February 22, 2012

Scenes From the Loudness War

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As the existence of people who condescendingly informed you, in their post-Grammy rage, that Bon Iver “isn’t even a new artist” indicates, whispered vocals, subtle arrangements and delicate lyricism dominated popular independent rock last year. Even a band with a name as kickass as Destroyer released a record that was more Steely Dan than AC/DC. But that was 2011; 2012, with the end of the world approaching, will not, as T.S. Elliot hypothesized, go out with a whimper. As long as Sleigh Bells is involved, on Dec. 21, 2012 we will be hearing a decisive bang.

Vocalist Alexis Krauss, formerly of teen pop group Rubyblue and an advertisement for Nickelodeon Magazine, and guitarist Derek Miller, formerly of Florida hardcore band Poison the Well, work somewhat predictably as an exhibition of dichotomy. Created as a way to unite Miller’s love of hardcore’s blastbeat breakdowns with his penchant for female-sung pop music, Sleigh Bells takes the “LOUDquietLOUD” dynamic perfected by the Pixies to its logical conclusion, juxtaposing Krauss’s cooing voice and cheerleader chants with riffs that would not sound out of place on a Black Sabbath record. Miller creates a punishing sound by using the medium of digital recording against itself, committing sins that would make audiophiles and studio experts cringe. The guitars and percussion are pushed way into the red and compressed so that they clip fairly regularly. It’s a tinny listening experience on, say, laptop speakers, but succeeds in the same way that an alarm clock awakens a whiny teenager: by sheer magnitude of volume.

Volume has been an integral part of pop music’s visceral thrill since the very beginning. Amplified sound is, at its core, a beautiful thing; when done right, it shakes your very soul to the core. There are those, though, who contend that pop music, as technology has advanced, is favoring volume over dynamic range (that is, the range of sound from very soft to very loud). So, I present to you some of the turning points in this very contentious Loudness War:

1960s and 1970s: A Prelude to the War: People have been trying to get their records to sound louder since the dawn of pop music because, as I said before, loudness sort of has a place in pop music. Producers would try to get their 45 to sound louder than the other guy’s 45 so it stood out to the guys who programmed radio shows would put them on the playlist. So, of course, The Beatles demanded that their 45s be made out of better, thicker vinyl so they would produce a more full-bodied bass sound. The MC5, in an act that has been repeated by every single local band that wanted to make their record sound “loud as fuck,” recorded Back in the USA at such a volume that it ended up sounding like something one would record on a Nokia cellphone circa 2002 (Note to aspiring Brooklynites: Please don’t make that joke the basis for your experimental noise-rock group’s debut EP).

1980s: The Introduction of CDs: Compact discs begin to get manufactured on a wide-scale basis for music consumption. While CD sales still lagged behind those of tapes, they did reveal a certain potential for loudness. This potential, however, was untapped, because it seems that tape-decks were in vogue (perhaps I am on to some sort of 80s Hipster Epidemic that has long gone overlooked?) and kept loudness from being the main point of differentiation.

1995: Oasis Goes Overboard (As Usual):  Throughout the 90s, as CDs became the preferred medium of the record-purchasing public, engineers found new ways to push the levels higher. Digital compression was one such technique; it made the lows higher and the highs lower so that, in general, the track was louder. Not only did such tracks stand out on the radio, but they also took up less space on CDs. Oasis, probably after descending Mount Cocaine, looked at this trend of louder releases and likely made hyperbolic statements about how “the best band in the world also has to be the loudest.” Thus, (What’s the Story) Morning Glory? was born. A hit in England and the States, this record hit average decibel levels that were, at this point, unheard of. Some people attributed the record’s success to its loudness, as it made Oasis songs notable when they came on in a pub.

1997: Iggy Strikes Back: Somewhere between vomiting onstage, cutting himself with glass for kicks and sacrificing politicians to the devil (citation needed), Iggy got around to remastering The Stooges epic Raw Power. Somehow, Iggy listened to “Search and Destroy” and decided that it just wasn’t quite intense enough, so he mixed everything to the max and created something that, deservedly, is the loudest rock record ever made. As Henry Rollins has since realized, one does not simply outdo Iggy Pop.

2009: Metallica Does Something That Upsets Music Fans, Part Deux: Metallica released Death Magnetic in two formats: CD and Guitar Hero. The CD version, predictably, was compressed and loud as all hell in comparison to the uncompressed files featured on Guitar Hero. Suddenly music fans were sick of dynamic compression (also, shitty Metallica records). Critics of modern recording practices came out of the woodwork, among them Bob Dylan, Alan Parsons and Beatles’ engineer Geoff Emerick, and petitions against compressed music emerged all around the Internet. Complaints about distortion, clipping and general noisiness brought about changes in consumer behavior (compressed records started selling less) and critical reception (people turned their backs on acts like the Arctic Monkeys and Queens of the Stone Age, who both utilized high-compression production techniques).

2012: Sleigh Bells Don’t Care: Sleigh Bells take everything that people hated about compressed audio — clipping, high volumes, distortion, crowded aural spaces — and invented their entire aesthetic around it. It’s a brave choice that comes to fruition on Reign of Terror and may represent something about how artists are interacting with recording technology. After all, auto-tune’s ubiquity in modern hip-hop and electronic music is the utilization of a technological flaw for stylistic purposes; perhaps trying to make music sound like it should isn’t the point anymore. Anti-compression journalist Nick Southall once wrote “music is about more than just song.” He was referring to the need for suitable recording techniques to be used so the music is presented ideally, but we’re seeing more and more, especially with the prevalence of home recording acts like Ariel Pink and King Krule, that we might need to reconsider what makes a good recording. Just try not to blow out your speakers.

Original Author: James Rainis

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