The Sound of Music,
circa 2009

By Beppe Colli
July 27, 2009

A happy owner of Jethro Tull's then brand-new single, The Witch's Promise, I immediately noticed that the song introduced new flavours in the group sound, most important of all, the grand piano and the Mellotron. I was quite puzzled, though, upon hearing a strange sound - something that sounded like "squìsc" - appearing a few times during the intermezzo of flutes and acoustic guitars just before the majestic Mellotron entrance introducing the "bridge". I thought about that sound for months, until a friend who was learning to play guitar confirmed what I already suspected: that the sound was, in fact, produced by left-hand fingertips touching the guitar's brand-new strings while shifting positions on the fingerboard. "Why didn't they use some not-as-new strings when recording the track, then?", was my reasoning. My friend patiently explained to me some finer points about brilliance, microphones, and talcum powder, but I'm afraid I lost the thread. Meanwhile, I had become accustomed to those "squìsc", which by now had become for me an integral part of the song.

So, when a couple of years later I had the chance to listen to Living In The Past, the group's new assemblage (a double LP!) of singles, unreleased tracks, and rarities, I immediately noticed that the "squìsc" was missing. This fact proved to be impossible to explain for me: after all, it was the same song! I also had a strange feeling while listening to Driving Song, whose "drive" so appropriately "driving" was now "clearer" but a bit too "well-mannered".

It goes without saying that at the time I knew absolutely nothing about remixes, and understanding the implications of a mono mix being replaced by a stereo mix was totally out of my reach. However - though in retrospect the record player I owned at the time resembled more a weapon than a device for playing records - I noticed those facts. I could not tell the whys - meaning: why those tracks now sounded so different, and what the rationale behind that decision had been; and it goes without saying that value judgment about it could have been of very different sorts. But facts come first: and even a guy who was then fifteen year old (seventeen, at the time of the release of Living In The Past), by paying the proper amount of attention, was able to see them.

But time marches on, and these days I believe it can be said that the whole debate about the "sound of music" is a thing of the past, with just a few (minor) exceptions. A quick story could be told here - also featuring the "mercantile" exceptions: the original version as a rare, expensive item on sale on eBay - with a first part where the "problem" ceases to be perceived as such, and a second part where sound is accepted "as it is", i.e., is not "heard" anymore. The last specimen of serious reporting about this topic that I read being the long article by Robert Levine which appeared in (US magazine) Rolling Stone, under the title The Death Of High Fidelity, on Dec. 26, 2007. Those in need of a crash course on things like "squashed dynamics", "digital compression", and "loudness wars", need look no further.

The worst-sounding album I've heard in the last few years (not counting re-releases, which present a different set of problems) is Way To Normal by Ben Folds, which hands down gets my first prize in the "horrible in music" category. The strangest thing being that not a single review of all those reviews I've read - and I've read quite a lot - mention this fact. Which is quite strange, since this album is regarded as being one of the worst-ever when it comes to sound. Folds himself appeared to agree, when he released a "fixed", remixed version (of which I have no direct experience).

The strangest thing for me was seeing that while newspapers and magazines never mentioned this, Folds fans argued the point on various Forums (the same thing happening for bad-sounding albums by groups such as U2, Metallica, Pink Floyd, and so on). It's important to notice that while when it comes to things such as "what's the best" song/album/concert/cover version by group x, where opinions are fatally bound to differ, (almost) anybody agrees that album x is totally devoid of any dynamics (i.e., it only sounds "good" on a "personal listening device" such as an iPod).

This is quite important, since the solipsistic subjectivism so widespread nowadays would be glad to notice that no consensus is possible about even so minor a judgment. But a very distorted sound and such an extreme lack of dynamics working "against" the structure of the material (not talking, obviously, about Metal Machine Music) are facts that can be perceived, and that are possible objects of a consensus that's not illusory.

Hence, my question: wouldn't it be nice if reviewers revealed - well before the make of the system they use to review the material - the type of physical support which they use to listen to the music they write about?

Our present "modern" era is really obsessed with the past. One just needs to have a look at the newsstands, and check what's on the covers of those (by now very few) music magazines on sale.

I know, I know: right at this point, some would say this is not true of magazines X and Y, their covers speaking loud and clear. But this is not necessarily to be understood in such literal terms. In the 60s and 70s, who really considered the 20s and 30s as their main inspiration? While today, placing somebody whose main inspiration is, say, Bert Jansch on a magazine cover while ignoring (in both meanings) the very existence of Bert Jansch just means fooling one's readers.

The matter is made even more complex by the circumstance that nowadays the sound of music is (for the most part) the sound of recorded music. So there are more variables to ponder. In a nutshell, we know the way a violin sounds. But what's the sound of an electric guitar? So, while a forgery on a piano score from the XIX century could be the interpolation of a run or some chords in ragtime style, a "fake" of the Stooges first album of the same name could be made apparent by the presence of a digital reverb yet to be invented in 1969.

Whatever the reason(s), presenting the past again and again (also for reasons of profit) is nowadays a widespread occurrence. There were those who greeted this topic with a shrug, their job being to deal with the present, and the future, only, not with the past. But for quite a while now "the past" is not limited to the "Beatles, Stones and Byrds", with a side dish of Prog, anymore. The fact of the "children of '77" getting older makes it possible for a "new kind of magazine" to deal with Pistols and Clash, Banshees and Pere Ubu, and Smiths (also on vinyl!), with Sonic Youth's albums now being released in "Deluxe Edition", with young people being introduced to some more "new music": 60s folk-rock.

This act of deafness when it comes to sound is an addition to the old one about music (here meaning, the notes). I think I'm not wrong when I say that during the 60s not many writers possessed a vocabulary wide enough as to perceive the richness embedded in Ray Manzarek's (of The Doors) keyboard language. This type of ignorance is now augmented by a lack of awareness about the hypothetical coincidence of what we listen to and the form that is the support of the original creation. What if the recent, re-mixed, editions of the Doors albums were the only ones available for sale? Could we go on writing the same stuff, while the music available to buyers is now so - literally - different?

Just a little for instance. We know that Keith Richard's acoustic guitar sound on Let It Bleed is typical of a Gibson (I think it's a Hummingbird). While the acoustic guitar sound that's typical of Neil Young on an album like After The Gold Rush comes courtesy of a Martin (maybe the D-45 model?). Let's suppose that a new mastering job, very compressed and quite rich in high frequencies, makes the guitar sound of Don't Let It Bring You Down really similar to that of Country Honk. Were one to be not cognizant about this, sooner or later one could find some "stunning similarities" between Keith Richards and Neil Young!

I hope I'm not wrong if I say that when it comes to releases of vintage material (being it partially, or totally, known), the most important instances in recent times have been those concerning Neil Young, Rolling Stones, Beatles, King Crimson, Doors, with niche markets for Smiths and Genesis on vinyl, and for Procol Harum, newly remastered (yet again).

Come to think of it, there are a lot of "unknown factors" we assume to be "known quantities". For instance, when one reads of a "Mono Edition" of an album that had originally been released in both Mono and Stereo, one is likely to believe the "Mono" in question to be "The Original Mono". While it could be a new "Mono Reduction" from the "Stereo Master Tapes" - maybe not even the original ones. So we can understand the mood of high suspense (on the Web and in the press) currently surrounding 09/09/09, the (supposed) release date of the new Beatles boxes, one of them reportedly featuring the Mono editions.

By now we are all familiar with the expression "Digitally Remastered". But it happens that when one reads that an album, or a whole series of albums - most recent case being the Rolling Stones, whose catalogue starting with Sticky Fingers switched from Virgin to Universal - has been "digitally remastered" one unconsciously adds the words "From The Original Master Tapes", which one supposes will be processed through more modern, and so more accurate, D/A converters. While it's entirely possible that those Digital Masters that have been prepared for the new editions are the same ones that had already been used for the previous editions. But since those who are more likely to buy the new editions are the same ones who already bought the old editions, "changing something" becomes necessary. But if a track like Angie was the (necessary) breathing pause between two "strong" cuts, and if we bring its volume to the same level as the other two, what happens then? (Those who are interested in examining the penultimate versions of the Rolling Stones catalogue are invited to read the FAQ page that can be found at this address:

It's not really necessary for me to add to the already complex picture made of three (different) versions (formats being CD, DVD-A, and Blu-ray) of the Neil Young box, Archives Vol. 1. Here the Web will help (many interesting threads about this topic can be found on Steve Hoffman's Forum).

Last but not least, those recently remastered Procol Harum CDs. As it's practically the norm starting with the "second wave" after the birth of the CD format, the attention of both reviewers and buyers has been mostly directed towards the unreleased stuff featured on the new editions. So, it was common practice for the unreleased stuff to change with every new edition. While the fact of the original album (which is the "tray" where the unreleased stuff is placed, and its real "raison d'être") being, if not better, at least the same as before, is taken for granted. A recent comparison (a serious one) about Procol Harum's second album, Shine On Brightly, will be of interest when it comes to this assumption (address being

The whole "digital vinyl" topic has become impossibly dense and complicated, the mere fact of the nature of the master acting as source material for the vinyl edition being almost impossible to determine. There are (of course!) some Forums that are dedicated to this very topic, but when the price of an old album of no great rarity and quality can easily fall in the $200 - $400 price range, objectivity can really become debatable!

I really believe that the more one listens to music in an careful way the more one is likely to develop a critical attitude when it comes to the technical aspects in which we encounter music; I really believe this to be independent from the particular period when the individual listener started listening to music, be it the vinyl, the CD, or the downloadable audio file, era. That is to say, I think that those who believe the "old vinyl listeners" to be a special group thanks to the object they listened to, are wrong. While it's extremely plausible that it's a different kind of "listening attitude" (first of all, when it comes to attention spans, and listening as an exclusive activity), which was definitely more common during the old "vinyl era", that proves to be proverbial "X factor".

If we put aside all those traits of "a nice object" that in my opinion fully explain nowadays vinyl boom, talking about a "vinyl copy" doesn't say much. Beyond the subjective sphere of "personal pleasure" are questions of identity that are impossible to consider as doubtable. An album by Creedence Clearwater Revival where Stu Cook's bass has the same volume as Jaco Pastorius's with Weather Report is a fake. An album from the 60s where a NoNoise system took away the hiss (tape hiss, but also from the mixer channels and the mike pre-amps), and with it a slice of the high-end frequencies of voices and instruments, is a fake (even if the absence of tape hiss will make it more easy to like for those who started listening to music in the digital era). An album where verses and choruses are at the same volume is a fake (modulating in volume is in a way similar to modulating through chords). It goes without saying that having different albums by very different groups sounding quite similar (a circumstance not at all rare in the case of those "audiophile" labels that sport a preferred EQ curve) is something that will immediately make one raise one's eyebrows.

Every listener has his/her own horror story about a record, or a group, having sadly been made more and more unlistenable with every remastering. Not to mention those remixed editions of old albums which increasingly take the place of original editions (do the real Nursery Crime and Selling England By The Pound still exist?).

So yes, maybe we could say that listeners have not exactly really been rich in critical attitude. But what about those whose goal is to keep those listeners informed - and aware? Are those who write about music still able to listen to music, or what they're listening to by now is just "meaningless" sound? That is to say, something that's like this, but could have been any other way?

The fall of the Twin Towers provoked an intense debate among "structural engineers". As it's obvious, something that's not "properly built" falls down. This is not the case when it comes to the interpretation of a book (a record, a movie): the object "doesn't collapse"; there are not physical coordinates that can force us to reconsider an interpretative hypothesis that's at the foundation of our "building". (Let's remember that the spreading of the "postmodern" type of interpretation had its centre in the US literature courses, not physics or chemistry. Let's remember that a building can well be "postmodern" when it comes to aesthetics, but that those techniques in structural engineering stay the same.)

The main point (still not perfectly understood) is that the modern subject increasingly considers interpretative freedom in such terms that they "dissolve" the object: that's the only way at one's disposal for one to say whatever s/he feels like saying without being in danger of being "proven wrong". It's (maybe) understandable that at first this was seen under the light of "more available freedom", but nowadays there's no way that those in good faith not to be unconcerned about the actual results: when "the Babel of a thousand languages" has turned into aphasic babbling.

© Beppe Colli 2009 | July 27, 2009