dynamic range can make music exciting and emotionally arousing as, for example, the music builds to a powerful and overwhelming crescendo or a kick drum, horn fanfare or guitar chord leaps out of the mix to make an emotional statement.  This all gets lost when the music is mixed at maximum loudness.  Emotional highs and lows are replaced with a constant blaring drone.  However, it works very well for MP3 playback over earbuds where listening takes place in noisy environments in which the music has to drown out ambient noise, and the combined limitations of the MP3 format and earbud technology make it difficult or impossible to produce dynamic range effects anyway.

Cutting out the highs, cutting out the lows, thinning out what is left, and mixing everything at maximum loudness works well for MP3s and earbuds.  It also produces music that is thin, flat, dull and lifeless.  When you listen to music that has been mixed and mastered for MP3 and earbuds on equipment that allows you to hear everything that is present in the recording, you hear that there’s not very much there to hear.

Why doesn’t classical, jazz and a lot of electronic music have this problem?  The main audiences for classical and jazz are not listening to MP3s through earbuds.  They’re listening to CDs played over sound systems.  If classical and jazz were mixed and mastered with the same limitations as music intended for the MP3/earbud market, it would sound terrible and the audience wouldn’t buy it.  Much electronic music is dance or club oriented.  The dull and limited MP3 mixes would die a quick death when played through a club’s powerful sound system.  Another factor that probably contributes to electronic music being mixed well is that for electronic music the musician and the music producer is often one and the same person.  It’s hard to make a piece of music you think sounds great and then kill it by mixing it for MP3 and earbuds.

There’s a very simple solution for this problem – create two mixes, one optimized for MP3 and earbuds and one optimized for redbook CD.  This would seem to be good for everyone.  It’s good for people who buy music because both consumers who prefer MP3 and earbuds and consumers who prefer CDs and home sound systems get music that is produced to sound as good as it can using the playback technology they prefer. It’s good for the record companies in several ways.  First, the record company’s cost for creating the second mix is negligible in comparison with the cost of producing, promoting and marketing a high profile group.  Second, there will be some segment of the market who will buy the music twice, one version to sound great on their MP3 player and another version to sound great through their home sound system.  Third, there will also be a segment of the market that will come to prefer the full, rich, high resolution sound that MP3s and earbuds can’t reproduce.  Those listeners will have a tendency to buy the better sounding mixes of the music they loved in their MP3 days.  The music industry thrives on repackaging the same music over and over again so they can sell it to people more than once.  Releasing dual mixes optimized for different playback technologies fits right into that strategy.  Finally, the music industry has been having fits about their loss of revenue as a significant segment of their market moved from CDs to MP3s.  One solution to that problem seems so obvious that it’s surprising it hasn’t become commonplace.  Give people something on CDs that they can’t get on MP3s.  If you’ve read this far, you know what that something is – the much higher quality sound that is possible with music mixed and mastered to make full use of the sound reproduction possibilities inherent in the redbook CD format.  The music companies get an expanded market for a very small additional cost.  The music listener gets music that sounds great on whatever technology they prefer.  Everybody wins.


01/11/2011 - Posted by | music, music business, Music production, Opinion


  1. Another option that goes between the two is to use FLAC encoding on your files and get the iPod firmware hack that allows FLAC playback (though this may now be integrated. I put the hack on my iPod awhile back and haven’t done a firmware update for fear of bricking). FLAC is much better quality than standard MP3, though you do still lose some of the sound due to earbud limitations. I prefer more old school headphones as a result, especially with a lot of the post-rock stuff I listen to, where dynamics matter. Admittedly, most of my music is industrial, darkwave, synthpop or the German equivalents, so they don’t exactly hit piano very often.

    Comment by Jack Quesinberry | 04/01/2011 | Reply

  2. I started to feel a pressure in my ears, like the feeling you get when you re in a plane or driving up a mountain.

    Comment by Zoe Baldwin z | 01/05/2012 | Reply

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