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Shooting down thick sound - click opera — LiveJournal
February 2010
 
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Wed, Jan. 24th, 2007 02:57 pm
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.

53CommentReply

imomus
imomus
imomus
Wed, Jan. 24th, 2007 02:11 pm (UTC)

Of course, some might say that Cornelius' "Toner" track is as derivative of Paul Panhuysen's "Engines in Power and Love" -- an album made with dot matrix printers as the only instrument -- as Straightener's "Killer Tune" is derivative of Green Day. But I'm going to pass over that parallel. Even if they were similar cases, one music would still be thicker than the other.


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fishwithissues
fishwithissues
jordan fish
Wed, Jan. 24th, 2007 02:17 pm (UTC)

Someone just sent me a link

That someone was me!

I do all my music mixing in final cut. Sucks to all the rest.


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(Anonymous)
Wed, Jan. 24th, 2007 02:21 pm (UTC)

http://freesound.iua.upf.edu/index.php

I thought you might find this interesting. People gathering and distributing "non-musical" sounds.


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imomus
imomus
imomus
Wed, Jan. 24th, 2007 02:42 pm (UTC)

This is also good: A search engine for sounds.


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johnnybrolly
johnnybrolly
HRH Johnny Angel
Wed, Jan. 24th, 2007 02:48 pm (UTC)

Bob Dylan: "You listen to these modern records, they're atrocious, they have sound all over them,"
It does rather seem that the trend is to compensate for the lack of dynamic range in digital music (particularly MP3s) by filling in all of the blanks with squiggles and effects.

What's interesting is if you take an older (probably analogue) recording that was produced with vinyl in mind, and a newer recording meant for the age of MP3, and play them both on vinyl and MP3. No prizes for guessing that the older recording will sound quieter than the new when compared on digital format. The older recording will also lose a lot of its dynamic range. However, the interesting thing is when you compare on vinyl format - a fully digital recording, with all the bells and whistles, will often sound utterly flat compared with an older recording.

I think my point is that today's technology for compressing music isn't up to the standards that geeky audiophiles from the 70s used to bang on about. Mind you, geeky audiophiles in the 70s were reknowned for their love of Dark Side of the Moon and were probably been horrified when punk came along.


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niddrie_edge
niddrie_edge
raymond
Wed, Jan. 24th, 2007 04:30 pm (UTC)

Given Dylan's dodgy track record on quality studio productions, his almost "fear of the studio", he may not be the best judge of fidelity.
Perhaps he was a true sonic puritan. One can observe the care with which he uses a microphone in the early, pre 1965 live performances, where it appears he was a master of his ambience.


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aughtstar
aughtstar
Hak(u)
Wed, Jan. 24th, 2007 02:58 pm (UTC)

Didn't Cage use computers towards to end? I'm sure of it.

I've made several digital recordings where the wave form was one solid block. Just to say I did I guess. Then I found some old tape recordings where the sound is buried in hiss. At first I tired to get rid of it, but it can be kind of beautiful. You have to turn the speakers way up to hear the song at all and the hiss just fills the room like fog.

I think there's too many options to "fix" music any more, but that's another topic. I tend to be a proponent of loud, but loud means nothing without quiet, you are right.

And Straightener...jesus. How do you rip off other wholly derivative bands? Screw Apple anyway, there's nothing stopping people from buying Japanese CDs, there's a million site in English for that now.


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33mhz
33mhz
The Queen of Overdub Kisses
Wed, Jan. 24th, 2007 03:09 pm (UTC)

The itunes store is a DRM'd piece of shit anyway. I'm hoping it will still go the way of the Dodo as high-quality non-DRM'd mp3 vending sites like Warp Records' Bleep gain more of a profile, but since part of the point of DRM is technologically-enforced brand loyalty, people are going to be hesitant to abandon the itunes store altogether.


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insomnia
insomnia
Insomnia
Wed, Jan. 24th, 2007 04:03 pm (UTC)

"all too often musicians are not just unobservant, they're deaf ... 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?"

But that's not the problem, exactly. It's not usually the fact that they are deaf, it's that they are intentionally filtering out the sounds around them. I have a good deal of hearing damage from seeing hundreds of live concerts a year when I was young, but I tend to hear -- and often focus on -- sounds that most people would ignore.

"The soft honk seems clear enough to the naked ear, but the recording turned out muddy..."

Sounds like you'd need to pull out all the stops to record a sound like that.


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electricwitch
electricwitch
For anything, oh! she´ll bust her elastic
Wed, Jan. 24th, 2007 04:16 pm (UTC)

"I have a good deal of hearing damage from seeing hundreds of live concerts a year when I was young, but I tend to hear -- and often focus on -- sounds that most people would ignore."

That´s the difference between listening and listening, I suppose. But then we grow up with so much background noise that a lot of people need it in music too.


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yetchor
sunshine wong
Wed, Jan. 24th, 2007 04:29 pm (UTC)

The 27 sounds manufactured from a kitchen reminds me of György Pálfi's film Hukkle (hiccup). Have you seen it? Filmed entirely from a micro perspective and without dialogue, any semblance of a story is revealed through the sounds emitted from actions - like a knife on a chopping board, doors shutting and (of course) hiccups. If ever there is a conversation, it is muffled, turned down and assimilated into the background. Recommended!


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(no subject) - (Anonymous) Expand



alphacomp
alphacomp
Digital Video Camera
Wed, Jan. 24th, 2007 04:34 pm (UTC)

For the past week or so I've been using a 68k mac emulator on OS X to make music with Super Studio Session, this program from the late 80s/early 90s. The included sound samples are all 8 bit and at 22KHz. While the sounds, in theory, aren't particularly interesting, the low resolution of said sounds create these amazing peripheral artifacts of noise that add so much depth to an overall recording(which is also kind of my reason for liking the sounds and textures of chiptunes). They have much more personality than the professionally EQed, 24-bit digital sounds from GarageBand. At the same time, the overlapping digital hiss sometimes becomes so overwhelming that it also forces one to add a lot more space to a composition.


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(no subject) - (Anonymous)
electricwitch
electricwitch
For anything, oh! she´ll bust her elastic
Wed, Jan. 24th, 2007 05:12 pm (UTC)

"unprocessed vocals!"

Yes! I´ve talked about this with my singing teacher before. It really gets to me, as well, as I can´t stop hearing the effect louder than the actual voice.


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cap_scaleman
cap_scaleman
cap_scaleman
Wed, Jan. 24th, 2007 05:58 pm (UTC)

I have removed the "natural bass" of most instruments on the songs for my new album. There is close to no "punch"/"power" in the songs anymore. Sounds fun?


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(Anonymous)
Wed, Jan. 24th, 2007 06:01 pm (UTC)

add some 808s.


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xishimarux
xishimarux
ishimaru
Wed, Jan. 24th, 2007 09:18 pm (UTC)

Hmm I would have taken you for an Ableton Live type of guy. I love using the program and it can become very abstract to work with in a good way. I made that Bonsai Tree remix in Live. Download the demo when you get your mac to check it out. :)


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hunchentoot
hunchentoot
Joseph C. Krause
Wed, Jan. 24th, 2007 09:40 pm (UTC)

I've been using Logic for one year (I had tried Digital Performer before, and half a dozen PC programs in tandem before that) and am finally beginning to feel familiar with it, but am unable to resist the temptation to use all of the magical plugins. This is lots of fun on the goofy sequenced music that Paul and I write as Zelda and the Unibrows but gets in the way of truth for anything attempting to capture a moment.

Recently I recorded a friend's quiet, tiny guitar piece and found that I didn't need to apply any processing at all to it other than ensuring decent recording levels. Also the entire process from start to finish took such a short time; with all of the magic plugins I'm used to going back and tweaking for hours or days or months.

But if one can develop a deliberate attitude about working with such digital audio workstations, simplicity and dynamics can be had just as surely as with with older techniques, but for me at least, allowing that simplicity has required time first burrowing through the loud and complex.

Last night I had a dream that Henryk Mikolaj Górecki was in my house angrily rummaging through my possessions and criticizing my music.


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(Anonymous)
Wed, Jan. 24th, 2007 10:00 pm (UTC)

You're lucky, if it had been Witold Lutoslawski things could have got reeeal nasty...
Thomas S.


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(Anonymous)
Wed, Jan. 24th, 2007 09:55 pm (UTC)

I particularly like your quote from Cage on audition.
Actually listening to music- really listening and not just hearing it as an ambient accompaniment to other activity- is an acquired skill in itself.
Perhaps noticing the beauty or even the uniqueness of sounds themselves -be they Whimsy's frogs or your train wheels- is taking this capability a stage further.
Thomas S.


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hunchentoot
hunchentoot
Joseph C. Krause
Wed, Jan. 24th, 2007 10:03 pm (UTC)

Here are some cicadas, neighborhood and traffic sounds from my back yard recorded a few years back:

August Yard Sounds

(Some drum overhead mics were used here, which themselves add a noise floor. This recording is still not totally honest, I moved the mics halfway through and have cross-faded that away.)


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(Anonymous)
Wed, Jan. 24th, 2007 10:45 pm (UTC)

I like that, it brings back memories of a summer I spent in Toronto, sounds wonderfully exotic across the distance from here to there..
Thomas S.


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(Anonymous)
Wed, Jan. 24th, 2007 11:28 pm (UTC)
thick digital everything, flat tipped and square bricked

Yes, computers do alot less good than bad with sound, generally and most always. It is in my compulsively honed personal opinion that all computers should be avoided in the process of creation, always, up to the damned innevitable point of transfer into digital media (cd, dvd, etc). All computers suck, chop and compress; loud is better when you want to warn something about something else...the apple corporation have made shitty mp3s the standard and we all are left with loud, non-sexy, non-voluptous sound; left now with lots of pseudo-psych releases with nothing psychedelic about it...straight treble and straight bass are hardly colorful and expressive in differring shape or size. Tape decks are cheap and sound great, albeit a bit hissy but who really carees. I'm eagerly awaiting the re-introduction of wire recorders...no footnote on wire recorders included, but fortunately you're reading this on the lazy man's dictionary.
love,
John Flesh


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gwazda
gwazda
Thu, Jan. 25th, 2007 02:45 pm (UTC)
Re: thick digital everything, flat tipped and square bricked

"All computers suck, chop and compress"

The absurd loudness of today's digital recordings is all USER ERROR. The reason many recording types like the sound of analog tape is actually because it has a "natural compression", that is, when you hit it really hard, it limits the volume of the sound in a pleasing way. If what you want is clean, uncompressed audio, high quality digital PCM audio is going to give better results in most cases, particularly at low decibles, because of the decreased noise floor.
-chester


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