Some Thoughts on Sound Quality vs. Musical Quality

 "One good picture with ten holes in it is better than ten bad pictures with no holes. A charcoal mark on the wall can be greater art than ten pictures on a solid background and in costly gold frames."

- Edvard Munch


When I was 13, my older brother brought over "Looking On" by the Move. This was in the days before boom boxes, and at a time when it seemed only rich people had stereo component systems with stereo tape decks. I was so knocked out by the album that I grabbed my bulky mono cassette recorder- the kind with the handle, that looked like something you'd take on an interview, with a little plastic microphone built in- and set it up in front of one of the speakers on my stereo to record the album. It didn't occur to me when I was doing this that there was a lot of radical stereo panning on the album and that by just getting the mic next to one speaker I'd lose half of it.

Needless to say, the sound quality on the finished tape was not very good. And of course, the tape was normal bias, the cheapest stuff, the kind that came 3 or 4 to a bag. This was what we could afford, it was all that was available. Combine all the elements here and of course the tape sounded awful.

I played it at least 3 times a day for months. I only slowed down and eventually stopped playing it because I had every audible note memorized.

I thought it was one of the best albums I'd ever heard. I taped it because when I asked my brother where I could find it, he said it was out of print and he hadn't seen a copy for a few years. I took out a little audio insurance against that, and then the next day I called every record store in a 20 mile radius and discovered he was correct. It was not to be found.

So in the meanwhile, I had this. Not optimal, of course, but at least I had the music. I could pretty much make out what was going on when the music went to the other speaker, it was distant but not completely gone.

I grew up with AM radio, heard on cheap car stereos and tiny handheld transistor radios. My first real experience discovering music on my own came while listening to one of the latter through an earphone, one of those big bulky plastic things that looked a bit like a hearing aid, it crammed into your earhole. I took it to bed with me and listened to it under the sheets when I was supposed to be asleep. You can bet it didn't sound too good. You can also bet I didn't care. This was like magic.

My brother-in-law has a good few years on me, and he told me a story about hearing the first Cream album for the first time on one of those portable, battery operated turntables with a built-in speaker, sitting in a park. Eveyone was blown away by it, they'd never heard anything like it.

When the hell did we get so spoiled that this kind of simple enjoyment became impossible for most people?

Eventually I upgraded, of course. I got a vinyl copy of "Looking On" and heard all the things I didn't get on the tape. And the first time I bought it on CD, I did so despite the fact that it was a Japanese import selling for $40, and this was in the late 80s and that seemed like a lot of money. The sound quality never ended up being as good as I'd hoped it would be. But that was OK. What that was about for me was trying to get more of the music, hear an old favorite as if hearing it again for the first time. Not "this had better improve or I will consider myself beyond it".

In case you haven't guessed at this point, audiophile snobbery pisses me off. I find it at once annoying and pathetic. To me it is a mark of a culture so lazy, so imaginally challenged, that it cannot meet art halfway.

Does this mean I hate good sound quality? Of course not. But it's only one element of what can make a piece of recorded music enjoyable. Like anyone else, I marvel at how clean something can sound. But if it's applied to crap, what good is it? However, take the reverse situation: great music poorly recorded. This might be something of a tragedy, but the music will win out over the sound quality. If you let it.

Granted, even I have limits. I have heard my share of bootlegs I refused to buy, and wondered who would spend $25 on such an unlistenable piece of crap. These were recordings where some instruments were either completely missing or nothing was distinct- you couldn't tell the bass from the bass drum, the guitar from the crash cymbal, and the taper's coat rubbing against the condensor mic was the lead instrument, much louder than anything else (except his occassional cough). (This is an actual description of a Pink Floyd bootleg CD I heard a few years back. I've heard some comparably bad Zeppelin boots too.) But let's be honest- the majority of music released, even by home tapers, will never come close to that. It will sound, pretty much, like something done between the 50s and the 70s. To some people though, this makes the music unlistenable and not worthy of attention.

Did I miss something?

Do we throw out old music because it doesn't meet our sound quality standards? No. Because, we rationalize, a) "they couldn't help it", b) "we didn't know any better when we first heard it and now we've become attached", c) "that was then, this is now, people today don't have any excuse".

Oh really?

Let's take the early Who records, the Shel Talmy stuff. Pretty shabby recording next to the Beatles records of the time period. But of course, the Who weren't the Beatles and Shel Talmy wasn't George Martin and they didn't have anywhere near the budget or the equipment to work with. Which meant, these records were in no way up to the highest standards of their day. So do we throw them out? Of course not. "Immortal classics of the genre", etc. But what if they'd never made it? Same music, same sound quality. Unknown treasures unearthed. Less valid? You know what I think. I think if you say yes to that, you're a moron.

Similarly, there is a lot of good music that has been produced since that time that was done under primitive circumstances, for little money, by people who were not able to do any better. The sound's not up to an increasingly high industry standard, a standard set by people with large budgets (who, in the event of a large failure, will be able to write the production costs off). And the real question gets lost: how's the music?

That's the question the people who put out Gary US Bonds' first single, "New Orleans" must have asked. Luckily for us, they answered "Great! It's a little muddy, so let's throw a vocal on and mix it in low so the words are clearer but the track's not too noticeable. Otherwise, great! Put it out!" The record is cavernous and muddy. It sounds like it was recorded at a hockey rink at a distance of 50 feet (which it probably was). It's also absolutely wonderful. But can you imagine anyone putting it out today? Or can you imagine anyone taking it seriously if it was? Same music- same production. Same great song. And it wouldn't stand a chance.

Another story: I'd heard for a while about how bad the sound quality was on King Crimson's "Earthbound" before I bought it. I'd also heard it was a good album. On first listen, I admit, at that time I'd never heard an official release that required that kind of work to get to the music through the sound quality. I slowly adjusted, however at first I was genuinely disappointed. (Boz's scat vocals didn't help.) But the music was winning me over. And when I heard the version of "Groon", the album's last song which features brain-blasting treated drums and what may be 20 of the best notes of Fripp's career at the very end, I was hooked. Every trace of disappointment flew right out the window. The needle promptly got dropped back on the disc.

OK, let's have a roundup. Let's go take away everybody's substandard recordings. That'll fly real well, right? We'll lose most things recorded before 1975, but no big loss, right?

They can have my Groon when they pry it from my cold dead hands.

Correct me if I'm wrong, but I don't think I'm the only person that would have a problem with such a scheme. And yet plenty of those who would complain also would not listen to something new (or new to them) that had a sound quality equivalent to those recordings.

And I'm being too nice here, really. I know people that won't actually listen to anything recorded before the mid-70s because it sounds "too old". While some might explain it differently, I think they simply cannot deal with the concept of perhaps having to work a little for their own enjoyment. If it's not all right there for them, they're not interested. This also applies to books (if they read), and most heavily of course to films. No gore? It's not scary. Subtlety? Subtlety is boring, subtlety is what you do if you can't afford explosions. And if you can't look at a special effect and absolutely believe it, then the whole thing is laughable and only good for comedy, if that. Suspension of disbelief isn't all that willing anymore, and it has a very low threshold and almost no range. Hand people everything so that they don't have to use their imaginations much and those imaginations will atrophy. And I see the sound quality issue as a nearly analogous trend in music.

I first heard the record "The Man Who Sold The World" (Bowie) when I bought a used copy from a friend at school for $1. It was in pretty wretched shape but didn't skip. Lots of surface noise though. It sounded like the whole album had been recorded through a layer of gauze.

This kind of fit the mood of the album. It added to the distant, ominous quality of the music. The same was true of my vinyl copies of some of my other favorites of the time: Atomic Rooster's "Death Walks Behind You", Alice Cooper's "Love It To Death", the first Doors album. The sound quality added mood, it became part of the experience. It was never the same with any album either; there were mastering quirks, things that might have been considered imperfections which still colored the music and fired the imagination in unique directions. When I went to record "A Man Who Was Here", the desolate and stark visions these recordings had induced in me, like midnight on the streets of a sleeping city or 3 a.m. at the bottom of a rock quarry, filled my head and colored my imagination to produce the kind of work I did. And when I heard these albums for the first time on CD years later, they were still highly enjoyable but in a different way. A lot of that original moodiness, the distance implied by the noisier medium, was gone. The story the noise had told, of age and neglect and something old being unearthed, was gone. If I'd started out with the CDs, my initial experience would have still been good, because the music was; but certainly it would not have been the same.

Those old enough to remember vinyl may remember memorizing the surface pops and clicks unique to their copies right along with the other subtle nuances of their favorite songs. Certainly this wasn't intended, or even desirable, and by today's standards, it's wrong. But these became part of the music. If I pull out the old vinyl of something I've been listening to on CD for years, I will hear those unique pops and crackles and be taken back in time with almost the same force a smell or a photograph might have. I'm not saying I want to go back to it, you understand. But I bring it up to point out how, at one time, people were able to use imperfections to participate in the experiencing of the music.

Roy Wood's Wizzard once recorded an entire album with purposely "old" sound quality in order to duplicate the experience of listening to music of an older time period (which the compositions also reflected). The record, "Eddie and the Falcons", in my opinion, works beautifully. Jeff Lynne had been doing similar things starting in the late 60s, with the Idle Race. It's analogous to filming in black and white or on a smaller millimeter or grainier film stock. It serves an artistic purpose. We tend to assume that state-of-the-art is good, all else is bad, when there are actually a wide variety of valid choices to be made.

Honestly though- most of the situations that concern us here weren't done out of choice. But unless the quality is really, really severe, that is only as detrimental to the listening experience as we allow it to be. We do not have to be passive on this, and I don't believe we should be.

Underlying issues or concepts can be reflected, the assumptions we bring to a listening experience follow through. I can remember first hearing myself on vinyl, through surface noise, when Ticket To Trauma came out. To me, that was the sound of legitimacy. That meant I'd made it. A difficult concept for our younger friends to grasp today, perhaps; or for our older audiophile friends who aren't musicians. But a very real thing for those of us who were there. Again, I have no urge to go back to this; in everything but the size of the covers, I prefer CDs to vinyl by a longshot. But the point is the same as before: the imperfections added to the experience. To the technologicaly geared western mind, this is very difficult to grasp.

But for a moment, let's look at an idea that also informed my early conceptions that led to Paper Bag. It's a concept in Japanese pottery, influenced by Zen, called "the controlled accident". If, in the first firing before the glaze is applied, cracks appear in the fired piece, and the artist then works the crack into a design for the glazing- into branches or vines, for example- this is considered more beautiful than if the piece had come out perfectly to begin with. This may seem completely foreign to our way of thinking here; we would most likely try to obliterate all traces of the cracks or simply throw the piece away. But it seems to me that we as a culture could learn something from this. I recognized in the concept something very familiar to my own way of doing things, and have taken it consciously to heart ever since.

Elsewhere on this site you can find some of my artwork. One of the things present in abundance is a form I dubbed the Zerograph. This is basically pen and ink over a photocopy. The catch was, the photocopy had to be really bad, way too light, missing most of the picture, so that there was only a hint of the original left and there was a lot of room to tweak it in whatever way I wanted to. I stopped doing these when the quality of photocopiers became so good that I was unable to get desirably bad and incomplete copies.

Marshall McLuhan: "The incomplete form invites participation." Converserly, the complete form- the "perfect" form, by our estimation of the word- says "sit back bub, we got it covered." The less conscious participation there is, the more our ability to do so atrophies. The world appears increasingly cut and dried- think about that phrase for a moment. It means something is dead and preserved.

I have had some interesting debates with friends about live performance and the act of creation vs. recorded work. From the above, it would appear I have shot myself in the foot if I were to take the side of recorded material. But I believe the beauty of recorded material is that when used properly, it engages the imagination of the person viewing or hearing it. The "live" part is on the receiver's end, where they apply their inner world to the inert product. But this only works if the person is willing or able to do so. Many of us have become the imaginal equivalent of people who can only eat food produced in the most expensive restaurants. We are not doing ourselves a favor here. Want to know why big bucks monoculture is winning? Because we let it. And it starts here. It may seem like a minor element but actually, it's crucial. If the only things we will accept take a lot of money to produce, then only people with a lot of money will be producing them. And such people like to protect their investments. Which means they will be less likely to take chances. Which means you will end up with things the way they are now: with cookie-cutter culture, where the rebellions are bought and paid for before they can do too much harm, then homogenized to pap and brought up front to dominate the mainstream. But hey, it looks like rebellion. It still pisses off parents. Ain't that rock'n'roll?

Bend over people, here it comes. Oh wait, you've already assumed the position. But hey, here's my card. If you ever get sick of things as they are, there's a bunch of us out here on the sidelines willing to help. Just remember though- you'll have to do some of the work too. And if you're not up to that- as you were. "Bow down before the one you serve, you're gonna get what you deserve."

Ain't it a fact.


GS, 10/30/02

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