Sometimes, my mind races and thinks of really wild concepts when I am sick or down with a flu. This is one of them. I have read about the Light Bulb Conspiracy and happened to notice a documentary on that too. This sparked a train of thought that I feel is very relevant to todays world, even Audio.
The thought is based on Planned Obsolescence, which implies that lifespan for products are being reduced by manufacturers to make the consumers buy faster and spend more for products that they don’t really need at a time they don’t really want. The race for the newest, latest has always been a trend and I too am no stranger to that. But, when I sat to think of all that has happened, I started to see how even that has affected the way we listen and messages are conveyed.
The Sense of Urgency
Today, every thing seems to be urgent. You need news quickly, you need information quickly, results quickly; everything has to happen at the instant. Scrolling on Twitter and Facebook has become faster with auto video playback to inject video and information even if we don’t need it. Screen Resolutions have become higher with fonts and text becoming smaller, this providing more information over a small area, increasing strain and reduced eyeball movement. How did this come about? Lets look at the Planned Obsolescence for a moment. By reducing the life of a light bulb to 1000 hours from 2500 – 3000 hours, effectively, we have done one thing. Dropped expectations. My phone doesn’t work beyond 8 – 10 hours without a charge. We have become dependent on mobile Battery Packs, which were unheard of a few years back. We just assume that’s how it is and go with the flow. My TV needs servicing every 2 years, but by then the spare parts are more expensive than buying a new one.
But we are talking audio. How is this of any relevance to us? Listen to everything around you. What has happened to the pitch over time? Cars have become quieter, yes, but the pitch of the engine has risen. Traffic has increased and the horns (in countries where Horn is Ok!) have risen in pitch over time. This impacts our conversational pitch and I have noticed that I have sometimes started talking in higher pitch to be heard or to communicate. The way we hear has changed. And I think the Fletcher-Munson curve itself has undergone a change. But there is something else that we need to see. What causes urgency?
Primed Association and Pitch
The Emotional value a person gives to a sound is dependent on the meaning an individual assigns to the sound. For example, in the west, honking would be mean something that is very rude to the person while in other places, it may be just as an indication or a habit. This means the horn by itself has an associated sound and perceived emotional value. But what is interesting is meaningless sounds too have an induced annoyance that can be linked to the perceived loudness. (D. Vastfjall, “Affective Reactions to Meaningless Sounds,” Cognition and Emotion). But meaningless sounds can be converted to associated meaning over time and make it identifiable. And one of these is the false sense of urgency that is created in our daily basis. Listen to an RJ speak over radio on your way to work. The speed of his / her delivery, the pitch and the content that is being delivered creates a sense of urgency. It is not the urgency that we would associate with hospitals or so. Don’t get me wrong. But if you consider the fact that you are stuck in traffic that is slow moving and you hear this, what does it create? It creates an emotional response. It creates a feeling that things are slower than usual. (Relativity!) Along this, we also need to process all that information in a short time. And when we talk fast, pitch usually rises. And with pitch, from a very young age, we have association to danger, warning, excitement, happiness, sadness, everything. All are extreme emotions. But the context of this is what creates the meaning for us. And over time, in the past 10 years, the delivery has only sped up and risen in pitch in Radio. But there is one more thing that creates this in a very subliminal way.
Compression, Codecs and Dynamic Range
It is no secret that the Loudness war was real. Every single song competed to be the loudest thereby bringing a lot of associated distortion to it. Today, this is being compensated by iTunes Sound Check, Youtube Loudness control etc. There is also a recommendation provided for Loudness of Audio Streaming and Network File Playback by the AES and the paper was Edited by Bob Katz. Until then, it would be interesting to see how it has been affecting us over time. The first thing that comes to mind is the dynamic Range. We have seen this reduce over the years to a point where there absolutely is none left. Reducing dynamic range makes the song exciting or “Pop” out. But that also means using more aggressive compression. Bringing out the lower levels and in a way killing transients. Over time, this means we are getting used to hearing music in the least enjoyable way. We claim nostalgia for older songs but lose out on the nuances when we hear it today. People today find it difficult to enjoy classical songs or scores because they are too long and take time to register. (Not all, but definitely a big number based on Age). A good example of creating this sense can be seen in the Dark Knight where Hans Zimmer scores the strings to forge the urgency and tension even though the contrast was that the scenes were cut with longer stays in the shots. (Try watching it without sound and it will be apparent!)
On speaking to a few friends, I have also noticed that the attack and release of compressors have also become smaller! Now that’s a strange thought! I cannot generalize for that though but is something to keep a note of and understand how all of this may be related. But the sad fact is today Radios play MP3s, have compressed Voice Overs, lesser music play time, more speak, rising Pitch, and all. We may be creating a generation that is used to hearing Codec Distortion, Masking, less transients, and not hearing the real instrument in the real space. Not to mention non linear distortion in Headphones and its effect on the perceived quality and the acceptability of quality that we have come to agree over the years. (A study on this has been done by Steve F. Temme, Listen Inc., Dr. Sean E. Olive, Harman International) That is something we need to make them hear. We have a responsibility to deliver good sound not for the sake of music, but for the sake of Good Quality. Once quality is set as a standard, the only competition would be talent and artistry. We need to get this back. We need the Quincy Jones, Sir George Martin, and other legends for our generation. One day, we will. The Loudness Norms, effective EQ, and compression are the first steps we take.