It’s an old joke at this point—the hipster’s retro-obsession with vinyl is an affectation as bogus as louvered sunglasses and high-waisted acid washed jeans, right? Well, there are plenty of people who buy records and listen to them, too. There are even people who buy and listen to cassette tapes, imagine that! You can count me in both camps, and it isn’t because—or only because—I love the look and feel of these analog cultural artifacts or that I’m nostalgic for simpler times. It’s because I love the sound. Even cheapo cassette tapes can often sound better to me than the medium of music we’ve all grown so accustomed to over the last decade or so—the MP3.
Beginning in the CD era, the so-called “Loudness Wars” more or less killed the dynamics of recorded music, pushing every sound to the absolute limit—from the most delicately plucked acoustic guitar string to a black metal singer’s most demonic roar. Without the pleasing push-pull of musical dynamics, songs lose their depth and power. Once the music is released as product, it suffers another indignity in the data compression of MP3s and streaming services, formats that—according to high-end audio company Harmon—“have diminished the quality and flattened the emotion” of music. In the short film above, The Distortion of Sound, Harmon brings together a number of engineers, producers, and musicians, including big names like Quincy Jones, Slash, Hans Zimmer, and Snoop Dogg to discuss what Harmon acoustic engineer Dr. Sean Olive, calls “the valley of sound quality” we’ve supposedly reached in the last five years.
Harmon’s Chief Engineer Chris Ludwig claims that data compression (not audio compression—a different technology), “removes up to 90% of the original song.” With our low-quality MP3s and cheap, tinny earbuds and laptop speakers, says Zimmer, we’ve become “a McDonald’s generation of music consumers.” It’s a depressing reality for audiophiles and musicians, but Harmon has the solution and Distortion of Sound is essentially an advertisement for it. Whether or not you buy in is your call, but along the way, you’ll get an interesting introduction to the recording process and the history of recorded music. Scroll down to the bottom of the “Distortion of Sound” page to see how Harmon is “bringing sound quality back.” They aren’t doing it with tape decks and turntables.