Sinkholes of Sound: Hi, Lo, & No-Fi in the Age of the iPod

The Audiophiliac trashes Springsteen's "Magic" CD and muses on the mysteries of "lo-fi" sound.

I just heard a guy on the radio refer to Fountains of Wayne's "Traffic and Weather" CD as a lo-fi wonder. What's up with that? Most of the lo-fi recordings I've bought from street musicians sound like the band I heard on the street, which is definitely a good thing. Which is more than you can say about most of today's slickly produced pop and rock music CDs. They sound awful--voices never sound remotely human, guitars don't sound like guitars, and drums, forget about it, they bear absolutely no relationship to the actual sound of wood sticks hitting skins or plastic or brass cymbals. Then again, even if a recording started out sounding halfway hi-fi by the time it gets squeezed into a download and played over $3 earbuds, what could possibly be left of the sound? There's no there there, no wonder people don't connect with music like they used to.

It's not a lack of production values I'm knocking in today's music, far from it. Sky high budgets are squandered on sessions that drag on for months, and the engineers apply Pro Tools fixes to correct sloppy players' mistakes and out-of-tune singers. But after all that digital tweaking what's left of the music? Quick and dirty lo-fi recordings put out my major labels can sound great, the Cowboy Junkies' "The Trinity Session" CD, recorded in one day in a church twenty years ago still sounds amazing. The first few White Stripes CDs ain't too shabby either. PJ Harvey's "Rid of Me" is startlingly good. What these recordings all have in common is that they sound like they were made by people playing music in a room. What a concept!

But Bruce Springteen's latest, "Magic," sounds awful--an unmusical, soulless, digitized, dynamically compressed mess. I'm not alone in that opinion, somebody on Amazon said, "The sound quality on your (Springsteen's) earliest recordings was vastly superior to this latest effort. Phil Spector had his "wall of sound." I guess we can call this your "sinkhole of sound." I literally checked all the connections on my CD player, amp, and speakers to see why the sound was so bad."

I threw on Springsteen's "Born To Run," hardly an audiophile classic, to hear the E Street Band charging through the tunes as if their lives depended on it. And in a way, they did. The Boss is still coasting on the fumes from that one.

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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