Listener fatigue

by Rob Horning

6 October 2006


Reason‘s blog links to this article from the Austin American-Statesman about the abuse of audio compression in contemporary pop music. Compression is a post-production audio-processing effect that eliminates dynamics and makes everything sound equally loud and crisp—and it’s what makes it sound like your radio is going to explode when the chorus of “Smells Like Teen Spirit” kicks in. When records were pressed to vinyl, the medium limited the amount of compression that could be used (which part of the reason records sound so warm); but digital technology changed all that. With no physical limitations, engineers have gone over the top with compression. Why? Joe Gross, who wrote the article, calls compression the audi equivelant of MSG. It’s the audio equivelant of boldface type; it makes things “pop”.

But it also seems to make listeners’ ears hurt. The article cites a letter written by an exaperated Sony A&R man:

“The mistaken belief that a ‘super loud’ record will sound better and magically turn a song into a hit has caused most major label releases in the past eight years to be an aural assault on the listener,” Montrone’s letter continued. “Have you ever heard one of those test tones on TV when the station is off the air? Notice how it becomes painfully annoying in a very short time? That’s essentially what you do to a song when you super compress it. You eliminate all dynamics.” For those already confused, Montrone was essentially saying that there are millions of copies of CDs being released that are physically exhausting listeners, most of whom probably don’t know why their ears and brains are feeling worn out.

Another recording engineer concurs:

The brain can’t process sounds that lack a dynamic range for very long. It’s an almost subconscious response. This is what Montrone was talking about when he mentioned the TV test tone. “It’s ear fatigue,” Tubbs says, “After three songs you take it off. There’s no play to give your ears even a few milliseconds of depth and rest.” Alan Bean is a recording/mastering engineer in Harrison, Maine. He’s a former professional musician and a doctor of occupational medicine. “It stinks that this has happened,” he says. “Our brains just can’t handle hearing high average levels of anything very long, whereas we can stand very loud passages, as long as it is not constant. It’s the lack of soft that fatigues the human ear.” This is part of the reason that some people are really fanatical about vinyl. “It’s not necessarily that vinyl sounds ‘better,’ ” Bean says. “It’s that it’s impossible for vinyl to be fatiguing.”

Gross connects this phenomenon to the attention wars that play out in consumer society, with everything competing to be heard. Just as the relentlessly loud record wears us out, the relentlessly nagging media culture, the inexorable progress of ad creep, the invasiveness of entertainment and information access seem to have a tendency to shut our bodies down, and we stumble through life in a state of sensory fatigue. What happens them? Vulnerability? Susceptibility? Depression? Stress? Psychosomatic ailments? While individuals have the opportunity to go Luddite and hole themselves away (with their vinyl record collections), the process seems irreversible at the social level; the causes present themselves as solutions.

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