There is a thing happening right now in the music industry called the Loudness Wars. I shall herein attempt to describe them.
In the early 1990s, with the birth of the compact disc, new technology allowed for rapid innovation in the sound quality of recorded music. Suddenly, because of the way it was being written to the discs and the breakthroughs in stereo playback, the process of mastering a track was rather fundamentally altered.
Mastering is the final step in the recording process, immediately preceding duplication. In mastering, a well-mixed track will be run through a series of compressors (I'll get to that) in order to bring out, squash, or smooth out different frequencies to make the listening experience all-around pleasurable. It also considerably boosts the output volume of the recorded track - so that the loudest part of the track comes right up to the threshold of "as loud as we can make it."
Good mastering will create a track that "sparkles": it'll be crisp, dynamic, and devoid of muddied sound frequencies. The quiet parts of songs will be comparatively more delicate and soft than the loud parts, but they'll all have a presence and a force behind them to make them powerful, despite their sparse instrumentation or quiet dynamics.
Insert the great compressor abuse. A compressor (to oversimplify) is a tool that boosts quiet parts and calms down loud parts. Below is a picture of a sound wave pre- and post-compression:
It might be gibberish to you at first, but I promise you'll understand these images with just the briefest explanation. This is a stereo track, meaning that there is a signal coming out of the left and right side, like listening to headphones. We see this because there are two equal tracks on top of each other. This track reads like a book from left to right - imagine a cursor floating on these lines, and it will move right as the song plays. Like the scrubbar on your iTunes.
On the left image, notice all of the jagged peaks (these are the loud bits) and the crater-like lows (these are the soft bits). Now compare it to the image on the right: the valleys have been fattened up a little bit and the big peaks have been chopped off. This is the same exact recording, merely before and after compression.
The floor has been raised and the ceiling has been lowered. The act of compression is often called "squashing," or "squealching" for this very reason. Now let's see what mastering will do:
The bottom two lines are a compressed mix, much like the compressed mix we examined a second ago (the one on the right). The top two lines is the mastered mix. Notice what has happened: the overall volume of the track is increased dramatically (all of the waves are taller) and the dynamic range is decreased (there is less of a difference between the low-volume parts and the high-volume parts; they are all relatively the same).
Mastering is done to make it so that just about all music is played at the same volume. It makes for easy iTunes shuffling, for homogenous radio play, and for the ease of the mass-consumption of music.
But let's look at one more wave chart, which will demonstrate something that I believe to be a problem. It is the progression of the different masters of the song "Black or White" by Michael Jackson in three different releases: the first in 1991, the second in 1995, and the last in 2007:
Notice what is happening to the loudness of the recording: the signal keeps getting "fatter," so the volume continues becoming greater. Suddenly, all of the sound gets squashed into the same range. All of the nuance of the majority of the song gets replaced by louder, homogenous, character-stripped sound.
Unfortunately, the realm of music is hardly the only aspect of modern society touched by the Loudness Wars. Nor is the idea of a compressor present only here.
Words That End In -opoly for $200, Alex
Allow me to only briefly shift gears. In his early 1990s book Technopoly, Neil Postman described the three attitudes societies have towards tools.
The Tool-Using Culture
In the Tool-Using Culture, the citizens have accepted and adopted the necessary technology to make performing tasks easier. They use spears because it makes procuring meat less tedious. They use water mills because letting the power of water grind your grain into flour is much less work. The tools serve only to solve problems (or to represent concepts - heads on stakes as warnings, perhaps).
The Technocracy is the step that follows in the natural, logical progression. While the Tool-Using Culture only employed tools to accomplish physical goals or metaphysical representation, the Technocracy finds the tools essential to thought life.
Once upon a time, people thought that the Earth was probably the center of the universe. Galileo (and others) discovered that this tool called the telescope brought far-away things into very clear focus. With it, they discovered that things moved about all on their own. The Holy Inquisition disliked it and tried to silence it, the ultra-pious chose to disregard it, but like it or not, the telescope was suddenly connected to the thought life of a culture. It brought about the "collapse... of the moral centre of gravity in the West" (Postman , pp. 28-29). No longer was man-inhabited Earth the center.
All of the sudden, in a Technocracy, tools are not means to accomplish physical ends, they are tools that bring about philosophical, existential change.
Sir Frances Bacon, in the 17th century, embodied the most significant portion of the Technocratic society: the "impulse to invent" (p. 41).
We are brought to 1993, the time of Postman's writing. He offers these thoughts about this third step - Technopoly: It is a "totalitarian Technocracy" and requires "the submission of all forms of cultural life to the sovereignty of technique and technology." Technology in a Technopoly no longer serves only to accomplish physical goals, it actively eliminates other thought-worlds (p. 52). He argues that the computer (think of what 1992's computers looked like) is the perfect manifestation of technology in a Technopoly: It is "quintessential, incomparable, [and] near-perfect." It is in every way superior to human beings in a computer-world, for it "'thinks' better than we can" (p. 111).
What in the world does all of this mean? I'll put it into non-book report format.
Technology in a Technopoly accomplishes three things:
1) Supersedes humans in terms of efficiency, speed, accuracy, and reliability
2) Replaces imagination (thought-worlds) with physical (be it gadgety or video) alternatives
3) A literal form of controlling a population - the people are enslaved to, if not a specific technology, a mindset governed by the existence of it.
I don't know that I need to highlight what has happened between 1992 (the time of Postman's writing this) and 2014 in order for you to see that this was a rather prophetic thought.
So why did I music-dork on you and then foil-hat on you? Let's bring them together.
I said of the compressor that it fattens up the valleys and then chops off the peaks of the music. This makes for a smoother sound, a less jarring contrast between lows and highs, and allows the master volume to be turned, increasingly, up.
Postman said of technology in a Technopoly that it actively eliminates other thought-worlds and supersedes (or at the very least, serves as he end goal of) human ingenuity.
Perhaps what has happened is that human lives have become compressed by technology: both good and bad have been brought to the happy middle.
Thank God I have my headphones; now I don't have to walk in silence across campus.
Thank God I have this HD video camera; otherwise I'd have to stand here and enjoy this concert for the singular, ecstatic, magnificent moment that it is.
Thank God that I have Twitter; or else I'd be forced to think thoughts for long enough that they develop into something that might terrify me.
Thank God I have this iPhone; now I don't have to be bothered by thinking about death.
Quiet moments with friends when conversation lulls can now be filled with a new cute idea from a DIYer in Kansas who is a professional at making cork board look vintage.
The extraordinary, the Beautiful (capital-B) - the Grand Canyon, a Blood Moon, a particularly beautiful bead of dew on a blade of grass - no longer incites us to write poetry, to search the heavens and belief and philosophy and doubt and God-thought for what makes us marvel in the first place; rather they become fodder for getting Instagram likes.
Gone are the days when we remember, for now we document. It's more accurate that way.
Peaks and valleys get evened out, so the final step is the master: make it increasingly louder. Make it polished. Make it sparkle. Spread the foundation and then paint on the blush.
It's not good enough to just even out the peaks and valleys of regular existence - we must now make it louder. We must hold Tech summits and have keynote addresses for new innovations and make inventions slimmer and faster and easier to use. We invent revolutionary ways to speed up communication, to disseminate information, to flood human consciousness with more information than our brains have become capable of sifting through.
And we've been told that it's good, not because it makes us better, but because the things we use have become better.
Subtlety is re-labeled "unclear" or "esoteric." Slowing down is considered regressive and wasteful of time. A free evening is a hole in a schedule to fill with plans. Silence, in which reflection and thought-cultivation is possible, is cemented over with the sound of booted computers and unlocked home screens and the ding of Facebook notifications. Undeveloped land is razed to plant shopping malls.
Do not mishear me: I do not believe technology to be a bad thing! I used buckets of it to produce these very words. It is incredible to me just how adept humankind is at adopting and adapting to the things that we can create. But maybe - just maybe - there is something that has been lost in the unending Loudness Wars on the soul.
I believe there is the draft of a grand change coming on the wind of innovation. Once, the future was envisioned with new kinds of technology, the likes of which we've never seen: space travel and floating cars and holographic video conferencing.
Perhaps the future from here is something entirely different. Perhaps we'll be so intrigued by this something that has been lost in our searching for sound that the future, instead of finding ways of shoving it deeper into the hole we've dug for it, will be spent innovating ourselves to be able to finally cope with the deluge of noise our inventions have birthed.