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.

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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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