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 | 2 Comments

Review: Carl Cox, Black Rock Desert

Carl Cox is DJ who has been on the scene since the early rave days in the UK.  He played at the Burning Man festival in Nevada’s Black Rock Desert in 2008, dug it, and returned to play again in 2009.  Black Rock Desert is a two CD collection of mixes that are based on the sets he played at Burning Man in ’09.

Cox is widely known as a techno DJ and Black Rock Desert is a techno mix.  How well you like the set is going to depend on how much you like this type of dance music.  Techno is fundamentally about rhythm and techno tracks have a tendency to feature a prominent equal-emphasis quarter-note rhythm with various rhythmic patterns intermixed and laid on top.  Rhythm licks fade in and out and melodic content is often limited and simple.  In hands less skilled than Cox’s, you can end up with thudding music that seems to plod along with slowly and aimlessly modulating rhythms.  But you’re in Cox’s hands here and he rarely lets the mix stagnate in a rut.  Disc one gravitates toward tracks with a tribal feel early on which would seem to synch right in with the crowd at Burning Man.  Compared to something like Radio Slave’s Fabric mix the tribal groove is pretty tame but it’s there and Cox works it into his techno mix very smoothly.  He gets away from it fairly quickly, however, which is a shame.

Another aspect of techno that can give it the feel of being repetitious is that it tends to rely very heavily on synth drums, basses, pads and leads.  While the genre is also known for the creative use of effects and new sounds, the heavy reliance on synths results in an artificially limited timbral palette.  Cox can’t completely avoid this but he does a nice job of mixing sounds, effects and timbres up so that the inherent limitations in the soundscape rarely become intrusive.  We have a fairly nice sound system with quality speakers and a clean signal path in our main listening room and while Black Rock Desert sounds terrific there, I get even more out of it when I listen through studio monitors.

I find that I can easily forget about the music on Black Rock Desert and let it fall into the background.  If I do this, the insistent emphasis on a quarter-note rhythm pattern and the unrelenting use of synths to produce much of the sound you hear can become annoying.  However, with Black Rock Desert I also find that if I stop and listen there is a lot going on in these two mixes.  Cox knows what he’s doing and if you give him the time and attention he will entertain you from start to finish.

Black Rock Desert comes in an elongated package that includes an extended essay about Cox and Burning Man along with a lot of photos taken at the festival.  It’s a nice package but the dimensions of the thing – it’s a bit more than the height of a plastic CD jewel box and about two jewel boxes long – mean that it isn’t going to store easily in a place where you’re likely to keep your CDs.  Why labels package their products in ways designed to annoy customers is a mystery to me.  If the idea is to give the consumer something they can’t get with a digital download, why not give us something useful like an alternative mix designed to sound good on a decent sound system as opposed to music that’s been mixed to sound good as an MP3 heard through ear buds?

Lance Blaise & Rod B., “Faaktree” from Black Rock Desert disc 1

05/13/2010 Posted by | CD reviews, music, music business | , , , , | Leave a comment

Review: Randall D. Wixen, The Plain and Simple Guide to Music Publishing

I recently found myself in the position of having written and performed a song which is being streamed from various websites such as Myspace, Facebook and right here on Tuned In To Music as well as being offered for sale at sites like iTunes, Zune, Rhapsody and lala.  This circumstance immediately raises questions about copyright, ownership and publishing of the song.  I knew nothing about any of this and turned to Wixen’s The Plain and Simple Guide to Music Publishing for help.  It was a good and lucky move on my part.

The Plain and Simple Guide to Music Publishing is exactly what the title says it is; a brief, straightforward introduction to the world of music publishing, ownership and copyright.  It’s written for a musician or songwriter who has no legal background.  Rather than take the condescending tone of someone speaking to a five year old that specialists sometimes adopt when talking to someone outside their field of expertise, Wixen  assumed his readers are intelligent adults and writes to them in plain English.  Legal jargon is necessary, of course, but when he introduces it, Wixen clearly and simply explains what the term means.  The Plain and Simple Guide to Music Publishing is well written and easy to understand.

The book begins with the basic distinction between a songwriter and a music publisher (which is not exactly what I thought it was) and moves on to explain the basic types of income that can be derived from music for both songwriters and publishers.  The three main categories Wixen presents are mechanical licenses (income derived from physically  reproducing copies of your song on a CD, for example), performance licenses (income derived from playing your song on the radio, over the internet, as background music in a restaurant or club and so on), and synchronization licenses (income derived from your song being used in a film or TV show).  He also includes an additional chapter on other types of use that can produce income such as having your song used in a commercial, in a video game or as a ringtone.

For each type of income Wixen explains where the money comes from, how it gets to you, and how it is divided up between the songwriter and the publisher.  He also introduces some of the many different types and variants of license contracts that can be offered under each of the main categories of income.

One of the things that becomes clear as you read the book is that the music industry not only has at their disposal a bewildering array of possible ways to rip off and fuck over musicians, but they are constantly coming up with new and insidious ways to not pay you for your music.  Although he points out common ways the music industry rips people off, Wixen does not present a rant against the notoriously rapacious music business.  However, it doesn’t take much thought to see ways in which musicians who aren’t aware of even the basics of music ownership and publishing (which is a fairly large proportion of musicians who are interested in the music, not the legalities) can and almost always do get cold-bloodedly ripped off.

It is fairly common for people who illegally download music to point to the unmitigated greed of the big music companies that has resulted in decades of customers being charged ludicrous amounts for legal music formats (e.g., CDs).  “The record companies have been ripping us off for years and turnaround is only fair play.” They have a point.  However, illegal downloading not only rips off the record companies, it rips off the musicians who make the music in the first place.  Reading The Plain and Simple Guide to Music Publishing may open people’s eyes to the fact that the musicians are getting screwed from both sides; they get it from the music companies who are paying them a fraction of what they’re supposed to and from the fans who aren’t paying them anything at all.  When the musicians are multimillionaires like Jay-Z or Bruce Springsteen the income lost from illegal downloading is inconsequential.  When the musicians aren’t famous and are trying to make it on their own, the lost income can mean the difference between having a career in music and having a career at McDonalds.

I read The Plain and Simple Guide to Music Publishing from the point of view of a songwriter who has no expectations to ever make any money from music and had no knowledge whatsoever about copyright, ownership and publishing.  I found the book to be tremendously helpful.  It pretty much answered every question I had.  How do I secure the copyright for my song? (I had it as soon as I put the song up on the web), do I have to make application to the US Copyright Office? (not necessary but a good idea anyway), am I a songwriter or a music publisher? (both if I want to receive all of the income my music generates, if it generates any at all), should I join ASCAP or BMI? (yes, choose one, I chose ASCAP).  More advanced topics that would be of interest to established musicians are also discussed in the book but they are of no relevance to me at this point and I can’t comment on whether they would be valuable to musicians operating at a more advanced professional level.

If you are a musician with little or no knowledge about the money part of the music business, The Plain and Simple Guide to Music Publishing is a clear, fast and easy way to get an introduction.  The knowledge that can be gained here can save you a lot of heartache and frustration later.

04/09/2010 Posted by | book reviews, music, music business | , , , | 1 Comment