Music + digital + compression = atrocious sound?

The Audiophiliac riffs on Bob Dylan's "atrocious sound" remark he made in Rolling Stone magazine last year.

It's one of those as you like it stories. We like the music that we like. Me, I hated the sound of Bob Dylan's "Modern Times"CD that came out last year, and Bob wasn't too crazy about it either. "You listen to these modern records, they're atrocious, they have sound all over them. There's no definition of nothing, no vocal, no nothing, just like--static." That's what Dylan told Jonathan Lethem in Rolling Stone magazine, September 7, 2006.

I dissed Modern Times for its muddled sound. Dylan's vocal was upfront, maybe too loud relative to the instruments, and the overall sound irritated me to the point it distanced me from the music. Oh well, Modern Times hit #1 on the charts and was one of Dylan's best selling albums of all time. So "atrocious" sound doesn't seem to affect sales. And that's a good thing since almost everybody who listened to Modern Times heard it either over pipsqueak computer speakers, the freebie earbuds that come with iPods, or in the car. Hardly the sort of environments where sound quality would be appreciated. Me and Bob, we bemoaned the sound of modern music. It's too often an overly compressed, intentionally ear-shredding noise that doesn't sound like any sound heard in nature. Yes, that might be cool for electronic music or hard-core rock, but ear-shredding static ain't a nice adjective to apply to acoustic music. CD, MP3 or iTune, Modern Times didn't cut it.

Real music from say, an acoustic guitar played in your bedroom, doesn't sound anything like that. Ah, but slip on Dylan's "Bringing it All Back Home" CD or better yet the LP, and check out "Mr. Tambourine Man" or "It's All Over Now, Baby Blue," and listen to the guitars. They sound like strings and wood. That entire album was recorded in three days--January 13, 14, and 15, 1965. Now, return to 'Times, and see if there's something going very wrong with the sound. The four decades of recording technology have taken their toll. Static, yeah, Bob summed it up nicely.

I'd be the first to admit that sound quality is entirely subjective--we like what we like--but the aesthetic has shifted. And the Audiophiliac and Bob don't like it one bit.

About the author

Ex-movie theater projectionist Steve Guttenberg has also worked as a high-end audio salesman, and as a record producer. Steve currently reviews audio products for CNET and works as a freelance writer for Home Theater, Inner Fidelity, Tone Audio, and Stereophile.

 

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