cd sound quality

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grounded5am
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cd sound quality

Postby grounded5am » Wed Aug 23, 2006 11:37 pm

bob dylan recently went on the attack against cd's and how music sounds awful today.



Bob Dylan says the quality of modern recordings is "atrocious," and even the songs on his new album sounded much better in the studio than on disc.

"I don't know anybody who's made a record that sounds decent in the past 20 years, really," the 65-year-old rocker said in an interview with Rolling Stone magazine.

Dylan, who released eight studio albums in the past two decades, returns with his first recording in five years, "Modern Times," next Tuesday.

Noting the music industry's complaints that illegal downloading means people are getting their music for free, he said, "Well, why not? It ain't worth nothing anyway."

"You listen to these modern records, they're atrocious, they have sound all over them," he added. "There's no definition of nothing, no vocal, no nothing, just like ... static."

Dylan said he does his best to fight technology, but it's a losing battle.

"Even these songs probably sounded ten times better in the studio when we recorded 'em. CDs are small. There's no stature to it."


i understand he is talking about something very specific: the practice of clipping, basically the use of audio-compression to make CDs sound competitively louder than the actual recording levels.

Here's a blogger's take on "clipping":

If you read Bob Dylan's rant about modern music today, he sounds unhinged. He isn't; he just isn't describing what he means very well, or it went over the reporter's head and didn't get on paper.

To understand what he means, you need to know what a "compressor" is. (Bear with me here.) In the audio world, a compressor is a device that takes incoming audio above a settable threshhold and mashes its dynamic range, again to a selectable extent. It is useful for making sure a singer's high notes aren't ten times louder than her low ones, and in many other ways, from getting tight drums to punchy bass to overdriven guitar.

Turn the "ratio" way up, and the sound really starts getting mashed together. You would recognize it immediately: "Oh, now it sounds like a radio". This is because radio traditionally had a limited signal-to-noise ratio, and the louder you could mash everything together, the more clearly everything could be heard. So compressors have always been used at radio stations for this purpose.

Compress things far enough and they actually sound "louder" to the ear; everything is squished into a very narrow dynamic range, all loud. In the last couple of decades it has become fashionable during the mastering process to heavily compress the final product, for what reasons who can say, because it sounds like crap, just as Dylan says. He hears the unmastered version in the studio, then compares it to the CD which is sonically squished, and rightly hates the sound - there's "sound all over it", as he says.

You read that right - producers purposely defeat the dynamic range made possible by CDs. In fact, CDs today in general have less dynamic range than vinyl albums did, for just this reason.

Now I am guessing here, but I'd lay odds that when Dylan is griping about the sound, this is what he means.

So now you know why your CDs with their pristine signal-to-noise ratio sound like crap.


is any of this true at all? or is bob dylan being an old fogey?

DJMurphy
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Postby DJMurphy » Thu Aug 24, 2006 12:03 am

It's absolutely true; what that compression means to CDs is that the lows and the highs are made into one big noise, which (audiophiles will tell you) leads to listener fatigue. Some people are so dedicated to getting uncompressed sound that they will deliberately seek out CD release versions from 1983 and are willing to pay top dollar, even though the CD in question is not out of print. Why? The current remaster offends them sonically.

For an earful of this stuff, go to the Steve Hoffman forums. They'll explain it a hundred times better. But be careful if you post; these guys are hard core, and have been known to throw hissy fits about perceived ignorance.

grounded5am
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Postby grounded5am » Thu Aug 24, 2006 11:48 am

thanks.

Barabajagal
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Postby Barabajagal » Thu Aug 24, 2006 12:13 pm

I sort of think he's being a bit of a fogey but he has a point.

Compression, or limiting, is nothing new to popular recordings, and the best recording engineers--and the mastering engineers who often apply a bit of this stuff to the final product--are not going to allow the dynamics (louds and quiets and everything in-between) to disappear. At least I hope they wouldn't to a Bob Dylan record. (They might to your standard pop fare.) Radio, as well, adds more "limiting" when they play stuff.

Compression is verboten in the classical world and often the jazz world. The performances are everything, there, and they don't want you to mess with them. It can make, say, listening to classical in the car a pain in the ass, because you turn up the quiet parts to hear them over road noise, then have a heart attack when the loud part comes in and you fumble to turn it down!

However, it's also a day and age where you can "Pro Tools" the life out of a record. So many great old records--Dylan's are a famous example--left in the little mistakes if the take was good enough. They also often played the take live together, which can also add its own chemistry, overdubbing only guitar leads and vocals later. I'm constantly amused by all the tempo "problems" and little flubs I can now hear on old records I've heard 100 times. Doesn't mean they don't sound great.

Most records today, in contrast, are assembled instrument by instrument, one at a time. There's not as much onus on the musician to perform a perfect take--just record a bunch of passes and take the best parts from each. The engineer will then review each take and can literally "nudge" notes into place if they're a little off the beat, make them louder if they're too soft, pitch shift them if they're flat, or simply copy the right note from later in the song and paste it to the sour note like you would a block of text. Then, when mixing, you can automate the volume of instruments so they "come up" or fade back" at just the right times. It's absolutely completely amazing what can be done in a studio now. But you can see how it takes the flavor out of a great, but flawed take.

This process can make things sound super cool or super dead.

There's also the old LP vs. CD debate. Turning up the analog LP makes the sound "richer," where turning up the CD only makes it louder. But that's more audiophile anal-retentiveness.

n8
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Postby n8 » Thu Aug 24, 2006 1:45 pm

this has become a self-perpetuated phenomenon. everybody's trying to get louder, or more compressed, than everyone else. and listeners can tell the difference. we've come to crave the loud, crammed, compressed sound - it sounds fuller, better.

i see a parallel to the increasing THC levels in marijuana. it's way stronger today than it was three decades ago. and once you've got high on the new stuff, the old stuff (i imagine) just wouldn't cut it.

music recording is following the same path. listen to old recordings and to the average listener it sounds puny, quiet, weak. whereas the new stuff sounds strong, vibrant, bold - as opposed to crushed and stripped of all dynamic range, as it actually is.

i don't see how we're going to back out of this trend. my guess is at some point it'll reach a critical mass and just settle there. until new technologies come along to allow for more progress in that direction, that is.

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Postby steve-o » Thu Aug 24, 2006 4:31 pm

I think it's hard to make a generalization either way. (and I'm speaking as a listener, not as a gearhead. I've got a little knowledge about recording, but not enough to get technical.) Of course, it should be mentioned that this is more a mastering issue, and not a recording issue.

Obviously if you're talking about the kind of compression they put on Linkin Park albums, yeah, that sounds like crap. But it's unfair to say that modern recording quality as a whole has gone downhill. For starters, look at the Wrens' home-recorded Meadowlands. I've played that CD on plenty of high-end speakers, and the recording quality is fantastic.
Then you go back and listen to old Motown records on the same speakers and you really start to hear the limitations on those recordings. I would love to be able to take a modern studio back in time to re-record "Bernadette" with modern equipment (albeit the right modern equipment.) Think about how much more powerful that song could sound with a little low end, and with a warmer vocal harmony track. Or for another example, Tim or early Smiths albums all had plenty of "dynamic" to them. They still didn't sound very good.
It's not just about compression. Too much of anything will make the whole recording sound screwy. But I think that in a lot of ways, there have been a lot of improvements in recording sound quality as people's stereo equipment and expectations have improved. If Dylan doesn't like how his recordings were mastered, that's up to him. But he can't knock all modern recording because his albums were mastered poorly. Get a new mix-monkey.

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Postby Barabajagal » Thu Aug 24, 2006 5:56 pm

steve-o wrote:Then you go back and listen to old Motown records on the same speakers and you really start to hear the limitations on those recordings. I would love to be able to take a modern studio back in time to re-record "Bernadette" with modern equipment (albeit the right modern equipment.) Think about how much more powerful that song could sound with a little low end, and with a warmer vocal harmony track.


I think the reason there isn't a lot of low end on those old records is because 1.) all that bass energy would make the needles on record players skip, and 2.) most people listened through speakers that wouldn't translate low end anyway.

My guess, though, is that you could get the master tapes of any old records, even from the 40s and 50s, cue them up in the studio and they'd sound as fresh as anything recorded today--the only difference being the recording technique used. Most stuff was performed live to one mic and thus "mixed" in the performance.

Motown was fascinating in its own way...They had their own techniques. Back then every studio had its "sound." Ironically, now that possibilities are limitless, many modern professional recordings sound remarkably homogenous. Another argument for limitations!

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Postby Greenwood The Sock Monkey » Thu Aug 24, 2006 7:22 pm

Naturally there are limits to what a 44.1 kHz, 8-bit (?) compact disc can replicate. I mean, it IS a twenty-year-old technology now, which in digital terms is approximately fifteen generations. When CDs were first mass produced, a 286 was a kick-ass chipset!

But, the main culprit destroying the perceived audio quality is the mastering/compression. Frankly, if Bob Freakin' Dylan doesn't have the artistic clout to insist his records be mastered the way he likes, rather than the way some tape monkey at the lab likes it, then what hope is there?

That said, David Gilmour's latest record sounds very, very nice. You have to crank it up, and it's not particularly suited to radio or .mp3 or playing in the car, but played at home in a controlled listening environment, it has dynamics galore.

steve-o
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Postby steve-o » Fri Aug 25, 2006 8:55 am

Barabajagal wrote:
I think the reason there isn't a lot of low end on those old records is because 1.) all that bass energy would make the needles on record players skip, and 2.) most people listened through speakers that wouldn't translate low end anyway.


You're definitely right on that, but on modern stereo equipment it still makes it all sound kind of flat.

Motown was fascinating in its own way...They had their own techniques. Back then every studio had its "sound." Ironically, now that possibilities are limitless, many modern professional recordings sound remarkably homogenous. Another argument for limitations!


And that probably goes back to what we were talking about a few threads back, about the growing popularity of home recording. These days, you go into a professional studio, and you see the same software (which in itself is a relatively new thing) that people are using to make home recordings. Since everyone is using the same three types of computer software to record, I'm not at all surprised it starts to sound pretty homogenous.

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Postby booker » Fri Aug 25, 2006 12:04 pm

I think the real issue is that music is being mastered too hot today (compression and limiting being part of that process). There are no quiet spots, little dynamic range, and to the human ear, that translates to a lack of excitement in the music. I suppose, as Bob says, it can also destroy definition between instruments.


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