Friday, March 04, 2005

radio trivia

This issue came up recently, and only today did I bother to find the answer to one of the oldest mysteries of teenage life.

Why do songs sound better on the radio?

Anyone out there with a working knowledge of audio processing already knows the answer to this. Those with a defective knowledge of audio processing, like me, have probably developed a complex and ultimately stupid set of explanations for what is essentially a simple I did.

You all know what I'm talking about. That song you loved in Junior High (for me it was "Today," by the Smashing Pumpkins) that always sounded wrong except when it was blasting over your favorite crappy alternative station.

Why do songs sound better over the radio?

The answer is, predictably, corporate greed and a hatred of music. That's my answer to everything, by the way.

Okay, so let's look at the relevant institutional actors.

1) Record Companies - How do they primarily market their music (at least the audible component)? Radio, MTV, Retail listening stations. Above all, they want it to be LOUD. Because, God forbid, the song/video that came before might do more damage to their target demographic's ear canal, and they'd lose the sale. So they pressure record producers to compress, compress, compress. Compression is an artificial way to make music louder by amplifying all the audio material and slicing off the very loudest bits, eliminating the quiet parts and making the whole thing sound louder. They're pre-tailoring it for car radios, listening stations, or any other medium that requires the music to punch through a lot of ambient noise.

2) Radio stations - The FCC gives them 200MHz of bandwidth, and what they can get out of it largely determines their ability to attract an audience. So, they're also worshipping the gods of LOUD, and they also compress. They sacrifice dynamic range for a punch in the gut, because they want to wrench your attention towards whatever music they're playing (same theory for the loudness of TV advertisements). The compression fetish is even more common amongst "oldies" and "mix" stations, because they need all their songs to sound the same. In order to make "Heard it Through the Grapevine" sound as loud and present as "Genie in a Bottle" (just kill me now), they need compression. Also radio stations understand that, for the most part, their broadcasts are projected over crappy speakers. Multi-band compression will boost the bass to adjust for tinny-ness, while putting the whole, squashed mess into a comfortable, non-squawk range for your TV speakers and dentist's office.

3) Artists & producers - They want to sell their records, and they need (1) and (2) to do it. This is a no-brainer.

So it's a symbiotic relationship. Albums are mastered 10 times and polished to achieve that gut-punch no matter what. Stations pick music that is already pre-compressed, or will sound good when squashed to hell.

The result? On one hand, music with dynamic range gets distorted or is never made in the first place. On the other, everything that does get played comes out flat and LOUD. If you wonder why some people tell you that "rock all sounds the same nowadays," that might be the reason. Personally, I think the disgust directed towards Top 40 radio for its homogeneity comes partly from the compression fetish.

Does music sound better on the radio? On objective, audiophile terms, it actually sounds worse. But it all depends what you like.

Wow, that was more boring than I thought.

For some reason, this topic had an air of mystique and nostalgia when I thought about it in my head. Not so much now.

Okay folks, move along, nothing to see here.


zach said...

i don't really know what you're talking about, but listening to "today" on the radio in sixth grade totally changed my life.

alek said...

i know, right?

that song removed all other music from my head for like five weeks.

it was so heavy and gorgeous at the same time -- like Liz Edwards.