The other night at church I listened to a sermon that discussed the importance of names and destiny. This speech ignited a thought process that led me to think about the uniqueness of my name and subsequently to the title of this website itself. The Book of Kush has a destiny that to some degree or another will be determined by its name. There is one part of this name that sticks out to me in relation to where I am in my personal musical studies.
Sound is very important to every aspect of my life. From infinite tones of human communication, to the steady balance of the natural and artificial environment, we are engulfed in these vibrations everyday. Somewhere down the line we learned to create and arrange sound to convey ideas and emotions. As we grow older our tastes change, and inclusively our preference for certain sounds. We evolve our palate by evolving and cropping what we value as a good sound.
Over the last few weeks I attempted to figure out what makes music sound good. This search brought me down many avenues and it wasn’t long before I realized that there wasn’t a “what?” that makes what we hear sound good but a ”who?” It’s the people responsible for a vast majority of our experience with sound. They’re the ones who built your headphones and car speakers. They are just as accountable for the acoustics for festival stages and even radio and television broadcasts. When it comes to music specifically, they are mainly in charge of recording, reproduction, mixing, and mastering. These are the audio engineers.
One of the more interesting aspects of music these guys work with is the dynamic range. Dynamic range is the ratio between the largest and smallest values of sound, instruments, parts or pieces of music. The value can usually be measured in decibels. You can basically think of it as the distance between the tallest and smallest bars that pop up on a SoundCloud stream. The range itself is the diversity of the sounds we hear on a track. This can span from 808’s and trap-hats to a soulful Yeezy sample.
In this era it is almost customary for engineers to make songs louder. This practice is called dynamic range compression. Something seemed odd when I came across this idea. Why would you want to limit part of what makes a track unique? I figured there were some benefits to this method though, like making vocals pop or throwing some reverb on an EDM track. But in the last few decades the music industry has caused what a lot of people call a “loudness war” in an effort to make an artist’s music more audible. The first thing I thought about is how the older generation complains about how loud music is nowadays; they may be closer to the truth than we give them credit for. When an audio engineer seeks to make a track louder they use a method called upward compression. This increases the volume of the quieter parts of the music to reduce the range of the sound in a mix (Think about how the SoundCloud stream would look now.) It limits and narrows the range on a sonic level to a flatter but overall louder product.
This whole procedure becomes a lot easier to understand when you think about the typical TV experience. You may be watching some broadcast and then a commercial pops up and what follows is kind of crazy to me. The commercial is blaring at a level you didn’t know your TV could reach. No, you aren’t sitting on your remote and this is definitely not your fault. It’s the people broadcasting a signal into your home as loud as they can to throw whatever advertisement they are interrupting your program with now. This is right on track with the radiating effects of the loudness war.
I’ve always valued the saying “quality over quantity.” The reverse applies here, where the quantity is the level of sound we are receiving over the quality we deserve. The compression of sound actually reduces the quality of the music we are listening to as a sacrifice in competition. This isn’t just from an aesthetic standpoint either. Digital compression, the method [no man] responsible for packing music into our phone, actually adds something to the framework. The addition isn’t a positive one by any means. In the compression of music the smooth wavelengths are turned into blocks of information in a format that can be played back by music programs. These actions take away parts of the music completely and contribute “noise” to the mix like flutters kicks and pops (think white noise).
Seems ironic that the mix is getting louder just to hear less of it. Metallica’s Magnetic Death album was reviewed fairly but the one complaint people had was the distortion all over the record. The excessive moves to make the record competitive actually caused a twisting in the composition of the music. I ask the question again: Is it really worth making things louder if you’re just going to take L’s in the final product? Artist Bob Dylan has described new music to sound like static at times with a lack of definition.
I apply a very specific concept when enjoying music for myself as a listener and out of respect for the artist. I like to imagine a universe with nothing except the music, similar to the way people use music as an escape. I concentrate on the composition as I focus my ears to catch whatever I can during the listening session. Each instrument has its own distance from where I place myself in this realm. I sort through the sounds and organize their position in relation to how I am hearing them at that moment. The effects placed on the vocals or instruments replace the natural forces that govern our universe. They are replaced by reverb, distortion and whatever intentions the artist has for that specific record, nothing more, nothing less. These are the basics of my ideal listening situation. When dynamic compression comes into play this experience is interrupted by an attempt to make everything uniformly loud. Positions aren’t defined anymore and there is a loss of perspective of where things belong in the composition. Imagine if a bull came charging through an orchestra and the sections were completely destroyed. This loss of perspective makes for a lackluster listening experience where everything is at the same volume, loud, and in your face.
This can be tiring when every part of the song is coming at you at once, possibly to the point of not wanting to hear it anymore. The loss of replay value here may sound familiar when you think about those now unbearable songs from last year that were played out. Those are the radio hits and singles that you couldn’t run from. You heard them consistently until you couldn’t take it anymore and started skipping until they were out of rotation. The radio stations do the same broadcasting techniques the music engineers engage in. With so much sound being thrown at audiences at once it’s no wonder people get tired of these songs so quickly (Minus the fact they get a crazy amount of rotation). This lack of internal dynamics takes away part of the experience and music. However, what happens to the songs we still like from the radio that don’t get played out? The songs that we play from our own CD’s and phones. If the mix you are listening chooses not to participate in this loudness war they might stand out when played on the radio and have more replay quality then other content might.
One of the more recent albums I’ve known to take this route is J. Cole’s 2014 Forest Hills Drive. This album has remained on rotation for quite some time now. The first time I heard about the loudness war was from J. Cole himself. He said that he chose not to compete in the campaign and I believe it helped him to succeed in a way others couldn’t. He allowed the music to have its breathing room, with no constriction on the instrumentation. The sound was more cohesive as a whole and the intentions were heard loud and clear. Cole is a very special artist to listen to because of how in tune he is with his emotions. This comes across throughout the record as we found him revisiting a lot of events in his life. Also known for being such a good storyteller, having the mix sit behind his vocals was the perfect combination. Cole’s voiced shined through perfectly and the overall quieter sound allows us to pay attention better. Shout out to the engineer, Juro Mez Davis, whose performance created a beautiful sound for us to enjoy as intended. Interviewer Ali Shaheed Muhammad said it well, stating it had “a touch of classic but it’s new and fresh.” Just imagine if Kendrick chose not to mix his album to fit all the instrumentation. It would sound like a giant mess of echoing nothingness. Not to mention all the adjustments to his voice that were crucial to the story.
We can see the influence of the audio engineer on the career by looking at the success of Drake. I can confidently say that without Noah “40” Shebib, Drake wouldn’t be where he is now. Working together since So Far Gone, these two have spent countless hours forming one of the best duos since Outkast. The Ovo Sound they have created has influenced the rest of their beloved 6 as well as become a trademark to ears across the world. Their bond permits them great communication, trust and plenty of ideas going back and forth. 40 works hard to make sure that we are hooked the first time we hear a song whether it’s on a computer, lo-fi or hi-fi speakers. Whatever the case, he wants the symphonic composition to be there and is well aware of the loudness war going on.
The audio engineer is just as responsible for a great record as much as the producer or even the artist. I believe as listeners we should be aware of what we are hearing and as consumers we should demand the best product. Tidal reminded me that streaming services have cut the product as well. They’re advertising their streaming quality as better than Spotify and Apple Music as well as giving the artists more money in the process to make the final sale. But why switch over to this service? I think most of our generation of 20somethings and younger are conditioned to this watered down material. Look at the state of music now. What do lyrics matter in a mix that is extremely loud anyway? They present themselves in a manner that is less about the aesthetic and more about the delivery of a brand. We have artists taking a minimalist approach to their sound and spitting incoherent lyrics. The music of artists like Kanye West and Atlanta artist, Father use very few sounds per track. These are both great producers in their own right but look at the time they thrive in. Most sounds are getting lost in the mix anyway so why add more just to throw them in the muddle? These are just the thoughts that run through my head along with my woes about where music may go moving forward.