Technical Articles and Editorials

Editorial: MP3 Music and Undersaturated Movies

I received an interesting e-mail today, from a reader who was concerned about all the movies that have been released over the past few years with little to no color in the image.

I have been planning to write an editorial about why I think young consumers are into MP3 music and don't really care about the high quality of lossless digital music that the rest of us have been trying to get them to switch over to, or at least give it a listen.

So, I will write about both.

The first one is easy to address. In fact, I just watched one of those movies the reader had e-mailed me about, The Book of Eli. It was not only almost devoid of color, it had a noticeable sepia (brown) tint to it, except at the end, when blue skies appeared.

There has indeed be a slew of films over the past five years or so that have very little color in them. Of course, the technical word is "undersaturation". The idea of having an entire film released in a form that is neither color nor ordinary black & white may have begun with the Matrix series, where everything had a green tint. It was so unusual, that when I watched the first film in the series at home, I turned the green down and the total amount of color (saturation) up, so that it appeared "normal". I could not stand seeing it with all that green, even though the green cast was the director's intent. Later, after getting the entire set in Blu-ray, I watched them with the green left as it was intended. But, by that time, I had been exposed to all the latest films with low saturation, so the strangeness of various movie images no longer bothered me.

The answer to the question as to why this is happening is that it is the latest "thing". It is a style that has become popular. Unfortunately, I think it is more popular with the directors than it is with the audiences. When we go to a theater, it is enough that we are placed in an environment of narrow seats, strangers on either side, in back of us, and in front of us, sticky floors, a huge screen, having to go to the bathroom just when the action takes an upswing, etc., without having the actual movie "environment" be added to the stress. For example, in The Book of Eli, the situation is a post-apocalyptic world where books may be our only salvation into the future, and Eli's task is to get the one copy of the Bible to a place on the west coast where all available books are being restored so that civilization can be reborn, so to speak. The question is whether that plot is enough to sustain the story, without viewing the world through a sepia lens and almost no color. I think that the answer is yes, if the story is told in an exciting and interesting way, and no, if the story is banal. In the case of The Book of Eli, the story is banal. So, the film has the undersaturation and sepia tint. It puts us into a certain "mood" that is constant. So, if the story is a little slow in places, you are still aware of being in this mood. Anyway, this style of movie-making will pass.

OK, so let's address the second item on the agenda here: MP3's and today's youth. Why do they not seem to care about the "better" sound quality of lossless audio?

Again, believe it or not, the answer is simple. As a musician, I get a lot of magazines and catalogs with not only musical instruments offered, but professional recording equipment as well. Looking through the pro equipment section, I see product after product whose functions are dynamic compression and distortion.

Let me read some quotations from a few of the products in my latest catalog:

" . . . a six-channel amp that goes from the cleanest clean to the filthiest distortion." (specs for a guitar amplifier)

" . . . endless combinations of the most brain-shredding, headbangin' distortions . . ." (specs for an effects box that goes between a guitar and the guitar amplifier)

" . . . it can apply subtle tonal coloration or extremely deep phasing that spins your speakers and ears out of control." (another effects box)

In the catalog, there are also dozens of products called compressors, gates, and limiters that are used in mixing the sound tracks for mastering a recording. This lets the recording engineer make a CD where the volume is always the same, regardless of what the musicians are doing, and the name of the game right now is LOUD! This is what sells the music, and has been selling the music since MP3 players became a necessity for any young person not to be caught dead without.

Remember now, we aren't talking about Rachmaninov's Piano Concerto No. 3. We are talking Death Metal, Acid Punk, Hatecore, Grundge, Screamo, Sadcore, and dozens of other such categories. It's all loud, and all distortion. And we want them to switch over to lossless files that have less distortion caused by the recording process, when the music is absolutely stuffed with distortion in the first place? Need I continue? End of story. I may invest in stock from some of the hearing aid companies.

When I was an undergraduate at the University of Washington, in Seattle, we had a garage band called The Equinox. Like many bands, it changed names several times, but that was the name it had when I graduated and left for graduate school. We were loud, but at least the songs had melodies that you could dance to, instead of just stand there and scream. They wanted to change the name of the band to "John and the Windbreakers" because I liked Mexican food, and, well . . . do I have to telegraph it? That's me on the drums. Our lead guitarist, on the right, lived two blocks from Jimi Hendrix, and learned from him. He was only 15 at the time, but man, could he play some licks. This was 40 years ago, and that is an original Fender Stratocaster he is playing. You want to know what that guitar is worth now? Before The Equinox, we had a sextet called Universal Electric, which had the same four in this photo, plus one 12 string backup guitarist, and an organist who had an original Hammond B3 with a Leslie (rotating) speaker. We played local small night clubs and bars. One weekend, we had to use Friday night's wages to bail the backup guitarist out of jail so we could play on Saturday night. Ah, those were the days.

the-equinox-band-members-1968

We probably have come full circle on this melody business. In the Baroque Period, which began about 1600, layered polyphony was the basis for music, where a melodic line was not so apparent. Then came the Classical Period (1750-1820), and a melody was placed on top of harmony. During the Romantic Period (1815-1910), composers embellished upon what had been done in the Classical Period, experimenting with modulation to other keys and increasing the emphasis on the melody. The Modern Period (1890-1910) overlaps with the Romantic Period, with Post-Modernism being considered to last until about 1930. Here, as with the Romantic Period, the melodies were strong.

Jazz was born in New Orleans at the turn of the 20th century, with African Americans playing the "Blues". There was a basic melodic line, but the musicians then improvised over that line with other notes. It started out as "Dixieland", and migrated to large bands in the 1930's and 1940's (Count Basie, Tommy Dorsie, Artie Shaw), and then something called "Be-Bop" came along, which took the straight melodies from the big bands and put improvisation back into the equation.

Be-Bop was the beginning of Rock & Roll as well as more modern jazz styles. While Rock & Roll had tension, Jazz had more fluidity and linearity. The big band era disappeared. However, melodies were maintained with the rock bands and jazz ensembles.

Now, melodies are disappearing in the rock arena, being replaced with lasers, synth, distortion, and no distinct melodic line. Musicians often, perhaps usually, come into the recording studio individually to record their tracks for the songs to be released on a CD. They listen to the other parts that have been recorded along with a "click track" so they can stay in sync with the other band members. Gone is the spontaneity. In with the noise.

What we really need to do is educate the youngsters in musical classics. Once they learn how beautiful music can be, they will come around to wanting to hear it in lossless form. Right now, they just want to fit 50,000 songs on their iPod, all filled with distortion that is in the recordings. Suggesting to them that they put less music on their iPods, with lossless quality reproductions of their CDs, isn't going to cut it, because they are used to - and in fact enjoy - the horrific amount of distortion that is already in the recording.