MUSIC HAS ALWAYS SOUNDED BAD! A Response to "The Distortion of Sound"
by Christopher Coleman
Many of you reading this would likely agree that there are a few problems within the music world today. Whether you ask the consumer, the critic, or the creator, they'll all give you a list of things that could be improved ... and some that must be improved for the sake of the long-term well-being of the industry. The 2014 documentary, THE DISTORTION OF SOUND, directed by Jacob Rosenberg, written by Michael Abell and Kevin Gentile and featuring interviews by artists like: QUINCY JONES, HANS ZIMMER, and A.R. RAHMAN, deals with the declining quality of sound in the reording industry. Having a high interest in this topic and how the masses consume music today, I was equally keen to see what these artists and documentarians had to say.
Sadly, I didn't come out with much new information, hence my own views effected much. If you have been paying attention to the trend in the music economy over the last ten years, you likely won't find any major revelations in this documentary either. The main point of the DISTORTION OF SOUND was to say to the masses, "Hey. Most of that music you are streaming or downloading and listening to via your phone, tablet and laptops is crap. And we put a lot of hard work into that music, which you aren't hearing at all." There was no clear call to action but, most thankfully, there was no pitch to purchase some new piece of HD-audio hardware or service.
Aside from ultimately wondering what the point of this documentary was, I also felt that, while I may agree with the conclusion that the masses may be missing out on the finer nuances of their music, as original recorded, their arguments were a little weak. Saying that compressed audio through tiny earbuds or cheap, on-board computer speakers, sounds bad compared to the original recordings is true enough, but to suggest that this is something new and that some undeclared action must be taken is disingenuous at best. The fact is that the masses have been listening to comparatively poor sounding music for decades. It's simply a case of whether the music sounds "good enough." Consumers weigh this against other factors in their listening experience like: portability, accessibility, and cost. The fact is the masses are saying with their wallets that compressed music is, at most times. good enough.
While the documentarians make their point quite clearly (a little too extremely perhaps) with the uncompressed versus compressed sound of the same piece of music and while they do take us down musical-memory-lane from the 1960s-vinyl to the 8-track, cassette, and CD, they never deal with the fact that a lot of work has always been put into recorded music that many never heard. From the media available to the means of transmission to the limitations of technology, recorded-music that has sounded comparatively bad has always been made readily available and the masses listened by the millions.
Let's see. Remember AM radio? Right. It's still there, but mostly filled with talk radio. Why? Because music sounds like crap on AM radio. But some of you reading this right now will recall listening to hours and hours of your favorite music via a tiny, one-speaker, hand-held, AM radio and it was fine. Don't you know you were missing a lot of the amazing detail, atmosphere and dynamics of every song you listened to that way? Back in the 70s, it was the best we had. As long as our 9-volt batteries held out and we could sing along with our favorite songs being squeeked and squelched out of our radio, we were fine with it.
Magnetic media. Let's not even deal with 8-tracks and talk about the best selling medium of the 80s, cassette tapes. Do you recall how we'd record and re-record the same tapes over and over? You want to talk "distortion in sound?" By the end of the lifespan of some of my old AMPEX, MAXELL, MEMOREX, or TDK tapes, the quality of sound was worse than a severely warped and scratched vinyl-record. Remember that cassette-album you loved so much? Even if you bought it from the label, brand new, with each successive listen the quality of that experience was diminishing. Did you keep the temperature constant to ensure the long-life of that tape or did you leave it locked up in your car in the blazing heat of summer from time to time? Ever get that tape snagged in your player only to fish it out with a great new set of creases added to the tape? That's just how it was, but many of us put up with it, because that is all we had for portable music.
And let's not slam these headphones and earphones of today too hard. (Ok. We can slam them a little for being so overpriced). Let's not kid ourselves that the headphones that accompanied our favorite Walkman-clone, were some technological, sonic breakthrough in fidelity. They were cheap, light, and were a perfect match for the convenience those personal cassette players afforded us. And with those cassette players, remember how we were to clean the heads and if you were really hardcore, you'd even de-magnetize them on occasion? What percentage of the masses bothered to do this to keep their music sounding as good as possible? Few bothered ... but we kept on listening to those re-re-re-recorded cassettes over and over and over - losing fidelity with every turn of the sprockets. We listened on, because it was all we had.
I bet I'm not the only one who used to sit in his room or out in the yard with friends and tape record music that was played on the radio! At least it was FM radio, so it was sounding great compared to that monophonic-nightmare of the AM variety. Think about it. Music that might have been recorded and mixed in the finest studios by master musicians, was being pumped over the airwaves rife with countless sources of interference and noise. We then took our little, dirty-headed, boom boxes and inserted that cassette tape we've been using and reusing for the last two years. Finally, after holding the pause button for minutes at a time, while those dreaded radio commercials played, putting damaging stresses on our beloved, dynamic, normal bias cassette tape, we finally release the button and our personal recording session of our favorite song begins. Just how pure, detailed, and dynamic must have that song have sounded later as we listened, rewound, and listened again. In truth, it sounded terrible, but we put up with it, because it was all we had.
At long last the 1990s arrived and the music industry would be changed forever by the digital age. The compact disc entered the scene and our minds were collectively blown as digitally recorded and mastered music was a dream come true. Theoretically, our 1500th listen was a clean and clear as our first. We could take these thin, little discs of joy anywhere. We'd skip songs and repeat others. It was so convenient ... and they just happened to, on the whole, sound infinitely better than our cassettes we recorded from our record collections. In some ways, it was the pinnacle of the music industry.
Artists weren't complaining that consumers couldn't hear all of their artistry back then. Consumers loved the convenience and bonus quality. However, there was one thing that consumers weren't so fond of - the price.
Those artists that take the stand represented in DISTORTION OF SOUND don't talk about our tradition of "bad sounding music." Instead they focus on the most current iteration. The fact is poor quality listening experiences have been around since the dawn of recorded music and from the artists' point of view, it's likely to be with us forever. While it was rather intriguing to see the thoughts on compressed music expressed by artists of varying generation and genre, without a strong call to action at the end, the whole point of this video is lost. Perhaps it will somehow educate a few and move them to buy compact discs or vinyl, but enough to make an actual difference?
The majority of consumers have already spoken. Digital downloads and streaming services provide music quality that is "good enough" for them. The convenience simply outweighs the losses in quality, that many say they can't even perceive.
Unless there is some breakthrough in whatever playback technologies the consumers have ready-access it to (something that will expose the deficiencies in the fidelity of their current musical choices), gad sounding music has been with us since the dawn of recorded music and will probably be with us for years to come.