Sound Issues
By Beppe Colli
July 6, 2015

Without a doubt the most celebrated, and written about, music event of 2003, the 30th Anniversary of the original release of Pink Floyd's mega-hit The Dark Side Of The Moon saw the release of a brand-new edition which soon became the main issue of the day: a surround version in a new audio format, the Super Audio CD (SACD). As it was to be expected, the appointed curator of the new version was James Guthrie, a highly skilled engineer whom Pink Floyd trusted. In the course of several in-depth interviews and articles, Guthrie talked at great length about the logic, the method, and the finished product.

A fine article/interview by Ken Richardson appeared in Sound And Vision magazine under the title Tales from the Dark Side - James Guthrie talks about his great gig in the studio remixing Pink Floyd's classic in surround. But there was more: in fact, Richardson also interviewed Alan Parsons, the engineer (and, later, record producer) whose work proved to be such an important element for the success of the original album (Parsons also made a quadraphonic version of the album, which remained unreleased), under the title Another Phase of the Moon - Original engineer Alan Parsons explains why the SACD mix doesn't speak to him.

The Parsons interview was quite complex and detailed. What I noticed at first were his comments about the start and close of the album (which is very often what the "average listener" remembers more clearly: the beginning and the end of... practically anything). About the "heartbeat" which closes the album, Parsons said: "In James's mix, the closing heartbeat actually sounds like what it is: a kick drum. It's clean as a whistle, but I think there was a certain amount of mystique about it before". About the start of the record, he said: "In the stereo mix, I put the heartbeat coming slightly from the right, because if a person is facing you, the heart is on the right. James has the heart dead-center".

I'm afraid this kind of topic doesn't sound too appealing these days. While I'm sure that the number of competent, trustworthy magazines that deal with such "technical" issues has dwindled (here we could start a debate of the "chicken and egg" variety).

Anyway, knowing where something is supposed to appear in the stereo field makes it possible for one to check if one's loudspeakers are placed in the proper position. Also, to check one's hearing, which is a very important factor if one has to trust a reviewer's opinion.

(What do I use? Well, a "circular" figure that appears in the Eurythmics track titled I Love You Like A Ball And Chain, off their album Be Yourself Tonight. The "walking on gravel" by the "inmates", their chanting, and a melodic phrase played on a synthesizer, all those form a "sonic object" that makes it possible for me to check the placing of my loudspeakers - also my hearing - at different frequencies.)

It goes without saying that to some (most?) people this will sound like useless minutiae. And it's quite obvious that to the "average listener" this is a topic of no interest at all. But, as I've already argued at length in the past, any listener will react in the "proper" way to the aim and intention of those who created that signal chain. Just like it happens when it comes to a book or a movie, one has to decide if one would like to investigate the matter by going backwards, in a process that's not too different from what we usually refer to as "reverse engineering".

Those brief quotes mentioned before are a good for instance of what working as a sound engineer entails. Let's not forget that it's Parsons who's mainly responsible for the use of those "synchronized echoes" that are a feature of The Dark Side Of The Moon. And let's not forget those circumstances that made a fine record producer, Chris Thomas, come on board as a "mixing supervisor", the four group members not seeing eye-to-eye anymore about the way the new album was supposed to sound. (Those who are interested can have a look at those brief moments - some of which are quite hilarious: check the air of revulsion when Parsons speaks the word "compression" - featured in chapter #8 in the Bonus Interviews section of the DVD-V in the Classic Albums series titled The Making Of The Dark Side Of The Moon.)

And how did those different SACD layers sound? The issue was hotly debated. There were those who noticed that while the SACD layer sounded superb, the two-track CD layer - while highly praised all over the Net - sounded harsh and compressed in comparison. Careful analysis - waveforms on computer screens being a technological advancement that's quite welcome, making it possible for one to adopt a more developed empirical stance in a field that's sadly plagued by "poetry" -  was conducted by John Atkinson in Stereophile magazine under the title Dark Side Of The Disc, with added comments by Jon Iverson. And while at first there were those who thought that the "worsening" of the CD layer was a deliberate attempt to show the new SACD format in a better light, it became apparent that this was just the latest chapter in the "loudness wars".

Reducing the difference between "loud" and "soft" parts in a piece of music - as much as possible - is nowadays a winning trend, which has been heatedly debated. I'm talking about what is usually referred to as "Dynamic Range Compression", and to the related index that comes after the letters DR.

The most recent chapters of the story are quite paradoxical, with some of the previously unreleased concerts by The Rolling Stones now sold as FLAC files having a (nowadays) very heart-warming DR10, which sadly becomes DR5 in the CD edition!

Sure, generalizations are always a source of error, but I believe it can be said that with each new edition the sound of the discographies of most rock groups have changed for the worse, this being true of ZZ Top, King Crimson, Jethro Tull, David Bowie, Rolling Stones, and so on. (When it comes to the Stones, the CD re-releases from 2009 are regarded as being their worst ever. It would be quite weird if - as it's been argued - the recently released CD version of the Stones classic Sticky Fingers, much lauded for its sonic verve, proved to be just a clone of the infamous earbleeder from 2009.)

I have to admit that, upon entering one of the last "rock shops" still alive, I often have a lot of trouble trying to decide what to think about the quality of a brand-new album, given the fact that it sounds like the stereo system is urgently in need of repair - one I can't forget being the most recent album by St. Vincent. Meanwhile, it has happened to me, when at home, that I decide to listen to just one song from an old album, but in the end I listen to it all without even noticing, thanks to a recorded sound that invites me, instead of repelling me - a recent example being the first solo album (of same name) by Steve Winwood, from 1977.

The rationale behind the exaggerated amount of dynamic compression which can prove to be quite fatiguing to listeners is that "young people" listen to music only via tiny earbuds on personal portable systems, and one has to take this into account. Which doesn't explain, of course, why every CD released nowadays - even those featuring "serene acoustic jazz" and "soft vocalists" - have to sound like they're emanating from a broken radio.

About those "external factors", well, I'm unconvinced. Let's go back in time. In the 60s, most record players were of the kind whose image we can nowadays easily find online under the name Dansette (those who own the Led Zeppelin album titled Presence are invited to have a look). But even though those tracks released as singles were made to sound brilliant and involving in order to have them sound better on radio, the "ideal" of the recorded sound was quite different from what one could achieve on the most common record players of the time. Hence, groups and music of a type that highlighted invention and finesse that pushed the standards of music towards unprecedented highs, and practically "forced" the audience to keep pace (the sound of the Sex Pistols album not being in opposition to said trait).

So we're back to the usual, familiar problem: the changes in the type, and amount, of attention paid to objects. A factor that in my opinion is much more important than the difference between a "file" and a "tangible" that for many is still the main one.

I think that it's possible to trace an interesting parallel between the 60s and today. At that time, listening to a group live was a more rewarding experience than listening to their music on a record, this being due to the poor quality of the record players of the time. Thanks to technological advancement, and people's decision to spend more on sound quality, it soon happened that home listening became more "faithful" - since its variables were ultimately more controllable by the end user - than the chaotic sound of very large places. I believe that today, however justified ("a more authentic experience that can't be downloaded, nor deleted"), the current predilection for live concerts mirrors their massive realism, when compared to one's listening alone, on tiny ear buds.

But time has not passed in vain. 'Cause while every large rock concert has always implied a "ritual" dimension, there were still those who at a Rolling Stones concert "dug" Mick Taylor's solos. While today, the process of "natural selection" has mostly brought on stage "personalities" whose musicianship - where present - is not an important feature of the whole.

In parallel, as it's common knowledge, technical progress has contributed to the elimination of those "sonic fingerprints" that brought so much taste and individuality to music - anybody could tell at the first drum roll if one was listening to the drummer from The Who, Led Zeppelin, or The Police. And anybody noticed that in the song Us and Them (yep, we're back at The Dark Side Of The Moon) the word "with" has an echo, while the word "without" hasn't.

Meanwhile, I happened to notice that many CDs from way back - say, from the mid-, late-80s - which for a long time I'd regarded as flat- and cold-sounding, sounded that way mostly due to the converters of my old CD player. And so, it happens that an old CD gets rediscovered thanks to a new CD player.

Funny to notice that the album one uploaded in the "cloud" is not necessarily the album one is listening to, those different "editions" not necessarily being considered "different" by a database. Also funny, noticing that those "hi-rez" files one bought at a specialized "shop" are not really "hi-rez" ("it's just what the record company gave us").

Let's try to wrap this up.

To me, it's obvious that at the heart of the matter is the fickle, superficial way most people nowadays deal with all sides of reality. That this attitude is not the exclusive property of "the young" is easily demonstrated by the incessant consultation of their electronic gadgets most adults occupy themselves in.

So now we are confronted with a framework where even a shy artist like Nick Drake has to "shout" by way of compression in order to attract our fickle attention.

But while this state of affairs is extremely dangerous when it comes to the past - which due to nowadays squashed dynamics becomes more and more difficult to recognize - is not any less dangerous when it comes to the future: if all objects are regarded as being interchangeable, and each one of them is only given a minimum amount of attention, why pay more than the minimum in order to get it? Hence, the success of model "all you can eat" model in cultural environments that were once exempt from bulimia.

Which puts the existence of objects - talking about music here, but this argument easily applies to other environments - that require a greater degree of attention to be understood, or a substantial amount of capital (also implicitly, for instance as distribution) in order to exist, in danger of disappearing.

I was recently reminded that these are just "the effects" of a process which has its "causes" in the distant past, and of course this is completely true. However, all "effects" have the disturbing habit of becoming "causes" themselves. And since it's an accepted fact that turning back the clock is an impossibility, we have to determine what is possible to do, here and now.

Here I have to confess that, though I'm usually inclined to see things in an apocalyptic light, I happen to think that there are still chances to show people who are currently unaware that something of a better quality exists, somewhere. It's hard work, given the fact that it's precisely this fickle type of attention that negates any economic basis to all enterprises that should, on paper, "pierce" the noise wall. But it appears to me that very often a "difficulty" is seen as an "impossibility" in order to work as an excuse not to try, so dedicating one's free time to more immediately gratifying matters.

I perfectly understand that it's quite difficult for those who lived in those happy times when the plain act of turning on one's radio in the afternoon made it possible for one to listen to an album such as Lizard to accept the idea of having to work very hard in the faint hope of causing a minuscule grain of change. And I understand that in a day and age when one can satisfy most whims at a cheap price it's quite easy to convince oneself that watching the most recent movie by the Dardenne can be a revolutionary act.

Who will we accuse?

Beppe Colli 2015 | July 6, 2015