imomus (imomus) wrote,
imomus
imomus

Shooting down thick sound

"An awful lot of recent music, much of which I adore, sounds horrible," says Nick Southall in a great article for Stylus Magazine. It sounds horrible because, in a sort of audio arms race, record labels and bands clip and boost and compress their sound until it's thicker and thicker, louder and louder, hotter and hotter. It happens during recording, and it happens during mixing, and it happens during mastering. It happens because bands want to sound louder than the last CD you played and louder than the record next to them on the radio. Or at least as loud. Without you touching the dial. But as a result, people like Nick, who want "to hear everything possible, every detail in every song, soak it in and lose myself in it" are utterly frustrated. What you gain in sheer volume you lose in dynamics.



I get more and more interested in quiet recordings -- the kind that, when you open them up in audio software, don't look like a major earthquake just knocked the line off the edges of the chart. Of course, quiet recordings are the hardest to make. Last night I was trying to record the trumpeting coo of my rabbit's mating sounds as it dances around my feet (he's a foot fetishist, don't ask). The soft honk seems clear enough to the naked ear, but the recording turned out muddy, all mixed up with ambient sounds, impacts and motor noise. Later I was watching Peter Greenaway's film about John Cage (the Four American Composers series is up on ubu.com in its entirety, brilliant stuff). The film is full of quiet sounds and loud ones -- all the delights of dynamics, in other words. It also quotes Cage's brilliant put-down from "Indeterminacy":

"It isn’t useful, music isn’t, unless it develops our powers of audition. But most musicians can’t hear a single sound, they listen only to the relationship between two or more sounds. Music for them has nothing to do with their powers of audition, but only to do with their powers of observing relationships. In order to do this, they have to ignore all the crying babies, fire engines, telephone bells, coughs, that happen to occur during their auditions. Actually, if you run into people who are really interested in hearing sounds, you’re apt to find them fascinated by the quiet ones. “Did you hear that?” they will say."

I was very tempted to say "Did you hear that?" to fellow musician Jason Forrest the other day. We were on the U8 line, coming back from lunch. Jason was going to meet Jamie Lidell, who was going to lend him some microphones. (Jason has somehow recorded everything up to now without microphones, in other words without "audition", without giving his computer ears.) The train was making a most extraordinary noise -- something was stuck to one of the wheels, I think, something which made a combination of a whoop, a whistle and a bubble as it turned. It wasn't very loud above the track noise, but I wanted to see if Jason had heard it. I couldn't find the right moment to interrupt our conversation, though, and then Jason's stop came. Perhaps he heard it as the train rolled out of the station. I hope so. Maybe he got his mics, and ended up recording it the way Cornelius recorded his dot matrix printer for his last album (it's one of the best tracks).



But all too often musicians are not just unobservant, they're deaf. They're so used to playing so loud that they don't hear The Elephant in the Room -- or the mouse under its foot. This Children of Men clip spells out the dangers of tinnitus in rather dramatic fashion, but do we really need to slam a black bag over people's heads and send them off to reprogramming camps to get this message through? Aren't articles like this Wired News one on How to prevent hearing loss enough?

Someone just sent me a link to a Slate article entitled JTunes: the insanely great music Apple won't let you hear. It's about how there's all this great Japanese music out there that you can't buy because of Apple's local restrictions. Unfortunately writer Paul Collins seems to think that "great music" equals thickly-recorded, loudly-mastered crap that almost sounds like American bands. And so he links to Straightener's Killer Tune -- a piece of ultra-derivative copy-by-numbers elephant dung strung halfway between Green Day and Nirvana, accompanied by a video in which every move the band makes seems to have been mapped from someone else. This kind of music is way too available these days. And, in every sense, this sound is way too thick.

I've just ordered a new iMac and was reading reviews of Logic Express, which I decided to include. Great though the software probably is, I really feel there's almost nothing you can do with it that would match the Greenaway film of John Cage's 70th birthday celebrations at the Almeida Theatre -- the radical social message of all those performers with their Fluxus radios, the inherent dramatic interest of that situation, the conceptual elegance of the man who set it up, and the inherent interest of the sounds themselves. This software is part of the problem, not the solution. It's for people who, in a sense, can't really hear. What would John Cage have done with Logic? Thrown it away, probably.
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