A blog post

Destroyer Kaputt – and the destruction of sound

Posted on the 06 January, 2012 at 8:33 pm Written by in Music

As noted in my earlier blog post, “the loudness war” is a case of mismanagement – and a conflict over what consumers hear. Some examples:

Destroyer: Kaputt – 2 x LP – sounds quite good and undistorted / non-compressed. The improved sound – compared to many other new LPs – allows the more subtle and symphonic ambitions to shine through, contributing a lot to my enjoyment of the music. The good sound helped the album to win critic awards and a strong score on 2011 best album lists (second, on Pitchfork).

The latest King Crimson and Yes incarnations,  Jakszyk, Fripp and Collins: A scarcity of miracles (including improved ‘frippertronics’) and Yes: Fly from here, also pass in my sound testing, as do the recent Kate Bush albums, and others.

Yet many others, like the latest album by War against drugs: Slave ambient, sound so-so and only mediocre. I don’t know exactly, but this effect mainly seems to be caused by too low resolution combined with too much compression. Fleet Foxes’ first LP is another example.

When I get frustrated by this suboptimal rendering of new music, and turn back to well-recorded all-analog albums from the 1970s or early 80s, before digital came into the chain, I hear none of these problems, but then again, I hear other problems, like – usually – a more limited soundscape with less low bass and high treble. The mid-tone “ambience”, however, is usually better, and this often makes up for what is missing in the frequency extremes. There is more of a feeling that this music is actually created by musicans playing together. Instruments do not just make sounds “on their own”, but in combination with others. These combinations are more deeply and subtly reproduced, in the best analog recordings, before digital over-optimism took over.

However, this techno-optimist tendency did not start with the loudness and compression, or even with the CD and the soon-to-be-proven false idea of CD resolution as “perfect”. It started with transistors. We produced the Doors’ albums with gradually worse sound, the sound engineer has told in a recent interview (see http://musicangle.com/feat.php?id=144). At the time (1967-70), the Electra studio console was changed from a tube system to a solid state transistor system. Studios dropped their established tube gear in favour of new, and acclaimed better, transistor gear.  Even if, in hindsight, and by today’s listening criteria, there is no doubt that the sound changed mainly for the worse!

The Doors were among my favourite groups, I have many versions of their LPs including Mobile fidelity pressings and the recent box set, and my listening experience is the same as sound engineer Bruce Botnick’s. The sound got increasingly “transistor-like” brittle and hard, even if the frequency spectrum perhaps became a bit larger and flatter.

The loudness war, like the sugar war, are examples of market mechanisms working suboptimally – at least from a textbook liberal economic point of view. Why are they suboptimal? They typically start with a good idea, but over time, the new patten or idea turns into a kind of arthritis pattern, blocking the market distribution system from functioning in the ways it should do, the ways that market ideologists from Adam Smith onwards envisioned, with the market as a tool for improving society through increased wealth. So for example, through the “dirty” means of profit, the music market would create better music than earlier distribution forms.

This “increased wealth” part is obviously part of the problem. It turns sour, changing into over-eager profit-making. Turn it up, to sell better. But it is not the only part. There is an idealist element too, perhaps a kind of “engineer’s idealism”. This was what translated better sound in some ways (the CD, measuring better than it actually sounded to human ears), into some high-flying “perfect” heavenly attribute. So it would seem that belief and religion, “religious” ways of making market arguments, have an influence too.

Whatever the cause, market solutions are found that may be good then and there (e g the introduction of the CD), but not so good over time, developing into almost “feudal” hindrances to free market initiatives. They involve some short-term market development, and yet turn into a blocking of development and real change for the better. Not only was there no “perfect sound”, this very ideology and business rationale actively helped monopolize the market and keep innovations down (like, only a half-life for the better formats like SACD).

Similar twisted paths can probably be found in much consumer (and producer) industry, even in our “enlightened” world. Why such things happen, is an interesting task for research.