September 9th, 2010 1:00am
Interview with Greg Milner, Part Two
My interview with Greg Milner, author of Perfecting Sound Forever: An Aural History of Recorded Music, concludes here. In this part of the conversation we discuss the way radio changes music, the “loudness war”, and some music that Greg thinks is particularly well-recorded. A mix cd featuring all of those songs is included as a .zip at the end of the interview.
Matthew Perpetua: One of the parts that really excited me in your book was the “loudness war” section in general, but in particular the way you wrote about how that was all egged on by radio — radio stations process audio to get a distinctive “radio” sound, and stations in the same market would compete to have louder signals. Do you think many people realize the effect radio has on the way people record music, or experience it? I remember the first time I learned about radio compression and signal processing, I was maybe in my early 20s, and my mind was blown.
Greg Milner: Well, I sure didn’t have any idea before I started researching the book. I knew about the loudness war, but I didn’t know the role radio played. It made me think about how, on a larger level, radio has really affected how people hear music, going back to the earliest days of radio. Edison hated radio because of the amplified hum it added to music, which he essentially thought distorted the purity of the music. Flash forward several decades to New York’s WABC in the ’50s. It was known for its insane reverb sound, a sort of precursor to the loud sound of radio today. WABC was a “clear channel” station — not the corporation — meaning it had its place on the dial to itself. As a result, their signal would bounce around for thousands of miles. Some people even say you could pick it up in Hawaii, though I have my doubts. But millions of people heard WABC, and heard early rock and pop through the prism of that crazy reverb. You could say that station taught an entire generation how to listen to music.
Matthew Perpetua: Right, it made me realize that so much of what I find nostalgic and comforting in radio came from the signal processing. Like, I listen to things like WINS news radio when I can’t sleep sometimes because the very sound of it — not to mention the regular internal rhythms of it — is so comforting.
Greg Milner: Yeah, I know that feeling. The compressed sound of commercial radio aside, I actually kind of like what FM radio does to sound. I can’t explain it in technical terms, but there’s a certain distortion FM gives to sound that sounds nice and warm to my ears.
Matthew Perpetua: Yeah, definitely. I think there’s a lot of charm to AM sound too. At what point did people start mastering music to sound “like radio”?
Greg Milner: I think that really got going in the ’90s. My theory, which I talk about in the book, is that the radio loudness wars of the ’80s kind of bled over into record mastering. That was also the period where you started to have more of these cheap digital mastering tools that promised “radio-ready” sound for records.
Matthew Perpetua: Your main example in the book for the radio loudness war was the rivalry between WPLJ and Z-100 in NYC — two major radio stations from my youth! — but were those stations mainly to blame for the trend, or just the best examples?
Greg Milner: I think it was a more diffuse phenomena, although those two stations were doing business in the biggest radio market in the country, so they probably had a very large influence on radio in general. Supposedly radio engineers from all over the country would come by Z-100 and talk about how the sound the station was getting was amazing, and how they wished they could figure out how the station was doing it.
Matthew Perpetua: Can you describe what that sound was like? When I was reading the book I was trying to remember what it sounded like and it was so abstract in my mind.
Greg Milner: Well, the way people from that period described it to me — including other engineers who weren’t at Z-100 but who were really impressed with the sound — was that it somehow had that very “loud” sound without the artifacts of massive compression. Somehow it managed to have it both ways. It jumped out of the speakers but didn’t sound like it was assaulting your ears. I think there was also judiciously applied reverb, as well, for “a touch of that WABC sound,” as Scott Shannon, Z-100’s program director at the time, put it.
Matthew Perpetua: Do you think some music sounds better going through radio processing?
Greg Milner: Definitely. I think a lot of it does. It can give that little extra boost.
Matthew Perpetua: Can you think of any examples? Or, alternatively, something that is wrecked by this sort of processing?
Greg Milner: I’m actually of the opinion that in terms of over-compression, the “wrecking” is done in the mastering stage, and that these records are often helped by radio processing. Again, I’m not an engineer, so I couldn’t tell you exactly why, but I think it has to do with that warm FM distortion. This is going to sound funny, but I remember around ’96 or so, in the middle of the Loudness War — though I didn’t know about this at the time — listening to some modern-rock station and they played that really dumb 311 song — I think it’s called “Down” — and I remember thinking that it sounded like the radio processing was improving it.
Matthew Perpetua: Are there any albums you really like that have been compromised greatly by the “loudness war”?
Greg Milner: The type of albums I tend to like aren’t the kind that are subject to massive compression in pursuit of loudness. But let me see if I can think of an example…
Matthew Perpetua: It seems like a lot of the most egregious examples aren’t the best records to begin with, apologies to Red Hot Chili Peppers fans.
Greg Milner: Yeah, exactly.
Matthew Perpetua: I was looking at a page about the Loudness War on Bob Weston’s site the other day and he was pointing to Radiohead’s Amnesiac as being overly compressed, but I feel like Radiohead albums generally sound pretty good to my ears. Which may just go to show that I might not have the best ears for this sort of thing.
Greg Milner: Well, an engineer — especially a mastering engineer like Bob Weston, which is what he mostly does these days — is going to hear things the rest of us don’t. I think Radiohead records tend to sound like they were made with great care. Whatever you think of the music, it sounds like the sonics have been crafted with a definite ideal in mind. So that might be overriding whatever “damage” compression may have done to the music.
Matthew Perpetua: I think that sometimes you want records to be that loud and in-your-face. Like, Basement Jaxx albums seem to be really loud and booming.
Greg Milner: Yeah, and dance music, hip-hop, and R&B often integrates that extreme loudness into the music. I mean, the “drums” on a lot of that music is basically massive bursts of distortion, and I don’t mean that as a criticism. And now that you’ve mentioned Basement Jaxx, I am hearing “Romeo” and “Where’s Your Head At?” in my head, and the way I’m remembering it like you described. I mean, one thing we need to keep in mind is that our ears “like” loudness, at least initially. If you play somebody the same piece of music mastered at two different levels, and ask him/her which sounds better, the person will usually choose the louder, assuming it’s not overly distorted. The question is whether extreme loudness “fatigues” the ears, and whether it sounds bad for people who are really paying attention to music, as opposed to just putting it on in the background, or at the gym, or in the car.
Matthew Perpetua: Do you find that you get fatigued personally? I was thinking about that and though I can think of some records I don’t want to hear often and are likely impacted by this practice, but I’m not sure if it’s just me not being that into the music and only wanting small doses in any case.
Greg Milner: You know, it’s hard for me to say, because I’ve thought about this stuff so much. It’s almost impossible for me to be objective. But I do notice that fatigue sometimes. It’s like a restlessness, where I just don’t want to hear that sound anymore.
Matthew Perpetua: Exactly. And being aware only makes it harder to figure out.
Greg Milner: Yup.
Matthew Perpetua: Do people have big hits anymore that aren’t going through this kind of overcompression? Is this just what you have to do to have a proper hit now?
Greg Milner: My understanding is that there has been a bit of backing off over the last few years, and that levels are generally not as high as they were in the late ’90s. Though they are still very high.
Matthew Perpetua: Does satellite radio mess with compression in the same way as terrestrial radio? In my experience, satellite radio sounds less like “radio”, which would suggest that maybe they don’t fuss with signal in the same way.
Greg Milner: Satellite radio, I think it sounds really awful, in general. My sense is that the problem is that satellite radio, besides whatever dynamic range compression it uses, also employs copious amounts of actual data compression, to fit all those stations on the band. So like with MP3’s, a lot of the music is stripped away.
Matthew Perpetua: So they’re probably using mp3s, and those mp3s are getting degraded significantly.
Greg Milner: Or something to that effect, yeah.
Matthew Perpetua: I’ll give them some credit, maybe they use .wav
Greg Milner: Could be, yeah.
Matthew Perpetua: Just to close this out, can we talk about a few songs you think sound especially good? Good examples of different approaches.
Greg Milner: Recently I dug out the Feelies’ first album. Wow, is that album well-crafted. So much of it was apparently recorded directly into the sound board, as opposed to mic-ing the instruments. So it is very “dry.” But I like the way it sounds like the sounds are right there in front of you. I could say the same thing about the first Gang of Four album, the sound of which was abhorrent to the record company, because the dryness sounded like demos. On the opposite extreme — “liveness” — I always go back to Vs. by Mission of Burma, which was mostly done live in the studio, and really does sound expansive.
I’m not a huge fan of either band, but I do like the sonics of Radiohead and Flaming Lips albums. “Wingwalker” by Shellac should be required listening for anyone who wants to know how a rock band can sound — and the same goes for the Pixies’ Surfer Rosa. I love the experimenting that Joe Meek did in the ’60s. I know it’s a cliche to say this, but Beatles records still sound fantastic, and I often point to “And Your Bird Can Sing,” a personal favorite. Pretty much anything Timbaland does is, I think, a good illustration of how creative you can be with digital tools, rather than using them to record a zillion tracks or whatever. And people laugh at me when I say this, but “Moon River” by Andy Williams is a great example of the care that went into records in the immediate post-War era.
“In the Mouth a Desert” by Pavement kind of falls in that Gang of Four category I mentioned — extreme dryness in the service of a real intimate connection between musician and listener. And who knows why I’m thinking of it now, but Yo La Tengo’s cover of “You Tore Me Down” is a beautiful recording. In terms of the modern make-a-record-in-your-bedroom approach, I think Pomplamoose songs are really fun.
And to go back to the “Moon River” aesthetic, check out “Didn’t I (Blow Your Mind” by the Delfonics, a beautiful example of live-in-the-studio. And I’m sorry, but Steely Dan records, for all the griping about their tight-assedness, sound great. “Hey Nineteen” is a personal fave, not for the song — they have many better — but for the sound. Oh yeah, and “Roadrunner” by the Modern Lovers. Perfect sounding recording. I promise I’ll shut up now, but I just remembered how great I thought Modest Mouse’s “Heart Cooks Brain” sounds.
Here’s a zipped mp3 mix of all the songs Greg just mentioned, plus a few others he selected later on. Enjoy!
Buy Perfecting Sound Forever: An Aural History of Recorded Music from Amazon.