Wednesday, October 29, 2008

Dynamic Curepression

The suffix 'pression' usually has a place in Cure-related articles (and, incidentally, I swear this is the last post I'll make about 4:13 Dream, this is my closure.) Depression. Expression. And now, compression.

To get this out of the way early, here's my short review of the album: some pretty good songs (the same ones they've been writing for the past 20 years, but done well), Porl Thompson triumphantly returning, mysterious recorded-in-a-broom-cupboard-next-door-to-the-studio drumming and lots of COMPRESSION. Which needs BIG CAPITAL LETTERS because THAT'S HOW IT MAKES MOST OF THE ALBUM SOUND.

I'm not nearly as informed on this topic as the Official Rocktimists Champion of Dynamic Range Sick Mouthy, but this record doesn't exactly require a spotters guide sticker on the front saying 'features shitloads of compression.' Somebody did think it needed one which says 'new album' though; presumably as guide for the browsing public, who may otherwise have become confused upon seeing a Cure album they didn't recognise and started to mill around in circles, dribbling.

They may literally begin to dribble after the incomprehensible levels of loudness turn the inner workings of their ears to gunk, but that is an altogether separate issue.

Here comes the science part!! (urgh, sorry)

"the really loud ghost"

This is the waveform of "The Hungry Ghost" (track seven on 4:13 Dream) in Cool Edit Pro, my awkwardly-named wav-investigating program of choice. Can you tell what's wrong wi ... yes, of course you can. It looks like hell. Two fat blobs of sound with some vague apologies for range around either end. I haven't conducted a full analysis of the album to objectively locate the worst offender, because I couldn't be bothered - but I can tell you that "The Hungry Ghost" sounds as pummellingly bad as its waveform looks. Which is upsetting, because the song itself is just dandy.

For comparison, I looked for an older Cure track of similar length (for ease and clarity in side-by-side screenshots) which had some clear sonic range to it. "A Night Like This" from the Staring At The Sea singles comp worked rather well.

"a night (of sensible mastering) like this"

A distinct lack of those harsh rectangular blocks of mushed up sound, despite the song building to something of a climax and featuring a pretty piercing sax solo. It's essentially a pop song (a bizarre one, but nonetheless) so clearly there is less range than, say, a classical piece. Yet peaks and troughs are still visible, it doesn't flatline into loudness after about 20 seconds and most importantly IT DOESN'T SOUND LIKE SHIT.

Again, I'm not saying "The Hungry Ghost" is a bad song. It isn't. It's just sort of painful to listen to at any length, because everything has been maxed out far beyond the levels they should have and then pressed back together like a small child rubbing his hands around in poster paints. What was previously red, blue, yellow and green ends up as a uniform sludge.

a respected producer, yesterday

Why do this? Why why, and indeed, why? The Cure aren't really a commercial concern any more. They have no real need to compete in loudness for spots of airplay. They're in the perfect position to make whatever music they like, in whatever form they desire, because they're well known and still well-loved enough to shift thousands of albums. There is no reason to butcher the sound to this extent. None at all.

The only possible explanation is some kind of horrible CIA plot to have a selection of dynamically compressed Robert Smith vocals on hand for melting the brains of political prisoners or surly rogue dictators. Fuckin' feds.


Sick Mouthy said...

The 'best of' with the blue, starry cover, also sounds absolutely horrific, and is the reason I've never bought a Cure album other than itself and Disintegration.

PP said...

I would heartily recommend Staring at the Sea - it's had no evil remastering (yet), and contains all the singles 1979-1985. With that and Disintegration, you'd probably have enough Cure for most people.

Sick Mouthy said...

I also feel vaguely guilty for planting the compression seed in your head, as it seems to have affected you somewhat!

PP said...

But that's a good thing! I think anything which allows greater insight into the how and why of albums sounding the way they do has to be of merit.

It's useful to have bit of accurate technical vocabulary to go along with the subjective metaphorical whimsy of SONIC CATHEDRALS and the like. Both are important, I think, but this is solid factual stuff - you can bring up a waveform and go 'look, this is precisely why it sounds crap.' I like that.

The more people are made aware of over-compression sucking a fat one, the faster it might die off. Or it might make no difference at all, but hey it's worth a try.

It's also quite funny to read reviews of over-compressed albums where the production is being praised in some way and think 'haha, you're not very good at your job.'