Steve Davis' Interesting Alternative: how compression is killing our music

book cover for perfecting sound forever

In last month’s letters page, Dave Jowitt wrote about moving from CD and vinyl to streaming. Great for convenience but for me, you can stick it up your arse; music couldn’t sound any worse! Let me explain. I never tire of playing my old prog albums on vinyl. The reason? When I listen to them, I don’t get mental fatigue like I do when I listen to the same album remastered for CD. Disagree? Read on.

Sadly, the age-old pursuit of perfectly recorded music, combined with the desirability of convenience, has led to music fans now being effectively disregarded. When Red Hot Chili Peppers released Californication, and likewise when Rush unleashed Vapor Trails into the prog world, fans went ballistic. Why? They were shit! Not artistically, but sonically. The Loudness War (see Wikipedia) had reached saturation point.

Thomas Edison waxed lyrical into his horn and claimed the phonograph was the dog’s bollocks. The world kept turning, along with ever-improving vinyl platters. The limiting factor? Physical contact between the playback mechanism and the recorded product. Perhaps decoupling the two was the solution? Meanwhile, radio stations discovered that the louder they played music, the more popular they became. There were broadcast regulations but a workaround evolved: no soft passages of music! Boost the quiet closer to the loud, and the double-edged sword of compression swished through the airwaves. Phil Spector’s Wall Of Sound supplied the perfect music for tinpot radio receivers. There was a limit to how loud a vinyl record could be mastered as the needle could potentially jump out of the groove, but then, hurrah, ones and zeros were transferred to disc and the CD cavalry came to the rescue. The dynamic range was vastly improved. Surely this would mean better sound quality? Sort of!

The trouble was that the record companies told sound engineers they still wanted their product as full as possible to compete with every other track on the radio and so the spiral of relentless, floor-to-ceiling sound continued. In a nutshell, most popular modern music is tiring to listen to at home because it’s not mastered to be listened to on a good HiFi system; it’s made to sound as good as possible on crappy listening devices like car stereos and personal MP3 players. There’s no respite from the lack of dynamics and no musicality. Not convinced? Read Perfecting Sound Forever by Greg Milner, dust off your favourite Genesis LP and give it a spin. Then put the reissued CD on (at the same peak levels) or send the fucker to your dream stream machine. What do you hear? Regardless of click and pops, doesn’t your vinyl sound more inviting?

Catch Steve’s Interesting Alternative Radio Show every Monday 10pm-midnight at Phoenix FM