Tuesday, April 29, 2014

Sound Dynamics

How much do you really take in when you listen to a song?

Most people, I would assume, would listen to their favourite music at a high volume, when they do. Then again, how often does one listen to music normally? I generally spend about forty-five minutes a day listening in varied order five or six of the same songs - which does sound boring and repetitive but I go through phases of listening to the same stuff, then move on to completely different or even new stuff.

The thing is though, when you listen to something very loud, do you really hear the full song? Or just parts? I know that if I'm concentrated on something while listening, the song goes by in seconds and I'm surprised at how quickly it ended, because I'm not actually listening very much. And when I am, if it's loud, my ears only really process the easy stuff - voice, lead guitar, bass, bass drum and any mid-range drums, and any other dominant instruments. Anything else that's higher in range - like hi-hat or cymbals or piano - or anything that's quieter, less dominant, more background or layered - will just escape my attention most of the time.

When I turn the volume down a bit so that it's not loud but not difficult to hear, I suddenly get all these extra things, and they reveal the real structure of the song, its character and depth. I doubt I'm alone in all of this - I tried actually listening again loudly and looking for those instruments, but only heard them out of concentration over the louder ones.

You might think, well, then make all the instruments louder. Then each musician in the song can be heard equally. But one consequence is what the music industry has already gone through - the 'loudness wars' that started in the late 80s. The music industry decided singularly on its own that people prefer their music, when transferred to new mediums like CD or whatever from the original vinyl, louder than before. That's where mastering came in, which makes perfect sense - for ensuring each song on a CD has the same volume rather than each instrument in a song.

Take into account how far something goes from one point to another: A drumstick strikes a drum head; its sound waves react the microphone which turns it into an electric signal; that gets produced as a digital waveform on a computer and then transmitted out speakers. From sound wave to speaker, that sound has lost some of its quality. And that's only in a studio setting. Imagine recording a drummer, then taking that waveform and mixing it with others, and playing with its EQ levels and loudness, and then exporting it as a kind of file on your computer - and then burning it on a CD or copying it onto an mp3 player or iPod - and then hearing that sound on your headphones or earbuds. That sound has been degraded by the microphone, computer RAM capability, bit size and rate, file format, and further copying or burning, plus the low quality of your headphones or earbuds. That's a far stretch.

It's the same for anything, really. You have a nice scene; you take a picture; you play with the digital file on your computer in Photoshop; you print it out. Your camera has turned that scene into a 5 megapixel replica that you've changed the quality of in Photoshop depending on whether you're using 8, 15, or 24-bit mode, and your printer has further reduced the image to a low quality, 240dpi paper replica with a weird colour cast. Yet you could see true colour and detail with your own eyes. Too bad eyes can't be cameras.

Regardless of all of that, putting every instrument as loud as possible, as well as every waveform track as loud as possible, reduces any way to differentiate between anything. There's no depth. It's just a constant noise, probably distorted or clipped. Compression, a way to make everything the same threshold of noise, is way over-used. How can you enjoy a song when each instrument is constantly screaming for your attention? That would be musical overload or something...you can't focus on anything so it all sounds the same. Your mind just decodes it as noise.

It's called having no dynamic range, which I find neat because it can apply to anything than just music mastering or recording. Back in photography, an image with high dynamic range means you can decipher virtually everything in the image because there's contrast. You can see the bright clouds in the sky and the patterns on the pavement in the shadows at the same time in one image, though you can still see the obvious difference in between; a low dynamic image would have little contrast, going lower until the entire picture is grey, there aren't any differences between light and dark, and you can't decipher much at all. Boring and ugly and unattractive, and what can you even see? Just like you can't hear anything. It all looks the same.

You need quieter instruments and louder ones. Personally, I intend on going for layers - many layers - of different instruments or the same one playing different fills or background stuff you can hear but not really notice right away. Music of the 80s is great for that, as there are many little hidden musical bits in a song you don't realize right away. T'Pau's 'Heart and Soul' has a little keyboard melody that persists as fast as the hi-hat in the song. I didn't notice that until I turned the music down and listened closely. You hardly even hear the hi-hat itself; you're too focused on the snappy, resounding snare drum that dominates the song. Randy Newman's 'I Love LA' which I reviewed on here recently has a mixture of keyboard synths and grand piano constantly churning together, a lot of which fills in the background. I didn't notice half of it at first. It sounds like, at each main chord change, he had a track of him pounding the start of the change hard on a grand piano, his hands hitting that key chord loud and only once. I've gone on about little stuff I've found in Madness songs for a long time, particularly that little B note in 'Not Home Today.' The quieter stuff fills up the song and gives it its thick layer of sound and depth. You hear something with difference and style and solid, appealing sounds.

This 'loudness race' is a silly idea that needs to be addressed. No one wants to kill their hearing with screaming instruments all competing to be louder than each other, yet they're all the same volume, with a peak of clipping or distortion. That takes away a song's distinctive character and enjoyable difference within itself. I like listening closely. It makes me wonder how it was put together, rehearsed, recorded, played, etc.

Everyone should turn it down too; that's how you really get all those real background instruments, the ones that do all the groundwork for the beauty of music a song is.

I have my first 'assessment' tomorrow at the music place. Looking forward to showing them what I do know. And when I do produce my own music in the future, it's going to be loud, quiet, and everything in between.

Justin C.

No comments: