Yet more wittering about compression

Tuesday, February 26, 2008

Two things.

Firstly, our septuagenarian neighbour is a music teacher, as well as a bad influence, who coerces us into drinking far too much champagne on Sunday afternoons. She’s a violinist by trade, but also plays piano. She still regularly performs concerts, and teaches freelance at the local school, which is very posh, and also private lessons to the kinds of young children whose parents pay for young children to have music lessons. She’s a New Zealander who’s lived here for over 50 years. She’s said some disparaging things about what Peter Jackson’s done re; tourism in NZ over recent years. She smokes, drinks, and swears, and is pretty awesome.

This Sunday just gone I was explaining the compression article to her over a bottle or two. As you might expect of a music teacher of a certain age, she’s into classical. She has little truck with jazz and less with pop. And you know what? She didn’t understand the compression thing. Not because she couldn’t technically grasp the concept; far from it. Her reaction was something along the lines of this (not verbatim; a little too much was consumed that afternoon):

“No fortissimo? No pianissimo? Why?! Why the bloody hell would you flatten music? It’s all about the fortissimo! That’s why recorded music is never as good as seeing something in a concert hall; it’s never as exciting!

I was, needless to say, absolutely fucking delighted with this reaction. She thinks I’m a crusader now. Which I kind of am.

Secondly, someone on ILM asked if I’d ever made a list of great sounding records. I pointed them towards the two top tens I did for Stylus on the subject, which are OK, but not quite what was asked for.

Closer are the two lists I put together on Amazon. Bu they’re still not exactly what I was asked for. Neither is this, but it’s closer, and, well, I’ve not quite written enough about this yet.

Maybe a third thing before I get to the actual list…

Thirdly, briefly, putting the stereo in a bigger room has made some things a damn site more sonically palatable than they were before. Presumably something about “standing waves”, whatever they are. Still not ideal, but there you go.

Anyway, some records. Two lots; the first lot, records a bit damaged by being, in my opinion, over-compressed one way or another. The second lot are records that I think aren’t over-compressed, or, at the least, that I think use compression effectively rather than destructively.

As ever; I’m NOT a sound engineer, just a fussy cockfarmer with lots of headphones. I’m not talking about data compression, and I’m not talking about compression on individual instruments; just dynamic range compression, the stuff that makes records consistent in volume and can often blur the sharpness of instruments

Part One: Records damaged by inappropriate or unnecessary use of compression, 2000 onwards
These are not necessarily records that I dislike; in fact in many cases I very much do like them, maybe even love them. They’re just records that I can’t bring myself to listen to very often because they give me a headache if I pay attention.

Embrace – Out Of Nothing
A really good example of the potentially negative affects of dynamic range compression (let’s call it DRC from now on) is what’s happened to the title track here. On an early, unmastered version of this song that I heard as an MP3, the levels were left more natural; as a result, when the huge, searing feedback climax kicked-in it was a damn site more shocking and exhilarating than it is on the version you can buy on CD. It’s still a phenomenal song, but it could be better.

Radiohead – Kid A
I had a bit of a Radiohead phase over the last few weeks, mainly because I’ve actually really enjoyed In Rainbows, and so I stuck all their albums on my work computer and made a best-of playlist. I stuck the Amnesiac version of “Morning Bell” on there, cos I remembered the opening vocal melody being lovely. It is. But it’s mastered horribly; really loud and imprecise. The prior album is much the same; I’ve said before that my problem with Kid A is that it’s an electronic / avant-garde record mastered like a mainstream rock record, and I stand by that; there’s none of the detail and precision and real accuracy that you get in the things they’re aping.

PJ Harvey – Stories From The City, Stories From The Sea
Play this after Rid Of Me or Dry. Sure, you have to turn those up, but they FUCKING ROCK when you do. This, on the other hand, turns very quickly to engine noise. And that’s not nice to listen to, no matter how great the songs.

Bloc Party – A Weekend In The City
I gave this a kicking at Stylus; almost completely unlistenable. And the songs don’t justify trying, either.

Spoon – Ga Ga Ga Ga Ga
This choice might shock some of you, because I fucking love this record; but it’s squashed. It works, pretty much, and I still listen to it a lot, but I can’t help think that Howie Weinberg (who mastered the PJ Harvey album mentioned above, too) just squeezed a little too much clarity and distinction out of the bass guitar and kick drum as he pushed for that extra -1dB. Gimme Fiction suffers from this too, and wasn’t Weinberg job, so I can only assume it was the band’s decision. Play Kill The Moonlight and realise this could be done better. Then play A Series Of Sneaks and realise that Kill The Moonlight could be done better too.

Bob the kitten has been sitting on a beanbag by the speaker. iTunes is playing on random as I type. The realistic, uncompressed sound of Patrick Wolf’s violin on “Eulogy” has just freaked him the fuck out, and he’s beaten a course to the windowsill.

Back to business.

The Flaming Lips – At War With The Mystics
This one you should know about. I can’t even remember how any of the songs go, is how flat and corrupted it is.

Snow Patrol – Final Straw
It was the opening track of this MBV-for-accountants album that was one of the things that shocked me when I played it straight after something older, possibly even something by them (first album engineered by Jamie Watson, and sounds great for it). No wonder they went massive; they ditched the idiosyncratic song titles and pumped-up the levels.

Yo La Tengo – I Am Not Afraid Of You And I Will Kick Your Ass
Just that little bit too much, you know? Still pretty terrific, but a little fuzzy around the edges, and for such a long album it makes it very hard to get through all at once.

The Shortwave Set – The Debt Collection
A little idiosyncratic indie record with an emphasis on odd sonics and thrift-shop instrumentation, and they pump it as loud as possible. Criminal.

Arcade Fire – Funeral
Can’t remember a note, even though I vaguely remember quite enjoying it the first time.

Matthew Dear – Asa Breed
Like Kid A this is just a little too upfront, a little too brash, and not quite involving enough.

Cocteau Twins – Heaven Or Las Vegas (2004 Remaster)
This, however, is headache-inducingly shrill and loud. And I love this album. Thank heaven I kept the original.

Phoenix – It’s Never Been Like That
Their aesthetic kind of needs to be clean and polished, but this was meant to be a step away from that. It didn’t work; the first track was so horribly in-your-face that I never went back.

Keane – Under The Iron Sea
Muse – Black Holes & Revelations
These two you just expect to be disgusting; surprise surprise, they don’t disappoint. Get the snare sound on the Muse album. Get the track that’s meant to be really minimal and acoustic and a bit barbershop, but that’s exactly the same volume as the mentalist rockers. It’s stupid. And the Keane album is just fucking disgusting.

TV On The Radio – Return To Cookie Mountain
See: Yo La Tengo. The debut EP is terrifically done. This is just a bit crunchy and lacking in space.

Working For A Nuclear Free City – Businessmen & Ghosts
The debut proper was really quiet, which meant when you turned it really loud it was properly engulfing and psychedelic. They’ve not destroyed the integrity of instruments and other ingredients on this double-CD compilation, but they have made it more boring, which is a shame.

Ulrich Schnauss – A Strangely Isolated Place
This is meant to be shoegazing. The bass clips. Unforgivable.

65daysofstatic – One Time For All Time
One of the ones that set me off; I could tell it was ‘good’ compositionally, but it didn’t move, it didn’t achieve the intensity I was after.

The nicer bit will follow in a while; maybe hours, maybe days.


Tuesday, February 26, 2008

Dusty In Vegas

Sunday, February 17, 2008

I was glad to see Katy Setterfield win The One And Only on BBC1 last night – vaguely fraudulent feelings at having not watched any of the series before the final but still being won over enough to feel emotionally invested in her performances notwithstanding – as much because it made Em and I get out Dusty In Memphis and then a greatest hits collection and actually listen to the real Dusty. (It has to be said that Katy was very damn good at emulating the real Dusty, much more so than the chap ‘doing’ Robbie Williams.) (I’ll not mention the oddly-named, bright-ginger kid who ‘became’ Lionel Richie.)

So we listened to, of course, “Son Of A Preacher Man”, “I Only Want To Be With You” and “I Just Don’t Know What To Do With Myself”; none of which had been performed that night on the show. There’s something in the desperation, the barely contained emotional hysteria, of the kinds of songs given to female singers in the 60s, that Dusty nailed every single time. “I Just Don’t Know…” particularly – maybe it’s Bacharach’s arrangement – the space for the adrenaline-rush drum-roll before the pain starts again. Female singers haven’t… female singers in the mainstream haven’t nailed that for a long time, I don’t think. It was noticeable that, Frank Sinatra’s impersonator aside, all the singers last night bar Dusty were all-smiling, cabaret-singing, happy-to-be-here types while performing; perma-grins and Butlins professionalism. Katy-as-Dusty was the only one who inhabited the songs, who made me feel like she felt it.

We also listened to my favourite Dusty song, the one where she perhaps made me feel like she was feeling it herself the most; a song that was only ever a b-side, and which I only know because it was tacked-on at the end of the edition of Dusty In Memphis that I bought years ago – “What Do You Do When Love Dies”. It was recorded at the …In Memphis sessions but not used until later, a string section added. It goes from nothing to everything, guitar solo, emotional tumult, huge orchestral swell, in less than 2:40. “I run for the 1:10 uptown / show starts at two / I’m surrounded by strangers / but I’m haunted by you”. Awesome. One of the final columns I wrote for Stylus was a top ten of songs I’d cover if I ever could – I feel criminal for having forgotten this gem.

Listening to Dusty lead inexorably to putting on the first two tracks of Hot Buttered Soul, which we followed with “Only In Dreams” and “Say It Ain’t So” from Weezer’s blue debut (Em’s choice – she thinks I hate them; I don’t). Then I had a hankering for “Reckoner” by Radiohead; Em for “Beautiful Boyz” by Coco Rosie (Anthony Hegarty dueting); then I chose “Sheela-Na-Gig” from Dry by PJ Harvey. Em chose a couple of songs from Patrick Wolf’s debut; “A Boy Like Me” and “Bloodbeat”.

Which lead me to “Nocturn” and Aerial by Kate Bush (Dusty, Kate and Polly being probably my three favourite British female singers ever); an album which I realise now was probably the one which most set me off on the compression thing; listening to it this morning next to Radiohead’s In Rainbows, which is far from a BAD sounding album, Aerial is so spacious, detailed, rich, involving... as is the version of Dusty In Memphis I have, a 14-track, 1995 release on Mercury, mastered so quietly by today’s standards that it's useless ripping the songs to an iPod for the commute – turning up “Son Of A Preacher Man” and “What Do You Do When Love Dies” last night, though, and it was… more like having Dusty in the room than Katy Setterfield was. And she was good.

Where is this going? Nowhere really. Em wouldn’t commit to saying that she thought Dusty would win last night, instead pointing out, quite rightly, that you never know who the audience is; Dusty’s classic and we both love her, but how much of the audience would be swayed by songs they knew better? It was the Dusty superfan who was right though; Em and I may have only watched the final, but most other people watching last night have been onboard for up to eight weeks previous – they may not have known much about Dusty Springfield two months ago, but they’ve probably been won over in the meantime by Katy’s performances.


Sunday, February 17, 2008

Welcome back

Thursday, February 14, 2008

Well, that retirement lark didn’t last long. Eyes right – I had a piece published at a blog coordinated by ex-Stylus boy Dan Weiss, whose enthusiasm and facial hair makes me feel very old indeed. Dan asked me to write something a while ago, when his necromantic whim first took hold and he deigned to continue at least one facet of what Stylus was (the On Second Thought column, namely), and so I wrote something. It’s an OK piece about a fucking great record. A really great record. Get it.

All the recent photographs in my Photobucket account are of our kitten and our house. All the recent photographs in my iPhoto on my work computer are headshots of team leaders in my division. So the one up above is years old. I hope I never used it before. That would be terrible.

The Long Fin Killie piece might not just be a blip. Despite buying paints, pencils, sketchpads, and canvas, and loaning a stack of “how to draw / paint / fake it” books from the library, I’ve not yet immersed myself fully in the warm arts (if they are the warm arts). Plus Todd asked me if I’d do something “advertorial” for eMusic. For money. I said “yes”. I have a mortgage to pay, after all. And I like the record he sent me, too. More next week, on eMusic.

I also finally got a copy (two, actually – the second is for the library) of the Da Capo Best Music Writing 2007 book, in which, AS YOU MAY KNOW, my Imperfect Sound Forever piece was included. Chosen by none other than Robert Christgau. In his introduction, which I think is the first thing I’ve ever read by Christgau, being, as I am, essentially uninterested by rock music criticism, Christgau calls me boring, basically, by intimating that his attention may have wandered during the piece. I don’t blame him – reading it back again elicits the same response in me now as it did the day we published it: why the fuck did I not make this 50% shorter and not repeat myself so damn much? Christgau says he found himself thinking about it for days afterwards (“it” being compression, I suppose, the issue my article was/is about), and that this brainbugging changed his mind and convinced him it was a good piece of writing. He’s very forthright that he wanted his edition of BMW to have only the best writing in it.

Don’t get me wrong; I’m proud to the rafters of what ISF has done, the hits it got, the articles it spawned, the book it got republished in, the records it may or may not have influenced directly or indirectly. Reading it again today, on paper, in a book (HOW WEIRD) was a strange sensation, but I was perhaps most… touched, or awed, by the fact that my tiny, tinny little dedication at the end (Thanks to MD and ME for opinions, photos, and facts, and ER for putting up with me not shutting up about this for the last two months.) wound up in there. Seeing Emma’s initials. It’s two years since I started researching that piece, and I’ve still not shut up. Em’s in the next room, with the kitten, reading, and trying to blot out the Augie March that’s oozing from the little Q Acoustic 1010s in the room I’m in, doubtless.

But that piece… It’s 6,000 words long, for pity’s sake. Compositionally, structurally, it’s fucking horrible. There are some neat turns of phrase in there, but good grief there’s also some right clunkers. And the repetition! As a writer I’m not proud of it. It’s ugly and unedited. Uneditable, I thought. As a music fan I’m fit to burst.

Anyway, this 630-odd words has tumbled out nicely, quickly, only on track 5, even if Augie March songs are so very long. This writing lark; it’s about sorting my own thoughts, I think. If I don’t do it, I get paranoid that I have carbon monoxide poisoning. I get headaches. Maybe that’s the altitude, though. Top two floors.


Thursday, February 14, 2008

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Nick Southall was born in southwest England at the tail end of the 70s, and is the youngest of three brothers. He has a degree in popular culture and philosophy and has written about music for Stylus Magazine, The Guardian and Drowned In Sound, amongst others. He likes red wine, expensive headphones, spicy food, and the Hungarian national football team of the 1950s. His favourite record is the last one he listened to. You can contact him by email via sickmouthy @ gmail dot com should you so wish.

All material copyright Nick Southall 2006/2007/2008

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