Wednesday, July 29, 2009

The Compression Wand

Ok, so you might be a fan of Good music (Bob Dylan) or Bad music (Michael Bolton) but you're likely to not be a fan of most current radio fodder (if you are, go back to bed! This is a school night!). You may be wondering why people who can like both the awesome (The Mekons) and the awful (Rush) can all agree that something like Linkin Park is terrible. It's not being old or failing to relate. It's something more important.

I loved Nirvana, but I'm going to call this one their fault (it's not really, but someone has to take the blame or this'd be boring). A big part of what made "Smells Like Teen Spirit" a hit can surely be attributed to Kurt's passionate vocals, the fantastic lyrics and the loud-soft dynamics. These are sound (as in solid, dummy) parts of the music that make listening to the song enjoyable. But there was something more sinister and subliminal at work too.....
The first thing you realize when you compare Nirvana to any of Mr. Nirvana's heroes (honestly does anyone else know what Krist Novoselic and Dave Grohl listened to?) is that everything was smoother and easier to hear in Nirvana's most popular recordings. To those with limited knowledge of musical equipment or recording studios, the machine that makes everything so magically hearable and close in volume is called (technical info, click at own risk) a compressor. That allowed extreme shifts in dynamics to be far more musically effective at a lower volume than before. Rather than having to listen more closely or turn it up, everything was presented at maximum-or-close-to-it volume, making life easier for the lazy music listener.

Compressors and compression had, of course, been around long before Nirvana, but it was the first time in mainstream music where compression allowed the music and composition to exist in a form that sounded realistic, but artificially changed the music to allow for greater-sounding dynamics. Which is all well and good, but soon the spice began to overpower the meal.

Any good song has natural dynamics, even played solo on an acoustic guitar there's still a rising and falling of the singers voice and the strumming or plucking of the guitar. These were all natural aspects of the composition and then would be highlighted or enhanced with other instruments/production. The problem with the compression wars that took place after Nirvana became popular is that as bands tried to top their dynamic extremes and the shifts between them, compression settings were getting more and more ridiculous to keep it all sounding reasonable on the average human's stereo (Robert Plant impression:"does anyone remember stereos?").

You could argue that the mp3 is the reason for the oppressive compression in today's recorded music, producers trying to make recordings not sound like they're coming from the bottom of a well(with cellophane over it) when digitally compressed by the format itself. But my copy of Robert Johnson's Complete Recordings still sounds fine when compressed to empty3 format, and that was recorded in the 1930's. That's not the issue.

The issue is this: since Nirvana waved the compression wand over the forehead of the music industry, the idea that dynamics can sell a song better than songwriting or content has become near-ubiquitous. Modern (and yes, I think of modern in this sense having the same connotation as baby-eating nazi used car salesman) producers and songwriters now have a backward and poisoned view of how to create music: production first.

First comes the bassline: how to make it roughly 75% of the audio band and how to emphasize so that it feels like even more than that. It's about the bass being held back for dramatic effect, and being the loudest thing when it's on. Second comes the "other". In Pop it's usually background singers and in rock it's a wall of distorted guitars. Then they write a verse, carried on as limited a musical support as possible, to create tension while everyone waits for the "other" and bass to really kick in. At this point, they finally have to be bothered to create a melody for the song and then lyrics.

In other words there is no real music in modern music! It's not about creating a melody and lyrics that have intrinsic power, but creating an image of power from production. It's like one of those painted turkeys you see on a box of coldcuts: painted to look like it was cooked better than you could ever really cook a turkey, but raw on the inside, and will give you salmonella.

So there you have it friends, the reason the Dylanite and the Boltonite can find common ground in hating modern radio sounds: they both like music.

-If the music is dead, give it an autopsy and sell the video on Ebay.

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