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.

Saturday, April 5, 2014

Electronic Music Sung by Women

Recently, I came across two songs, both sung by women, that are particular interest. One is a song I'd heard of by name but not by ear, and I knew its name because I knew the artist, Laura Branigan (first when I tried out her interpretation of the music of 'Der Kommissar' by Austrian artist Falco). The other song was something of a chance encounter on YouTube - I saw the video thumbnail in the related videos, and the name, and decided to try it out, which is very rare for me to do.

'Self-Control' is something I heard on the radio while driving. I didn't know what it was at first and thought it sounded eerie and electronic and quiet, until I noticed a nice, familiar procession in the music. By familiar, I do not mean that I'd heard the song before and found its hook familiar, I mean that the hook itself is used often in other pop songs and is pleasing to the ear accordingly, so therefore it was familiar. But even though I'd never heard it before, I was quick to deduce somehow quickly that it was Self-Control by Laura Branigan, even though I'd only known the song existed thanks to its music video often popping up in related video thumbnails on YouTube.

It works by...ah, leave it out. You know what? I'm going to try something and avoid taking the song apart and just leave it at that. Use of of my own 'self-control.' It's a familiar procession, which means that it sounds like something you might have heard before in other songs, probably 'Hotel California' (for certain verses of this song anyway, and only by similarity, not exactly). I haven't bothered to work it out on the piano or the bass, so I don't know what musical notes or chords are played. For the sake of simplicity, I'll just say that the music sounds slightly above average in pitch...and then goes down to a different pitch that explains everything I've just over-written, during verses.

It's got a bit of a dark rock-feel to it in the beginning, but you know the entire thing is mostly synthed and pop. Particularly the sound of the 'drums' and the, well, synths.

It's generally likable to me, even with the masculine voices during the bam! part. You know, that...just listen to it. Where the music stops and there's these chorus male voices coinciding with sudden crashes.

On Wikipedia it says that it was one song out of several that were Italian that she adapted for her own English lyrics. This one was different in that she used the English lyrics from a different version on this, so she's re-adapted this Italian-written and performed song into her own with English lyrics from the English version of the song by someone else. Considering how she seems to pick other songs from elsewhere and either write her own English lyrics (or discover someone else has already done it, and go on to copy them) you might think she's an artist only for her voice and not for her music or writing or, well, frankly, creativity. But everyone has their niche, and if it's the sound of your voice, more power to you. Interestingly, while American, Branigan's version of this song did very well in Europe and Switzerland and is one of her most-recognized hits.

I'm not sure if I've heard it before now, but I kind of like it. Mostly for its musical procession, but you know me.

Music: B+
Lyrics: F (She didn't write her own, she copied them from someone else who interpreted and performed them in English first; but I'll give her a B for the sound of her voice and a B+ to the bloke who actually wrote them).

The second song comes from Germany (but it's in English). The title got me when I saw it in the related videos while listening to the Self-Control video (and if you open the embedded video above in YouTube it'll probably still be there). It's called 'Maria Magdalena' by an artist called Sandra.

The name stuck out at me because it was something that seemed familiar - "Maria Magdalena." I've heard the name somewhere. My interest was piqued.

When I heard the unusual introduction, I recognized it but if I heard it before, I have no idea where; the chorus also sounded vaguely familiar too, from a long time ago at least. All I know is that I love her voice and the lyrics. The music, while not necessarily original-sounding, is still refreshing. Anyway, it's virtually impossible to hear something original from any recent time, including the 1980s, and I prefer familiar sounds or processions anyway.

The lyrics, which are sung by both Sandra and the bass player (whose voice isn't bad either) appear to refer to a situation wherein the subject of those words is making attributes to the singer that aren't hers, which I find in some way familiar. The chorus particularly shows this with the two of them singing. I didn't go in-depth with describing the Self-Control lyrics because I listen more to the music of that song, but they ring with me in this one, which is a great sign.

There's some familiarity to the predicament I'm reading. You ever find yourself in a relationship where you're friends with a girl or boy who looks exactly like someone else you've been attracted to for a long time - but could never be with? Yeah yeah - I know those who come here often know where I'm going here. But in this case the singer knows this and is being upfront about it. "I'll never be Maria Magdalena." Meanwhile the bassist is going on with descriptions - "You're a creature of the night," etc. - and then saying things like "You need love."

For me it takes me back to last September-October, where I was friends with a lookalike of all those Slavic girls (which made sense as she herself is Slavic); at the time she was quite upfront about her care for my own personal issues and negativity, though at the same time she couldn't be the lookalike and couldn't "share my life" as lyrics go due to our polar opposite ideas and aspirations (and the fact she had a boyfriend). That's where the song really speaks to me: I'm a creature of the night - I'm negative, dark. Then my old friend says something very sympathetic or caring as was her nature - "You need love" as it goes in the song - but at the same time, she'll never be "Maria Magdalena." Of course there's a different name in my case, but yeah.

If Laura Branigan's voice was nice in her song, Sandra's voice is awesome in hers. It's smooth and bright and very easy to listen to. Kind of sweet. The music, while also electronic, is easy and nice.

All the electronic and 80s stuff are in there as usual, including those drum pad things. I guess with me it's just a consistent admiration or fondness or enjoyment of it all. And it's some rare, great stuff from Germany (all I've ever heard from them is the 'moterick beat' term for rhythm or drumming - I haven't tried something like Kraftwerk yet).

Music: B+
Lyrics: A [A+ for her voice].

On an ending note, I'm not nearly as negative or of the night as I was months ago, or even weeks ago. I think I'm just heading past the morning dawn.

Justin C.