When I was your age...

Friday, April 17, 2009
When I was a kid, we listened to albums on records. Vinyl records. Dirty, scratchy, skippy, hissy records. Is it just nostalgia that makes it seem to me that the music of that time was richer, and better-sounding (even if the content was somewhat childish)?


As audiophiles (and some regular philes) know, the sound from a vinyl record is analog, which means that each sound off the record is produced with a smooth frequency wave. The sound was transferred to the record directly: Sound goes into microphone, onto tape, mixed, and then etched into a record using the same frequency wave. Microphones are just speakers turned backwards, as you may know, with a vibrating membrane CAUSING electrical impulses to travel down wire, instead of the electrical impulses causing a membrane to vibrate, producing the sweet music of Artie Shaw.

Records are actually cut with V-shaped diamond chisels that travel through a spiralling groove cut in the record. Analog signals sent to a membrane that the chisel is attached to causes the chisel to cut deeper or less deep, depending on the amplitude, and swing side to side depending on the frequency and stereo position. As it swings side to side, the V-shaped chisel cuts each side of the groove in a different way as it rides up one side of the groove and down the other, resulting in a cut groove, that, when played back by another needle, can detect the changes in the grooves as it plays, sending that analog signal back to the amp and then through the speakers. Artie's sounds to the record to your ear.

So why do records sound so "crappy"? As an analog medium, they're subject to all sorts of interference, from dust particles in the grooves, to scratches across grooves, causing skips, to signal interference from electrical devices near the wires the sound is travelling through. So they snap, hiss, pop and skip.

On your record player. Record players used by audiophiles are very modern, with excellent signal sheilding, more sensitive electronics, and quality components. Also, audiophiles tend to keep their records in excellent shape, in the sleeves, vertically stored. If you ever get a chance to listen to a good record on a good system, I suggest you take it.

Cut to the early 80's. Records had been around for many decades, and despite being a quantum leap ahead of the wax cylinders they replaced (imagine a singer having to sing the song for each cylinder produced. You get a unique copy, they get tired.), other advances in the world of electronics prompted a new way of listening to music. The 8-track and audiocassette were ok; smaller, easier to store, easier to keep clean, but subject to their own problems. 8-Tracks had limited length, causing albums to be trimmed, Audiocassettes broke, warped, melted and stretched, and hissed badly enough that Dolby Noise Reduction (really just a single-band equilizer that cuts off the frequencies near where tape hiss occurs, often muddying the sound in higher ranges) became a standard feature on most tape decks.

Enter the Compact Disc. Smaller than a vinyl record, more durable than audiocassette, longer-playing than 8-track, and perhaps best of all for those of us with smudgy cheeto-stained fingers, didn't require turning over. An audiophile's dream come true. Because it's based on optical technology, with lazors rather than physical needles or tape heads, there was no "analog hiss". The laz0r itself removed the need to touch the surface of the CD, meaning that there was, if you were careful, (many of us were back then, mostly due to habits after owning records), your CDs could remain as pristine as they were when you bought them. If they ever DID get smudged, you could wipe 'em clean with a little water. If they ever got scratched, the CD player itself had built-in error correction.

All this was made possible by DIGITAL TECHNOLOGY.

More... Instead of the smooth curving sine wave of analog signal, that signal was emulated with numerical values. A song might be sampled 44 thousand times a second, and each sample would return a value of, say 1 to 256. Think of it more as a series of steps that approximates the original analog signal. This does have an effect on the overall output of a song, since sampling rates are limited, whereas an analog signal has all its peaks and valleys. The difference for most people is pretty minimal, and when factoring in the hassle of records and tapes, plus the total removal of skips, pops and especially hiss, CDs sounded GREAT. Clear and subtle, like the orchestra was in your room.

That was the mid-late 80s. CD "mastering" back then was a job of taking a master recording, plonking it down on CD and calling it good. After all, there were 50 years of back-recordings to get onto CD, and each recording couldn't be meticulously mastered specifically for CD. The backlog was necessary to cash in on the improved sound CDs provided, meaning that once again, we were buying our albums all over again. New music was released on CD, Tape and Vinyl, and often not on CD at all, due to adoption rates of the new technology, and the small amount of studios doing a huge amount of CD mastering work. When you got a CD, it was packaged with the album cover on the front, with a no-frills CD inside, listing the name of the album and the tracks, black on silver. Simple.

Over the years, as vinyl died off, CDs hit their stride, eventually becoming the ONLY medium most albums were released on. A few bands had/have limited runs of their album material on vinyl for real die-hard fans of record albums, but it's pretty rare, especially nowadays. Ask for the latest Shakira album on vinyl and see what kind of looks you get. CDs were starting to become more of a product rather than a medium through which the product would get delivered (think DVDs a decade later). Lush, glossy booklets accompanied the CD itself, with lyrics, interviews, photographs, and the CD was silkscreen printed to help make it stand out in your collection, and blend it together with the other packaged materials. Sometimes, the standard plastic jewel case was replaced by a different case altogether. (As a side note, while these looked cool, they were a bitch to store with the others. I'm looking at you, Reznor.) CDs had finally made the big time.

But wait a minute. It seemed to me that with CDs becoming commonplace, the discs themselves were actually getting thinner. They felt... cheaper and less sturdy. Well, ok, that's to be expected. It happens with all media - companies try to cut costs to offset the increased production values. The CDs themselves sounded the same, they worked the same, so no big deal.

That's not all that changed. As the music scene exploded with the communication and internet ages, there was much more fierce competition for who got played on radio and on tv. Record companies took advantage of an interesting aspect of the way human auditory systems work to start producing albums that sounded "better" to the average listener. Don't consider radio and TV for a second, those are analog signals, that are often somewhat degraded to fit within bandwidth and frequencies, and to comply with FCC guidelines concerning amplitude (loudness). The aspect being taken advantage of was this: all else being equal, people overwhelmingly prefer LOUDER music, feeling it's clearer and with a larger variance between loud and soft sounds (called "dynamic range").

So CDs got louder. And louder. And louder.

Even albums released by the same band, over time, would have louder music put on the CD. Don't believe me? Take a listen to your music collection, on CD, with headphones. Pop in the first CD a band released, and then the last. Don't touch the volume at all.

Well that's not so bad, right? If humans think louder is better, then higher amplitude is good! Heck, now we finally have a reason to buy the remastered versions of CDs that seem to come out every 5-10 years. Oh yeah. If you happen to have the same song on several CDs, listen to them back to back. The newer one will most likely be louder.

That's "Something" by the Beatles, from Abbey Road, from 4 different "remasters" of the CD.

Ok, fair enough. The Beatles always sound good. Let's look at another innovative British band Depeche Mode (Thanks to sharoma.com for the images):

That's "A Pain That I'm Used To" from Playing the Angel. Looks good.

Oops. Fortunately Depeche Mode is one of those bands that releases on Vinyl. Which is what you're looking at up there. HERE is the CD waveform:

See how the waveform goes off the top and bottom? That's called "clipping" and it occurs when the amplitude of a song gets louder than the medium can handle. In this case, every sample at which the amplitude is above 0 (amplitude starts at 0 and goes down, as the graphs show) becomes 0. This causes the dynamic range to shrink, the frequencies at those ranges to flatten out and distortion occurs, like what happens on an electric guitar when "overdrive" is turned on (though in that case it's on purpose).

The vinyl release of Playing the Angel sounds better. Depeche Mode themselves would likely tell you that they prefer the vinyl release too, but it's not their choice to make. Studio executives and A&R people force these masters to give them an edge over songs in the same genre, with the expectation that you'll buy the album that sounds better. That this is totally outdated thinking is a post for another day.

There's a movement going now to stop this process from happening. Naturally it's coming about 10 years too late, as the industry shifts away from CDs, but this sort of awful mastering can apply to digitally produced tracks too. For more information, check out "TurnMeUp", an organization dedicated to this cause, and to wikipedia, which as usual has a lot of good info, and some great links with examples (and which is comprehensive enough to make this post useless.) :)

Eldritch: The whole 'loudness war' thing is pretty insane, and I won't quibble with that. But let's be a bit careful when praising anyone calling themselves an 'audiophile.' These are the glassy-eyed zealots that pay hundreds (and thousands, and hundreds of thousands) of dollars for wooden stereo knobs, $13,000 power cords, and optical media demagnetizers. Audiophile should be a dirty word.

Pseudonym: Let's not confuse audiophile with moron, either.

I mean it in the traditional, real sense. The meaning you're thinking of has been adopted BY these idiots for themselves. Spending money on something proves you're more vested in it. But there are people who genuinely care a great deal about how their music sounds. Even after the post above, I do not consider myself one of these people, as I have an Apple "iPod" containing highly compressed audio played through tinny earbuds.


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