The Distortion of Sound: A Short Film on How We’ve Created “a McDonald’s Generation of Music Consumers”

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.

Relat­ed Con­tent:

Neil Young Reveals the New Killer Gad­get That Will Save Music

Josh Jones is a writer and musi­cian based in Durham, NC. Fol­low him at @jdmagness.

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Comments (12)
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  • Lee says:

    I’m not too much trou­bled by the poor qual­i­ty of dig­i­tal sound. I grew up lis­ten­ing to music on a hand held tran­sis­tor radio and a low-fi 45 rpm record play­er that fold­ed into a lit­tle suit­case. I’m remind­ed of “Step­pen­wolf” by Her­mann Hesse. The final scene has Har­ry the Step­pen­wolf being ser­e­nad­ed by Mozart with a scratchy record­ing of a beau­ti­ful sym­pho­ny on a cheap phono­graph. The point being true art shines through what­ev­er medi­um it is car­ried on. I find that my mind fills in enough of the miss­ing infor­ma­tion to make it good, thus mak­ing it my own.

    • Joe says:

      Well thats a love­ly anec­dote but for some of us it mat­ters great­ly how it sounds with­out com­pro­mise.

      It s poten­tial ver­sus its actu­al , i ve heard the term indus­try bandied about by youth with regards plas­tic mold­ed loud­speak­ers. , some of which are astound­ed when they hear the real deal.

      I dont mind a scratchy grama­phone now and then, but a poohey sound­ing mp3 : god­damm life­less

  • Rus Archer says:

    who cares about the sound qual­i­ty when the music has none


    Every­thing pre­sent­ed in this video is true, but it’s basi­cal­ly a cook­ie cut­ter ver­sion of what is real­ly hap­pen­ing to our indus­try and to our music. The short and thick of it is that the MP3 will die off with the advent of high speed inter­net (Giga­bite upload/download speeds). While this will cre­ate a greater data demand most ser­vice providers/content hosts aren’t hurt­ing for space. When­ev­er our abil­i­ty to stream in real time can com­pete with the size and trans­fer rate of 24bit/96–192Khz audio, the whole MP3 fad will fall by the way­side. Peo­ple aren’t inter­est­ed in own­ing music any­more, even if it’s an MP3 on their com­put­er, they’d much rather stream it. Unfor­tu­nate­ly there is no rec­ti­fi­ca­tion for the music indus­try. As a whole the major labels will slow­ly suc­cumb to their own weight and I fore­see the inde­pen­dent labels run­ning the show. Now you can make a hit record for less than 1000$ if you’re smart. The large for­mat stu­dios have been dying and as com­put­ers and tech­nol­o­gy becomes more pro­sumer the need for media pro­fes­sion­als will fall by the way­side. So it goes.

    Record­ing Engi­neer (Also known as Future Home­less)

  • Todd says:

    I real­ly want to respect what they put into this film, but the argu­ment pre­sent­ed is going nowhere real­ly. For starts, I think they should have found oth­er artists to do inter­views. Slash and the Linkin Park guys are not the kinds of peo­ple I would think of to inter­view. And more­over, many of these peo­ple are heavy­weights in the pop music world who do not have to wor­ry about mak­ing mon­ey from their tunes, so why do they care? If some­body lis­tens to your music at a low­er qual­i­ty but you’re mak­ing the big bucks and not liv­ing poor, what does it mat­ter to you real­ly? You have the mon­ey and liveli­hood to waste your time mak­ing great music, that no one will hear because its low qual­i­ty, and yet you still make bank. They speak and act as though they’re “true” artists who care about music but its most­ly for show. Go find some oth­er tal­ent­ed artists who are starv­ing and try­ing to sing what their soul says, and that’s when peo­ple will lis­ten. On the oth­er hand, argu­ing that its unfair that peo­ple are not hear­ing your music at the qual­i­ty you wish is not real­ly an argu­ment worth both­er­ing about. As Hans Zim­mer said in the video, he tries to get what’s in his head out into the world in music. I think that’s great, but that does not mean I should care. From this stand­point it sounds like Zim­mer makes music because it’s what he wants to get out into the world in the form of sound, AS AN ARTIST. I can imag­ine that he hopes peo­ple will like his music, but that is not what he is after from what he spoke about in the video. If he makes music for the crowds, and what sounds the awe­somest to peo­ple, then he is mak­ing a com­mod­i­ty FOR SALE to make mon­ey, and not art for the sake of being an artist. Yes, he would like his music to be lis­tened to at high qual­i­ty, and I’m sure he tries to achieve that in the stu­dio when he final­izes his records. But if peo­ple do not choose to lis­ten to those then it does not depre­ci­ate the val­ue of his work at all. His work should stand for itself because its what he wants to make for him­self and not for some­one else’s sake. If he fin­ish­es a work and is hap­py with its qual­i­ty then that is all he should care about real­ly. If he is wor­ried about peo­ple hear­ing it as he hears it, then he is ask­ing to be liked and fol­lowed, rather than just mak­ing works of art. I only use Zim­mer as an exam­ple here since he was in the movie, but I believe it can be applied to all the artists inter­viewed in the video.

  • Randy says:

    Did­n’t stud­ies show that even most self-claimed audio­philes can­not tell the dif­fer­ence when music is played through var­i­ous sup­pos­ed­ly-supe­ri­or sys­tems, and not?

    It’s like wine, or lot­tery tick­ets. There is no mean­ing­ful “best”.

    Also, com­pres­sion does­n’t even mean there has to be data loss. But when there is, it can be min­i­mized, by choos­ing which data is lost. On vinyl, there’s no such con­trol. You get what you get, and even with the best of care and attempts at restora­tion, it unavoid­ably gets worse with every play. Physics.

    With increas­ing data stor­age sizes, com­pres­sion may become less impor­tant to peo­ple. But don’t expect uncom­pressed to sound bet­ter. Most peo­ple will not detect any dif­fer­ence.

  • DR x says:

    meh… quit whin­ing and wait for the new loss­less tech­nolo­gies.

  • Pete Norman says:

    It’s like most nov­els adapt­ed for the screen. By the time the peo­ple who invest­ed in the mak­ing of it have put their two cents in, there’s usu­al­ly lit­tle left to com­pare to the orig­i­nal.…. Trou­ble is,in audio, you have no way of know­ing what the mas­ter sound­ed like,so, as point­ed out, what you can’t hear won’t hurt you. Ces’t la vie. Any­way a good tune is still a good tune, ain’t it!

  • Tron says:

    Real­ly good Cool to see Scheps in there, real­ly smart guy makes plu­g­ins and mix­es in the box now..Compression is not the prob­lem like they said dur­ing the film, its the con­ver­sion of down­siz­ing the Bit Depth and Sam­ple rate..SO con­ver­sion is the problem..not com­pres­sion.

  • Storycharms says:

    As a teen, I stood next to speak­er stacks at met­al con­certs so pow­er­ful they dis­turbed my heart­beat. I have had tin­ni­tus ever since those days. Today, I see kids with hand­held devices lis­ten­ing to media and won­der if their hear­ing is being dam­aged. Whether we’re look­ing at a 70s head­banger or a gen-Xer, hear­ing loss is a mas­sive fac­tor impact­ing our abil­i­ty to appre­ci­ate sound qual­i­ty, which seems to have been over­looked.

  • Sky Neighbor says:

    I think the McDon­ald’s anal­o­gy is apt, but peo­ple take it in the wrong direc­tion. Sure, McDon­ald’s isn’t good good, but it’s cheap, ubiq­ui­tous, and ulti­mate­ly pro­vides some calo­ries. Mp3s are the same, but instead of calo­ries I’ll sub­sti­tute a basic musi­cal expe­ri­ence.

    There’s noth­ing wrong with McDon­ald’s (just as a prod­uct not as a busi­ness) giv­en that you don’t eat it for every meal.

    Addi­tion­al­ly, many peo­ple can basi­cal­ly only afford food like McDon­ald’s.

    Final­ly, any food is still bet­ter than star­va­tion.

    You can take that anal­o­gy in a num­ber of direc­tions that aren’t apoc­a­lyp­tic.

    Final­ly, the exam­ples of com­pres­sion were very heavy. Drums don’t sound like that on most Mp3s today, that sound­ed like the days of p2p mp3 down­loads where 320 kbps was a rel­a­tive rar­i­ty. It still sounds bad, but not near­ly as bad as those hyper com­pressed drums they used to show what com­pres­sion sounds like. I believe most youtube audio is com­pressed to begin with as well…

  • Jean Martin says:

    I could­n’t agree more. Spot on review!

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