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Audio

Can you handle the truth? Everybody loves the sound of 'distorted' music

Just how much distortion -- and the favored type of distortion, analog or digital -- varies from listener to listener, and that's where the story gets complicated.

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Intentionally added distortion has always been part of recording, mixing, and mastering pop or rock music for one simple reason: the producer, engineer, and/or band likes it that way.

Of course, distortion means different things to different people, but this is the definition I'm working with: Distortion is a change, twist, or exaggeration that makes something appear different from the way it really is.

Recorded music has its own aesthetic, and for quite some time music has been heavily compressed, meaning the naturally quieter parts are pushed up louder, and the loudest parts are reduced, so a whisper is as loud as a scream. In real life, a softly strummed acoustic guitar would never be heard over the drums except by altering the dynamic range of both instruments, distorting the relative sound from what the guitar and drums originally sounded like. In the hands of a skilled engineer, they sound good -- really good. To be clear about this, I'm referring to dynamic range compression, not the sort of lossy data compression used in MP3 files.

To a generation of listeners brought up on YouTube, MP3s and cheap ear buds, the extra edge of today's hyper-compressed music sounds natural. It's the way music, recorded in 2014 is supposed to sound, but the digital edge of contemporary recordings turns oldsters off. Funny, we're perfectly happy with the analog distortion and edge that was an intrinsic part of rock music in the days of Led Zeppelin and Jimi Hendrix. Today's hyper-digital compression has a very different character, and winds up sounding offensively harsh and gritty to tender baby-boomer sensibilities.

So it's not distortion per se that turns people off, it's the type of distortion that offends some of the people, some of the time.

As I said in my recent article about distortion for Stereophile magazine, "Harshness isn't just a byproduct of compression, it's an integral part of the sound of today's music." And that will remain true for as long as the vast majority of listeners -- teenagers, commuters, doctors, teachers, garbage men, musicians, etc. -- don't have home audio systems, and listen only in their cars, or on crap headphones, or via plastic computer or Bluetooth speakers. Music is background sound for almost everyone, most of the time, and heavily compressed, and even harsh music is a plus when you want the sound to remain at a constant volume level.

What's your take on the sound of recorded music? Share your thoughts in the comments section.