Music was better back in my day

“Music was better in my day” is something I have often heard growing up, and I’m sure many people of my age have heard the same thing.

So, is it true? Was music better ‘back in the day’ or is this a false notion because of how music has changed? Is this an acceptability thing or maybe it’s ‘louder’ or often more aggressive?

Wait, what does better actually mean? Can music be better than other music? Well, I’m not so sure….

Music to me is something that we listen to and enjoy for no other reason than that, we enjoy it. It is unique in the fact that we do not have to be loyal to it and we can often have differing opinions of two tracks from the same artist and often differing opinions of a certain song with our loved ones.

I often find that I have to be in the mood for certain artists as well. For example, last night I put on The black Keys only to discover that wasn’t quite the ticket. Enter The Birds Of Tokyo and suddenly I felt more at ease.

Is one better than the other? No, not at all. One is very clean sounding and the other quite raw sounding but both great bands. (Different songs of course too.)

It’s a well know fact that as we grow older our responsiveness and tolerance for certain frequencies changes too, I often find myself turning the volume down a bit as some frequencies sound a tad harsh to me these days.

Perhaps someone listening to a bit crushed type sound, let’s say Nine Inch Nails for example, who is say 50+ could find that quite annoying and therefore the music they are comfortable with maybe seem ‘better’ by comparison.

Could it also be that our memories of music change? Perhaps as we grow older the songs we remember are the good ones and the ones that mean something special to us? Does this favourably effect our view of older music?

Has music become over commercialised? Are radio stations now playing what they are being told to play, giving certain play quotas to the highest bidders?

Well yeah of course, it is called the music ‘business’ after all. Old music is already tried and tested so we tend to turn on ‘classic hits’ and get hit after hit after hit. Go with what works right?

Turn on another station and hear new music and it can go one of two ways, approval or disapproval. Too much disapproval and suddenly “new music is rubbish” I hear the non conformists saying.

I love old music and more often than not prefer to listen to something from the 60s and 70s than present day but my formative years were the 90s when we had the likes of the Chili Peppers, Nirvana, Pearl Jam, Spice Girls, Backstreet Boys etc. Listening to that is familiar so of course I am going to be more favourable to hearing that. Is it better? Nah, it’s just what fits me the best.

But some of the best music, in my opinion of course, comes from the present. Music has evolved so much in recent years that we have so much to choose from that we are bound to get some absolutely amazing music right?

So is old music better? Well I didn’t really answer the question did I, I probably asked more questions in truth.

What I can tell you is my opinion.

Don’t discount a piece of music because of it’s age or the artist or how it is viewed by your friends or society. There is space for all music to exist. Music is personal preference so hold on to what you like and as you age I’m sure the ‘better’ music will always stay with you!

Ever wondered why ads are so damn loud?

The common myth is that they play them so loud because they want them to be in your face to SELL SELL SELL right?

Well actually, not really. This is simply an ‘added bonus’ from a marketer’s perspective or a ‘bloody pain’ from my father’s perspective. In fact this annoys him so much that he actually mutes the ads when they come on and then scrambles for the remote in an attempt to hear the first 10 seconds of audio after the ad break is finished.

Anyway, enough about the grumblings of an old man, let’s look at why this happens and why they are so ‘loud’

Well first of all, are they actually that loud? Not really… When an ad comes on it actually is no louder than the loudest ‘program material’ contained in the show you were just watching, it is the actual length of time that it is loud for. Advertisements tend to be consistently in their volume for around 3 and a half minutes.

But why?

Well advertisements and television shows are very different things and are designed to have different effects. If you are watching a show like Game Of Thrones for example there will be very loud parts, say in a battle scene. Then there will be very quiet parts, let’s say when two characters are talking. This is done intentionally so that the viewers feel certain emotions in sync with the storyline (and is a huge part of why we feel so connected to TV shows but I won’t get in to that in this blog)

If this was all at the same ‘perceived volume’ then it would be very uncomfortable to the listener. Imagine having a quiet conversation and then no volume increase when it cuts to a battle scene…

Advertisements on the other hand are designed so that the listener hears every detail and that the audience’s attention is captured. This relies on people’s curiosity. (Think when you hear a loud bang, you turn around to see what it was right. Naturally you are curious…)

The technique used to make sure this happens is called compression. Engineers use either outboard gear or digital plug ins to reduce the ‘dynamic range’ of the audio presented to them.

Dynamic range is the difference between the quietest and loudest parts of a portion of audio (program material.)

Typical compressing means that you take all of the volume peaks in a portion of audio and you squash them down. Now that you have squashed them, you now have space at the top (where the volume peaks were) called ‘head room’

The second part of compression is to then turn up the volume from the output of the compressor so that the newly squashed audio is louder as a whole. Engineers call this ‘Make Up Gain’

For those that are a little more visual, here is an image that shows :

1. The original audio signal.
2. The loud peaks are compressed (and overall loudness reduced)
3. Make up gain is applied and the overall sound is now louder despite the peak volume level never exceeding that of the original (1.)

Compression Illustration

Advertisements have heavily compressed audio and because it is so compressed they use the make up gain to make the overall sound louder and in your face.

If we compare this to our TV show from earlier, often the sound, especially the voice component is only very lightly compressed if it is even compressed at all. There are very quiet sounds that you will struggle to hear unless the room is very silent and then there will be loud parts that you will be able to hear at the end of the hall way. These loud parts will be at a very similar level to the consistent volume of the advertisements.

So what does this all mean?

If we put these two different pieces of audio side by side (as happens in real life) then what we have is 3:30 of very consistent volume followed by 8-9 minutes of very dynamic audio.

How does this sound? Well, as previously stated, the 8-9 minutes of audio gets just as loud as the adverts however they may only hit this level for 10-20 seconds total in the 8-9 minutes. The adverts of course are hitting this same ‘loudness’ for around 2.45-3.00 of the 3:30.

The natural perception to the human ear is that “Oh gosh” moment when the ads first hit and you find yourself scrambling for the remote.

A cool little test is to listen to the audio right before a set of ads plays. You will notice that if the audio was loud before the ads (think battle scene) then the ads don’t seem as harsh. Conversely, if there is a low volume level scene right before the ads then when they play it might be a shock to the system.

I’ll let you do the test.

I will be very interested to hear what you discovered.

Recording Solutions Reviews: The Getaway (Red Hot Chili peppers)

For those of you reading this that don’t know me, I’m a huge fan of sound in general which, I guess, is pretty obvious based on the fact that I’m an audio engineer.

What maybe isn’t so obvious is how I look at sounds and what they mean to me, so I have decided to start a blog to give an insight into my world of sound and how I see it.

I am a huge Red Hot Chili Peppers fan and so to kick off the blog, I thought I would review their latest work “The Getaway”

The first thing I noticed about this record is how raw it sounds. The Peppers are not hugely know for a crisp ‘over produced’ sound but this is distinctively raw.

Let’s start with the drums. There isn’t a heck of a lot of ‘click’ or ‘top end’ in the kick drum and it sounds like it was probably not close mic’d but it gives a good low end thud and drives each song quite nicely, the snare is very interesting on this album as it is a complete 180 from what we know from a Chad Smith snare. Typically he likes to use a snare that has quite a quick and sharp attack and a nice high-mid range ring to it, this time around it has what I call a ‘biscuit barrel’ type sound. It matches the kick very nicely however and coupled with the ‘washy’ tone of the hats to go with it, the whole kit has a very old school, late 60s, early sound.

There are a lot of tonal similarities to the drum recordings of Led Zeppelin’s John Bonham from the late 60’s and early 70’s.

It sounds like Flea has opted to use a jazz bass for pretty much the whole album and he is able to get such a broad range of sounds out of it. Over the course of the last couple of albums he has moved away from that very hi-fi Modulus sound and is now more into a deep woody tone. Don’t get me wrong, I love those precise, tight bass tones on tracks like “Around the world” and “Get on top” from the Californication era but Flea has matched the drum tone very well with his choice of bass on this album.

Playing wise, Flea is still as groovy as ever but as he evolves he is finding more ways to expand his pallet. It has to be said that when he is not playing slap on this album he is not as outstanding as he has been on previous records.

Josh offers a lot more than his previous turn recording with RHCP and the guitar tones on this album are very ambient and offer something a lot different to what we are used to. He still retains that classic funk Strat tone that you expect to hear when you play a Peppers record but he is exploring his own techniques a bit more and has now found his place in the band. I feel the guitars are mixed quite low as there is quite a lot of competition for space in the mix.

Let’s explore that a bit more… We are used to hearing only 4 instruments on 90% of Chilis songs but on ‘The Getaway’ there is a lot of piano and synth sounds that have to be worked into the mix. The more instruments you have the more difficult it becomes to give each instrument its own space while also blending with the other instruments. ( This is where mix engineers really earn the money!!!)

While we are on the piano, let’s look at the use. In the past, the peppers have used the piano to compliment a song but this time around it is very much a dominant instrument which adds a whole new dimension to the Chili Peppers sound. It is very intriguing to listen to Flea play his piano lines, we are so used to an extremely energetic slap/funk/pop/punk bass player but Flea, the pianist, is something quite different.

Elton John makes a guest appearance on “Sick Love” but I am left wondering what he actually contributed on the track. For me, it’s a bit of an odd guest appearance that one.

If there is one thing that does let this album down a wee bit then it may just be the vocals. Anthony is probably the only guy to have not moved too far away from what he usually does and sometimes those higher notes seem like they may have taken a few takes to capture. There is a very cool Vocal Solo in the final track “Dreams of a Samurai” and we realise that Josh is actually a brilliant backing vocalist on this album too.

I am a huge fan of John’s vocals from previous albums and I feel that Josh is finally realising exactly what the peppers need when it comes to a secondary vocal.

Overall, I do like this new album and I can’t seem to take it off repeat in my car, I’m giving it a 7/10

Top Track: I Absolutely love “We Turn Red” but also don’t miss “Encore” and “The Hunter”