Live Music, Recorded Music, and Strudel

In New Orleans, the City Zoning Commission has recommended a Comprehensive Zoning Ordinance, which is now before the City Council. It is quite comprehensive, but very much like strudel dough. My grandfather came from Russia in the 1920s, and he brought with him, along with my grandmother, mother and uncle, the ability to make strudel.

Strudel is an amazing pastry- one must roll out the dough in a very thin sheet- the thinner the better. Trying to make one area as thin as possible causes a hole to form in another section of the dough; repairing that hole makes another hole to open up elsewhere; and so on. It’s actually amazing that we ever got to eat the strudel!

The complex Comprehensive Zoning Ordinance in New Orleans that would regulate music levels, especially if played outdoors (…. or perhaps it’s OK to be played outdoors, but that is another strudel dough hole) is being voted on this month by the city’s elected officials.

I’m not going to weigh in all of the aspects of this proposed ordinance, but suffice it to say that one must be either a lawyer or a strudel maker to get a handle on it. One contentious issue is the difference between live and recorded music with recorded music  seeming potentially less offensive (!) to some minds. Notice that I didn’t say “to some ears” – liking or disliking music is not an ear phenomenon- it’s a brain issue, specifically the transverse temporal gyrus, and a couple of other brain centers with equally sexy names.

 

THE EVOLUTION OF RECORDED MUSIC

In getting at some of the physical differences between recorded and live music, let’s start with the history.

Recording of music began in 1878 with the Edison Phonograph and has been the greatest boon or the greatest tragedy for music, depending on your point of view. My view is that this invention was very positive, but it did come with its own limitations and drawbacks. In 1948 Columbia Records came out with the 12-inch, 33 1/3-rpm record and 1949 saw the development of the inexpensive RCA Victor 7-inch, 45-rpm record. In 1957 the Ampex 8 track recorder was invented and the Philips compact disk, a few years later. Oh yes, and the CD in 1985 (by Sony and Phillips) and the MP3 format in 1990 (even though the portable MP3-player did not become available until 1998).

Each one of these innovations was a great boon to the consuming public.

After the release of the Edison Phonograph, people could listen to their favorite music in the comfort of their own living rooms (and perhaps while riding in horse-drawn carriages, though I would imagine that the bumpiness of the ride must have caused some skipping). Because the invention of the condenser microphone was still more than 30 years away (Wente, 1920) the Edison Phonograph had a very restrictive dynamic range- the range between the softest recorded sound and the loudest was a poor replication of the actual live performance. Partly because of this limitation, performance inventions such as violin “vibrato” had to be incorporated into the playing to ensure that the violin could be heard above the harmony of the music and to replace some of the face-to-face contact that was lost in a recording.

With the advent of records- first the 78 rpm records and later the 33-1/3 rpm, and then the 45 rpm- the maximum volume was limited by the depth of the grooves etched into the record. High-volume recordings were simply not possible because the playback needle would pop out of the groove. And high-powered amplifiers could not transduce high levels without some audible distortion.

The cassette form of media (1963) improved things in this respect, but all forms of media do have an internal noise floor- cassette noise is inherently broadband and can easily be heard during quiet portions and in between tracks. It was 13 years later that Dolby came out with a noise-reduction system to minimize this audible tape noise. An entire generation of listeners had grown grew up hearing this tape noise, so initially its absence was not liked. Early Dolby reviews were not stellar, but eventually Dolby helped to retune the listening ear.

Dolby is a really neat system- although it used filters and compressors, and amplifiers, the input spectrum was identical to the output spectrum, except that the (high-frequency) tape noise was removed. This could not be said about some other noise-reduction systems of the time, such as the JVC ANRS (Japan Victor Company Automatic Noise Reduction System). Such systems altered the shape of the frequency spectra, especially in the higher frequencies where tape noise was most audible.

A major step back occurred in 1990 with the introduction of the MP3 audio format. Perhaps I should say a “minor” step back sincd this format got rid of the tape noise (by getting rid of the tape), allowed distortion-free recording over a wider range of frequencies, and was not limited by the material of media (i.e., Mylar and chromium oxide metal-based tapes). However, it also introduced compression into the recordings.

 

COMPRESSION–A MIXED BLESSING

Compression is used all of the time in hearing aids to help hard-of-hearing people hear better, and on the surface it sounds like a great innovation. This circuitry increases the output for soft sounds and reduces the output for overly loud sounds. Compression ensures that the recorded music is within the dynamic range of the recording media. The softer elements of music  are no longer inaudible, and the percussive crashes of cymbals are no longer beyond the capability of the MP3 player, a device that “finally” came along in 1998.

But in doing these wonderful things, compression also alters the loudness dynamic cues that were intended by the performing musicians and composers. Music was “squished” into a dynamic range that was optimal for the MP3 media. Today, this is one of the biggest complaints about modern MP3 and other digital file formats.

Radio stations have jumped on the bandwagon and even my favorite local jazz station “compresses the hell out of music”… a direct quote from a local musician.

I understand the need for compression with modern formats, but in some sense we were better off in the golden years of music recording (1976-1990). The recorded sound between 1976 (the advent of Dolby) and 1990 (the period just before the MP3 format) came perhaps the closest ever  to eliminating the difference between live and recorded music.

Since we live in a highly compressed digital era, there are noticeable differences between live and recorded music. Recorded music does have a volume control associated with its playback, but this is not something that should be implemented by a municipal noise regulation such as New Orleans’ proposed Comprehensive Zoning Ordinance.

Ease of volume control (recorded music) is one side of the noise regulation coin, but the other is substandard music. Live music does not need to be compressed. Many of the things that a performing artist needs to do on a recording are arbitrary and a direct reflection of the inability to optimally transduce the recorded music. To enshroud a bylaw or city noise ordinance in terms of live versus recorded music demonstrates a poor understanding of music and its effects.

Let the city politicians get back to making strudel dough and leave music to the musicians!

About Marshall Chasin

Marshall Chasin, AuD, is a clinical and research audiologist who has a special interest in the prevention of hearing loss for musicians, as well as the treatment of those who have hearing loss. I have other special interests such as clarinet and karate, but those may come out in the blog over time.

1 Comment

  1. Interesting, but I think you’re overestimating the role that MP3’s played in starting the Loudness Wars and underestimating that of the 16-bit CD format released in 1982. So dynamic range compression was going on during CD mastering well before 1990 — though it certainly wasn’t widespread. Even so, 1990+ does seem to line up with well with anarchronistic vinyl records having better dynamic range than increasingly overcompressed CD’s. I suspect the increasing amount of hearing loss that everyone has been inducing since the advent of the portable Walkman in 1979-1980 has indirectly supported more and more overcompression so everything sounds louder.

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