Greg Milner, Perfecting Sound Forever
The odd thing about this is that I’m young enough to have grown up with CDs (and then MP3s, which adds a third dimension to the debate). I forgot to mention it yesterday, but one of my early favourite albums was the Red Hot Chili Pepper’s Californication, aka a horribly over-loud record. I think at the time the loudness just thrilled me - like Nevermind’s thick guitars or punchy drums, it signified ‘rock music’ at a time when I was just discovering the genre. A few years ago I read about the Loudness Wars, and understood the explanations and the diagrams fairly well, but I’m not sure I sought out its effect on my listening.
However, the explanation in the following chapter here goes one better in describing loudness (a ‘subjective’ measurement) as a perception of sound intensity (the objective measurement, which I knew). The over-compressed, ‘make-everything-loud’ process works by making everything in the music hit its maximum intensity as often as possible. Putting Californication into my stereo CD player I realise just how ridiculous it sounds now to me with that bit of extra understanding - where the music appears to slow down, and what would normally be a quieter part, sounds just as intense as the rest. Of course this isn’t an inherent problem with digital perfection, but rather a deliberate human imperfection created in pursuit of aesthetic qualities which did attract me as a teenager (or at least, I was presented with them, and I liked them).
If I’m correct in my theory, what I like about vinyl now is its imperfections, whether it be its veil of surface noise, its inherited ‘musical’ qualities of limited frequency responses, or its overall narrower dynamic range - the last being akin to that of ‘bad’ CDs except whatever compression exists is merely to get the sound down onto the vinyl, not to force an artificial loudness; ‘good’ CDs, or rather CDs of good masters, might reflect a wider range but maybe lack vinyl’s imperfect simplicity. And MP3s trade difficult-to-discern quality for convenience; I suppose that by abandoning CDs for MP3s and vinyl, using decent but not great audio equipment, I’m technically getting the worst of both worlds, but I don’t yet see the value in perfection - certainly not if I can’t hear its presence, yet enjoy its absence.