In high school, our most advanced guitar class was “Guitar Literature.” We did more playing than reading, but the name conveyed a certain intellectual gravitas. It’s also a catchy title for a new column on my favorite guitar- and music-related literature.
On September 30th, Rush released a remix of their 2002 album Vapor Trails. In Rolling Stone, Geddy Lee declared the original mix to be “really loud and brash,” and that the “mastering job was harsh and distorted.” This was something that die-hard Rush fans had bemoaned for a decade.
Vapor Trails was one of the more prominent — and contentious — products of the so-called “Loudness War,” a recording industry arms race to boost the perceived intensity of music, especially broadcasted music pumped through car stereos. The album (and the war) features prominently in Greg Milner’s 2009 journalistic history of recorded music, Perfecting Sound Forever. Milner’s well-researched and highly readable book details the evolution of recording technology from Thomas Edison onwards, including its impact on music production and audiophilia. Suffice to say, not all change has been welcome, and the merits of the digital transition in particular remain highly contested (just ask Neil Young).
The effects of the Loudness War are probably most acutely audible in Hip-Hop and R&B, but guitar-heavy rock albums like Vapor Trails, the Red Hot Chili Peppers’ Californication, and Metallica’s Death Magnetic are all examples of how digital mastering technology — particularly compression — has considerably upped the loudness ante. Compression allows engineers to reduce the dynamic variation of a recorded track, smoothing out the peaks and valleys that exist between drum beats, guitar strums, or vocal modulations. In moderation, compression can help improve the presence and definition of recorded sounds; implemented to the extreme, it contributes to audio distortion and listener fatigue.
I can probably count on one hand the number of times I’ve listened to Californication or Death Magnetic from beginning to end. It has nothing to do with the music itself, but rather a listening experience that I’ve always found agitating; I never understood why that was the case until reading Perfecting Sound Forever. It’s an illuminating book that puts a century of audio technology in perspective, lucidly tracing its development vis-a-vis popular music milestones (a similarly fascinating — though more niche — companion volume remains to be written on the parallel evolution of guitar amplification and processing). Milner, who is clearly an audiophile, betrays a curmudgeonly disposition at times (and this comes from the proprietor of a blog titled New.Old.Stock.), but it’s hard to argue with his dismay when the evidence is laid out so clearly. Digital technology may very well have revolutionized the production, accessibility, and portability of music, but not without some cost to the listening experience. The Vapor Trails remix is evidence that we’re still calibrating the technology by means of the most advanced audio system in existence — the one that resides in our heads.