The Death of High Fidelity

In the age of MP3s, sound quality is worse than ever


David Bendeth, a producer who works with rock bands like Hawthorne Heights and Paramore, knows that the albums he makes are often played through tiny computer speakers by fans who are busy surfing the Internet. So he's not surprised when record labels ask the mastering engineers who work on his CDs to crank up the sound levels so high that even the soft parts sound loud.

Over the past decade and a half, a revolution in recording technology has changed the way albums are produced, mixed and mastered — almost always for the worse. "They make it loud to get [listeners'] attention," Bendeth says. Engineers do that by applying dynamic range compression, which reduces the difference between the loudest and softest sounds in a song. Like many of his peers, Bendeth believes that relying too much on this effect can obscure sonic detail, rob music of its emotional power and leave listeners with what engineers call ear fatigue. "I think most everything is mastered a little too loud," Bendeth says. "The industry decided that it's a volume contest."

Producers and engineers call this "the loudness war," and it has changed the way almost every new pop and rock album sounds. But volume isn't the only issue. Computer programs like Pro Tools, which let audio engineers manipulate sound the way a word processor edits text, make musicians sound unnaturally perfect. And today's listeners consume an increasing amount of music on MP3, which eliminates much of the data from the original CD file and can leave music sounding tinny or hollow. "With all the technical innovation, music sounds worse," says Steely Dan's Donald Fagen, who has made what are considered some of the best-sounding records of all time. "God is in the details. But there are no details anymore."

The idea that engineers make albums louder might seem strange: Isn't volume controlled by that knob on the stereo? Yes, but every setting on that dial delivers a range of loudness, from a hushed vocal to a kick drum — and pushing sounds toward the top of that range makes music seem louder. It's the same technique used to make television commercials stand out from shows. And it does grab listeners' attention — but at a price. Last year, Bob Dylan told Rolling Stone that modern albums "have sound all over them. There's no definition of nothing, no vocal, no nothing, just like — static."

In 2004, Jeff Buckley's mom, Mary Guibert, listened to the original three-quarter-inch tape of her son's recordings as she was preparing the tenth-anniversary reissue of Grace. "We were hearing instruments you've never heard on that album, like finger cymbals and the sound of viola strings being plucked," she remembers. "It blew me away because it was exactly what he heard in the studio."

To Guibert's disappointment, the remastered 2004 version failed to capture these details. So last year, when Guibert assembled the best-of collection So Real: Songs From Jeff Buckley, she insisted on an independent A&R consultant to oversee the reissue process and a mastering engineer who would reproduce the sound Buckley made in the studio. "You can hear the distinct instruments and the sound of the room," she says of the new release. "Compression smudges things together."

Too much compression can be heard as musical clutter; on the Arctic Monkeys' debut, the band never seems to pause to catch its breath. By maintaining constant intensity, the album flattens out the emotional peaks that usually stand out in a song. "You lose the power of the chorus, because it's not louder than the verses," Bendeth says. "You lose emotion."

The inner ear automatically compresses blasts of high volume to protect itself, so we associate compression with loudness, says Daniel Levitin, a professor of music and neuroscience at McGill University and author of This Is Your Brain on Music: The Science of a Human Obsession. Human brains have evolved to pay particular attention to loud noises, so compressed sounds initially seem more exciting. But the effect doesn't last. "The excitement in music comes from variation in rhythm, timbre, pitch and loudness," Levitin says. "If you hold one of those constant, it can seem monotonous." After a few minutes, research shows, constant loudness grows fatiguing to the brain. Though few listeners realize this consciously, many feel an urge to skip to another song.

"If you limit range, it's just an assault on the body," says Tom Coyne, a mastering engineer who has worked with Mary J. Blige and Nas. "When you're fifteen, it's the greatest thing — you're being hammered. But do you want that on a whole album?"

To an average listener, a wide dynamic range creates a sense of spaciousness and makes it easier to pick out individual instruments — as you can hear on recent albums such as Dylan's Modern Times and Norah Jones' Not Too Late. "When people have the courage and the vision to do a record that way, it sets them apart," says Joe Boyd, who produced albums by Richard Thompson and R.E.M.'s Fables of the Reconstruction. "It sounds warm, it sounds three-dimensional, it sounds different. Analog sound to me is more emotionally affecting."

Rock and pop producers have always used compression to balance the sounds of different instruments and to make music sound more exciting, and radio stations apply compression for technical reasons. In the days of vinyl rec- ords, there was a physical limit to how high the bass levels could go before the needle skipped a groove. CDs can handle higher levels of loudness, although they, too, have a limit that engineers call "digital zero dB," above which sounds begin to distort. Pop albums rarely got close to the zero-dB mark until the mid-1990s, when digital compressors and limiters, which cut off the peaks of sound waves, made it easier to manipulate loudness levels. Intensely compressed albums like Oasis' 1995 (What's the Story) Morning Glory? set a new bar for loudness; the songs were well-suited for bars, cars and other noisy environments. "In the Seventies and Eighties, you were expected to pay attention," says Matt Serletic, the former chief executive of Virgin Records USA, who also produced albums by Matchbox Twenty and Collective Soul. "Modern music should be able to get your attention." Adds Rob Cavallo, who produced Green Day's American Idiot and My Chemical Romance's The Black Parade, "It's a style that started post-grunge, to get that intensity. The idea was to slam someone's face against the wall. You can set your CD to stun."

It's not just new music that's too loud. Many remastered recordings suffer the same problem as engineers apply compression to bring them into line with modern tastes. The new Led Zeppelin collection, Mothership, is louder than the band's original albums, and Bendeth, who mixed Elvis Presley's 30 #1 Hits, says that the album was mastered too loud for his taste. "A lot of audiophiles hate that record," he says, "but people can play it in the car and it's competitive with the new Foo Fighters record."

Just as cds supplanted vinyl and cassettes, MP3 and other digital-music formats are quickly replacing CDs as the most popular way to listen to music. That means more conven- ience but worse sound. To create an MP3, a computer samples the music on a CD and compresses it into a smaller file by excluding the musical information that the human ear is less likely to notice. Much of the information left out is at the very high and low ends, which is why some MP3s sound flat. Cavallo says that MP3s don't reproduce reverb well, and the lack of high-end detail makes them sound brittle. Without enough low end, he says, "you don't get the punch anymore. It decreases the punch of the kick drum and how the speaker gets pushed when the guitarist plays a power chord."

But not all digital-music files are created equal. Levitin says that most people find MP3s ripped at a rate above 224 kbps virtually indistinguishable from CDs. (iTunes sells music as either 128 or 256 kbps AAC files — AAC is slightly superior to MP3 at an equivalent bit rate. Amazon sells MP3s at 256 kbps.) Still, "it's like going to the Louvre and instead of the Mona Lisa there's a 10-megapixel image of it," he says. "I always want to listen to music the way the artists wanted me to hear it. I wouldn't look at a Kandinsky painting with sunglasses on."

Producers also now alter the way they mix albums to compensate for the limitations of MP3 sound. "You have to be aware of how people will hear music, and pretty much everyone is listening to MP3," says producer Butch Vig, a member of Garbage and the producer of Nirvana's Never- mind. "Some of the effects get lost. So you sometimes have to over-exaggerate things." Other producers believe that intensely compressed CDs make for better MP3s, since the loudness of the music will compensate for the flatness of the digital format.

As technological shifts have changed the way sounds are recorded, they have encouraged an artificial perfection in music itself. Analog tape has been replaced in most studios by Pro Tools, making edits that once required splicing tape together easily done with the click of a mouse. Programs like Auto-Tune can make weak singers sound pitch-perfect, and Beat Detective does the same thing for wobbly drummers.

"You can make anyone sound professional," says Mitchell Froom, a producer who's worked with Elvis Costello and Los Lobos, among others. "But the problem is that you have something that's professional, but it's not distinctive. I was talking to a session drummer, and I said, 'When's the last time you could tell who the drummer is?' You can tell Keith Moon or John Bonham, but now they all sound the same."

So is music doomed to keep sounding worse? Awareness of the problem is growing. The South by Southwest music festival recently featured a panel titled "Why Does Today's Music Sound Like Shit?" In August, a group of producers and engineers founded an organization called Turn Me Up!, which proposes to put stickers on CDs that meet high sonic standards.

But even most CD listeners have lost interest in high-end stereos as surround-sound home theater systems have become more popular, and superior-quality disc formats like DVD-Audio and SACD flopped. Bendeth and other producers worry that young listeners have grown so used to dynamically compressed music and the thin sound of MP3s that the battle has already been lost. "CDs sound better, but no one's buying them," he says. "The age of the audiophile is over."


Michael Jackson Died For Our Sins

by Jaime O'Neill

On June 25th, Michael Jackson was one of an estimated 154,400 people who died, from Los Angeles to Lahore, from Buenos Aires to Bhutan, from Tokyo to Timbuktoo. According to the World Health Organization, some 56 million people die each year, at the current global average. Mothers, fathers, sons, daughters, husbands and wives, all lost in death's daily holocaust. It took the determined efforts of the Nazis to kill six million over a six year period, but plain old death kills nearly ten times that many in a single year as a matter of course. Many are carried off by time, but many more are claimed by accident, misadventure, war, disease, or hunger, life's implacable mortal enemies.

In the hour of Michael Jackson's death, some 6,000 of his fellow mortals also breathed their last. All of them had names, most of them were mourned as the most significant loss their loved ones would ever know. Many of them had endured desperate deprivation, had struggled for their daily necessities, had lived lives blighted by cruel and indifferent squalor . Whatever their circumstances--from high to low--their individual stories will never be known to any beyond their small circles of friends or acquaintances, nor will the forces that shaped their experience on this planet ever attract the media attention given to the death of Michael Jackson. No remotely equivalent media resources or energies will be directed to ferreting out the corruption, the special interests, and the goliath of international power-brokering that weighs so heavily on the billions who live in the ghettos, the slums, the barrios and favelas of this world. The fourth estate has been transformed into a sideshow, an entertainment medium, yet another method of distracting attention away from any or every thing that an informed electorate might be able to do something about. News programs aren't called "shows" without reason.

In the days following June 25th, it would have been possible to believe that all human endeavor had been suspended--that no laws were being passed, no crimes were committed, nothing of importance transpired. None of the machinations the news media is charged with noting were being noted. In effect, so far as the electronic news media were concerned, the world stopped to let Michael Jackson off.

We are trivialized by such media coverage, infantilized and made stupid while being kept ignorant of things that matter. Keith Olberman nattered on for over an hour on the subject of Michael Jackson, Wolf Blitzer was heard to say "we all grew up on his music," forgetting even his own age and personal history in the hysteria, and while health care reforms got whittled away by a corrupted congress, George Will and George Stephanopoulis spent ten minutes on a Sunday morning public events show discussing whether or not the Michael Jackson coverage has been excessive.

The coverage was not excessive; it was insane. When our grandchildren come to face the scourges that are building for their futures--overpopulation, pollution, global warming, dying oceans--they will look back at us and wonder who left the inmates in charge of the asylum. They will wonder at our sense of priority and importance, and they will find a symbol for all that ailed us in "the King of Pop," a cartoonish figure with a white glove, whitened skin and a very dark side who we deemed to be more important than the host of problems from which we sought the most mindless diversion.

Today, more than 150,000 of our fellow human beings will slip on over to the other side, their passing unheralded and unregarded by all but a few. Those who don't die will consult the news to see if anyone who truly mattered found themselves among the dead.



The Most Dangerous Lake in the World

Written by Alan Bellows

In late 1945, along the banks of the Techa River in the Soviet Union, a dozen labor camps sent 70,000 inmates to begin construction of a secret city. Mere months earlier the United States' Little Boy and Fat Man bombs had flattened Hiroshima and Nagasaki, leaving Soviet leaders salivating over the massive power of the atom. In a rush to close the gap in weapons technology, the USSR commissioned a sprawling plutonium-production complex in the southern Ural mountains. The clandestine military-industrial community was to be operated by Russia's Mayak Chemical Combine, and it would come to be known as Chelyabinsk-40.

Within a few years the newfangled nuclear reactors were pumping out plutonium to fuel the Soviet Union's first atomic weapons. Chelyabinsk-40 was absent from all official maps, and it would be over forty years before the Soviet government would even acknowledge its existence. Nevertheless, the small city became an insidious influence in the Soviet Union, ultimately creating a corona of nuclear contamination dwarfing the devastation of the Chernobyl disaster.

By June 1948, after 31 months of brisk construction, the first of the Chelyabinsk-40 "breeder" reactors was brought online. Soon bricks of common uranium-238 were being bombarded with neutrons, resulting in loaves of pipin'-hot weapons-grade plutonium. In their haste to begin production, Soviet engineers lacked the time to establish proper waste-handling procedures, so most of the byproducts were dealt with by diluting them in water and squirting the effluent into the Techa River. The watered-down waste was a cocktail of "hot" elements, including long-lived fission products such as Strontium-90 and Cesium-137–each with a half-life of approximately thirty years.

In 1951, after about three years of operations at Chelyabinsk-40, Soviet scientists conducted a survey of the Techa River to determine whether radioactive contamination was becoming a problem. In the village of Metlino, just over four miles downriver from the plutonium plant, investigators and Geiger counters clicked nervously along the river bank. Rather than the typical "background" gamma radiation of about 0.21 Röntgens per year, the edge of the Techa River was emanating 5 Röntgens per hour. Such elevated levels were rather distressing since that the river was the primary source of water for the 1,200 residents there. Subsequent measurements found extensive contamination in 38 other villages along the Techa, seriously jeopardizing the health of about 28,000 people. In addition, almost 100,000 other residents were being exposed to elevated-but-not-quite-as-deadly doses of gamma radiation, both from the river itself and from the floodplain where crops and livestock were raised.

In an effort to avoid serious radiological health effects among the populace, the Soviet government relocated about 7,500 villagers from the most heavily contaminated areas, fenced off the floodplain, and dug wells to provide an alternate water source for the remaining villages. Engineers were brought in to erect earthen dams along the Techa River to prevent radioactive sediments from migrating further downstream. The Soviet scientists at Chelyabinsk-40 also revised their waste disposal strategy, halting the practice of dumping effluent directly into the river. Instead, they constructed a set of "intermediate storage tanks" where waste water could spend some time bleeding off radioactivity. After lingering in these vats for a few months, the diluted dregs were periodically piped to the new long-term storage location: a ten-foot-deep, 110 acre lake called Karachay. For a while these measures spared the Techa River residents from further increases in exposure, but the Mayak Chemical Combine had only begun to demonstrate its flair for misfortune.

By the mid 1950s the workers at the plutonium production plant began to complain of soreness, low blood pressure, loss of coordination, and tremors–the classic symptoms of chronic radiation syndrome. The facility itself was also beginning to encounter chronic complications, particularly in the new intermediate storage system. The row of waste vats sat in a concrete canal a few kilometers outside the main complex, submerged in a constant flow of water to carry away the heat generated by radioactive decay. Soon the technicians discovered that the hot isotopes in the waste water tended to cause a bit of evaporation inside the tanks, resulting in more buoyancy than had been anticipated. This upward pressure put stress on the inlet pipes, eventually compromising the seals and allowing raw radioactive waste to seep into the canal's coolant water. To make matters worse, several of the tanks' heat exchangers failed, crippling their cooling capacity.

The workers were aware of these faults, but the ambient radiation in the cooling trench forestalled any repairs. A flurry of calculations indicated that most of the waste water in the tanks would remain in a stable liquid state even without the additional cooling, so technicians continued to operate the plutonium plant in spite of these problems. Their evaporation calculations were in error, however, and the water inside the defective tanks gradually boiled away. A radioactive sludge of nitrates and acetates was left behind, a chemical compound roughly equivalent to TNT.

Unable to shed much heat, the concentrated radioactive slurry continued to increase in temperature within the defective 80,000 gallon containers. On 29 September 1957, one tank reached an estimated 660 degrees Fahrenheit. At 4:20pm local time, the explosive salt deposits in the bottom of the vat detonated. The blast ignited the contents of the other dried-out tanks, producing a combined explosive force equivalent to about 85 tons of TNT. The thick concrete lid which covered the cooling trench was hurled eighty feet away, and seventy tons of highly radioactive fission products were ejected into the open atmosphere. The buildings at Chelyabinsk-40 shuddered as they were buffeted by the shock wave.

While investigators probed the blast site in protective suits, a mile-high column of radionuclides dragged across the landscape. The gamma-emitting dust cloud spread hazardous isotopes of cesium and strontium over 9,000 square miles, affecting some 270,000 Soviet citizens and their food supplies. Over twenty megacuries (MCi) of radioactivity were released, almost half of that expelled by the Chernobyl incident.

In the days that followed, strange reports began to emerge from downwind villages. According to author Richard Pollock in a 1978 Critical Mass Journal article, residents of the Chelyabinsk Province became "hysterical with fear with the incidence of unknown 'mysterious' diseases breaking out. Victims were seen with skin 'sloughing off' their faces, hands and other exposed parts of their bodies." After the customary ten-day period of hand-sitting, the government ordered the evacuation of many villages where skin-sloughers and blood-vomiters had appeared. This mass migration left the landscape littered with radioactive ghost towns.

The facilities at Chelyabinsk-40 were swiftly decontaminated with hoses, mops, and squeegees, and soon plutonium production was underway again. The intermediate storage system had been partially compromised by the accident, but the factory was still able to squirt its constant flow of radioactive effluence into Lake Karachay. The lake lacked any surface outlets, so optimistic engineers reasoned that anything dumped into the lake would remain entombed there indefinitely.

Many locals were hospitalized with radiation poisoning in the weeks after the waste-tank blast, but the Soviet state forbade doctors from disclosing the true nature of the illnesses. Instead, physicians were instructed to diagnose sufferers with ambiguous "blood problems" and "vegetative syndromes." The Russian government likewise withheld the colossal calamity from the international community. Within two years, the radiation killed all of the pine trees within a twelve mile radius of Chelyabinsk-40. Highway signs were erected at the edges of the contaminated zone, imploring travelers to roll up their windows while traversing the deteriorated swath of Earth, and to not stop for any reason.

Ten years later, in 1967, a severe drought struck the Chelyabinsk Province. Much to the Russian scientists' alarm, shallow Lake Karachay gradually began to shrink from its shores. Over several months the water dwindled considerably, leaving the lake about half-empty (or half-full, if you're more upbeat). This exposed the radioactive sediment in the lake basin, and fifteen years' worth of radionuclides took to the breeze. About 900 square miles of land was peppered with Strontium-90, Cesium-137, and other unhealthy elements. Almost half a million residents were in the path of this latest dust cloud of doom, many of them the same people who had been affected by the 1957 waste-tank explosion.

Soviet engineers hastily enacted a program to help prevent further sediment from leaving Lake Karachay. For a dozen or so years they dumped rocks, soil, and large concrete blocks into the tainted basin. The Mayak Chemical Combine conceded that the lake was an inadequate long-term storage system, and ordered that Karachay be slowly sealed in a shell of earth and concrete.

In 1990, as the Soviet Union teetered at the brink of collapse, government officials finally acknowledged the existence of the secret city of Chelyabinsk-40 (soon renamed to Chelyabinsk-65, then later changed to Ozersk). They also acknowledged its tragic parade of radiological disasters. At that time Lake Karachay remained as the principal waste-dumping site for for the plutonium plant, but the effort to fill the lake with soil and concrete had halved its surface area.

Thirty-nine years of effluent had saturated the lake with nasty isotopes, including an estimated 120 megacuries of long-lived radiation. In contrast, the Chernobyl incident released roughly 100 megacuries of radiation into the environment, but only about 3 megacuries of Strontium-90 and Cesium-137. A delegation who visited Lake Karachay in 1990 measured the radiation at the point where the effluent entered the water, and the needles of their Geiger counters danced at about 600 Röntgens per hour–enough to provide a lethal dose in one hour. They did not linger long.

A report compiled in 1991 found that the incidence of leukemia in the region had increased by 41% since Chelyabinsk-40 opened for business, and that during the 1980s cancers had increased by 21% and circulatory disorders rose by 31%. It is probable, however, that the true numbers are much higher since doctors were required to limit the number diagnoses issued for cancer and other radiation-related illnesses. In the village of Muslyumovo, a local physician's personal records from 1993 indicated an average male lifespan of 45 years compared to 69 in the rest of the country. Birth defects, sterility, and chronic disease also increased dramatically. In all, over a million Russian citizens were directly affected by the misadventures of the Mayak Chemical Combine from 1948 to 1990, including around 28,000 people classified as "seriously irradiated."

Today, there are huge tracts of Chelyabinsk land still uninhabitable due to the radionuclides from the river contamination, the 1957 blast, and the 1967 drought. The surface of Lake Karachay is now made up of more concrete than water, however the lake's payload of fission products is not completely captive. Recent surveys have detected gamma-emitting elements in nearby rivers, indicating that undesirable isotopes have been seeping into the water table. Estimates suggest that approximately a billion gallons of groundwater have already been contaminated with 5 megacuries of radionuclides. The neighboring Norwegians are understandably nervous that some of the pollution could find its way into their water supply, or even into the Arctic Ocean.

Russia has long been fond of producing the most massive specimens of military might: the monstrous Tsar Cannon, the 200-ton Tsar Bell, the cumbersome Tsar Tank, and the 50-megaton Tsar Bomba. In that "biggest-ever" tradition, the Mayak Chemical Combine is now credited by the Worldwatch Institute as the creator of the "most polluted spot" in history, a mess whose true magnitude is yet to be known.

Small Towns vs. Nestlé

by Jenny Tomkins

When Nestlé Waters North America, the world's largest bottler of water, comes a-courting, promising jobs and increased tax revenues in exchange for local water rights, many small, rural towns get nervous.

Deborah Lapidus, an organizer with the Think Outside the Bottle campaign, says this skepticism stems from Henderson, Texas, which in the '90s saw Nestlé suck one of its wells dry.

"The company prioritizes its own use over the environment and other uses," says Lapidus.

As well as draining water, Nestlé also attempts to deplete these communities' finances, Lapidus says. Towns trying to defend their reservoirs have found themselves in costly legal battles. Fryeburg, Maine, for example, has been sued five times by Nestlé for "interfering with the right to grow their market share."

Last summer, when Nestlé Waters North America/Poland Spring negotiated with the Kennebunk, Kennebunkport and Wells Water District, public outcry forced the proposal to be tabled. The trustees of Wells Water District discussed a deal in which 433,000 gallons of water were to be extracted daily from the Branch Brook Aquifer for 0.06 cents per gallon.

Wells residents organized in the group Save Our Water proposed a local ordinance to prohibit the corporate withdrawal of water for resale. Such legislation, first implemented in Barnstead, N.H., had been adopted by two other towns in Maine. Barnstead's ordinance declares water a common resource for its residents and, more importantly, decrees that within its jurisdictions, corporations may not wield state or federal constitutional powers.

But Wells' ordinance was defeated in May, after Nestlé poured money into a campaign convincing local businesses that the ordinance would also curtail their rights.

Jamilla El-Shafei believes the community made a tactical error by introducing the ordinance before Save Our Water had time to present its case. However, she's optimistic that Wells' trustees will turn Nestlé down.

McCloud, Calif., began its struggle with Nestlé in 2003, when the town negotiated a deal wherein the community would only receive 0.001 cents per gallon of water for a minimum of 50 years. No environmental assessment was conducted, nor was any community input sought in this proposal. It took five years and intervention by the California Attorney General to break the agreement. And Nestlé is still courting the community for a revised deal.

Faced with increased public scrutiny and a growing bottled water backlash, Nestlé is launching a charm offensive. "We're one of 70,000 different types of beverages you can buy. ... We use the least amount of water and the least amount of plastic, and we're good for you," says Nestlé spokesman Brian Flaherty.

Peter H. Gleick, president of the Pacific Institute, disagrees. In the February issue of Environmental Research Letters, he wrote that bottled water requires "as much as 2,000 times the energy cost of producing tap water." Americans consume around 33 billion liters each year, which requires between 32 to 54 million barrels of oil to produce.

While Nestlé is focused on staking out the environmental high ground, the Out of the Bottle campaign is assisting communities whose water supplies are being threatened and educating the general public on the fundamental question of water.

There are some signs that water activists are succeeding. In 2008, for the first time in its history, the bottled water market declined-mostly due to the recession. This victory was followed by New York Gov. David Paterson's decision to impose a statewide ban on public expenditures for bottled water.

Will 2009 be the year when Americans begin to kick their bottled water habit? Small towns like Wells and McCloud hope so.