ULTRA AUDIO -- Archived Article

November 1, 2004

Help! CD Medium, Not Taste, May Control Musical Choices

Since 1990 or so, the dominant musical medium has been the compact disc. We listen to CDs in our homes and in our cars. Even the music on the car radio originally comes from CDs. Wouldn’t it be scary if the music you like, and the whole evolution of pop music in general, were being guided by the sonic qualities of the CD? I hope it isn’t, but I fear it is.

Marshall McLuhan was a famous Canadian literary and media critic who popularized numerous pithy phrases that have become part of the language. He advanced the concept that newer forms of transportation such as air travel, and the electronic media, were contracting the world into a "global village." The expanded scale and other aspects of various media, he said, contained in themselves a message to their recipients. Further, he noted that any medium tends to shape its own content, hence his most enduring catchphrase, "the medium is the message."

Every audiophile knows this sinking feeling: You’ve just completed yet another upgrade that vastly improves the detail and realism of your system, only to find that another whole shelf’s worth of your favorite CDs has become unlistenable due to the presence of nastinesses in the recording that are now painfully revealed. Certainly my own musical preferences have been hugely influenced by the quality of my stereo, to the point where only superbly recorded, minimally processed music, such as Patricia Barber’s fine discs, will do. Some of us would like to think that audiophiles have markedly different tastes in music from the general public because our tastes are more refined. Though that may be true, the other reason is that pop, in general, sounds terrible on high-resolution equipment.

If the wand chooses the wizard, the medium may choose the music. If so, there are a few goings-on in recent musical history that bear a second look. One of the more popular sounds of the analog era was what I call the crash-and-scream. Elvis did it, the Beatles did it, and so did the Rolling Stones. The idea was to splash a bucket of noise onto the sonic canvas for emphasis. This worked well on vinyl records, particularly when played through tubed equipment, which tends to soften a little when overloaded. Try that on a CD with a solid-state amp, however, and you get intolerable brightness and hardness. The crash-and-scream, as a result, fell out of favor.

In the 1980s, a prickly new style cropped up that emphasized synthetic drums and bass with a jagged, mechanical feel. Possibly, its practitioners were counteracting the softness and fullness of vinyl. On CD, those tracks sound way too mechanical, thin, and bright. Then, as the CD rapidly overtook the market, there was a sudden return to acoustic instruments. Unlike the thick massed guitars of the rock era, a multitude of "unplugged" albums appeared in the ’90s that featured simple arrangements with a minimum of bright noise. Not coincidentally, these albums sounded good on the CD players of the day. Early rap came on the scene as well, with sparse backgrounds that allowed you to sort out the lyrics.

Now that off-the-shelf CD players are much less bright and hard than their predecessors, while still lacking detail and realism, consumer-level stereos are again sounding rolled-off on top and bass-heavy. Hence, pop CDs are mastered with intentional extra energy in the high frequencies. Musically, we have a return to metal in the form of Nickelback, the resurrection of Creed (Alter Bridge), and many others. Today’s rap also features increasingly heavy instrumentals with generous helpings of noise.

Where will all this lead? I have an idea that you may find disturbing. Following a few hiccups in the early CD era, the quality of stereo reproduction seems to be gradually going up. The high-end market, despite all the moaning, continues to develop, and advances made there are trickling down to the consumer market. Eventually, it seems, even ordinary home stereos will become high-resolution by today’s standards. When that medium sends out its message, who will top the charts? Don’t look now, but your kids may someday be grooving to Patricia Barber at the school dance.

...Ross Mantle

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