Someone Please Fire Jack Frost

… or at least his little helper. You know, the little guy who sneaks in when Mr Frost has gone for lunch, and turns knobs that are best left alone. His intentions may be the noblest, but as we all know, Satan sometimes comes as a Man of Peace.

Frost, who also goes by the name of Bob Dylan, has produced a number of said artist’s records, and one would suspect that he, of all people, would agree with Dylan’s harsh verdict in a recent Rolling Stone interview on the sound quality of records today:

You listen to these modern records, they’re atrocious, they have sound all over them. There’s no definition of nothing, no vocal, no nothing, just like — static.

fairly recent blogpost by Sean Curnyn takes up this statement and turns it back on Dylan. Curnyn refers to a series of posts by Pete Bilderback on his blog Flowering Toilet, which give graphical examples of the difference in dynamic range between LP and CD versions of the same songs.

Here’s the LP version of ‘Thunder on the Mountain’:

Thunder on the Mountain, LP version

And here is what most of us — who are not sound geeks and have therefore bought the CD — hear:

Thunder on the Mountain, CD version

The difference (according to the two posts — I’m no expert in sound engineering), stems from the abuse of compression, a technique that is used in order to fill the sound-space as much as possible, and make the music stand out more clearly, even in the soft moments. Put to moderate use, it can enhance a recording, but as a weapon in the “Loudness War”, it is lethal — it kills the dynamic range in the recording (as the above examples show), and since dynamics is one of the most important tools to make music alive, we may have a serious baby and bath water situation here.

I refer to the other posts for further evidence and explanation. I, for one, am convinced, and it’s ironic that the “static” that Dylan refers to is so predominant on his own latest albums.

Why there should be this difference between the CD and the LP versions, I don’t know. One of the commenters at the Flowering Toilet mentions that the same difference could be noticed between the version of ‘Beyond Here Lies Nothing’ which was given out as a free download, and the version on the released album. So apparently the little helper works late, and only in the CD plant.

For the record, if I consider Modern Times and especially Together Through  Life lacklustre and on the whole unsucessful, it’s mainly because of the material. But a sound (huh…) advice for Dylan/Frost might be: Don’t shoot yourself in the foot — shoot the sound engineer instead.

Thanks to Heinrich Küttler of SEAL fame for bringing those posts to my attention.

11 thoughts on “Someone Please Fire Jack Frost

  1. One can of course still find the ‘original mp3’ of Beyond Here Lies Nothing. However, my ears don’t hear any enhanced sound quality compared to the CD version of that song.

    However, I’d be really interested to pirate come to own a digitalized version of the LPs of those recent albums. But it seems noone has both the equipment, the LPs and the good will to provide that.

  2. Eyolf:

    I can not possibly agree more with what you’ve written. While I was listening to Modern Times on vinyl, I could not help but feel like I’d been cheated. Modern Times compressed in the CD format is a cold thing. A sharp tinsel sound. The same songs, while on wax, are warm & expansive.

    On a side note, I’ve been a long time visitor of this site for the most comprehensive Dylan tabs, & I just now found your little blog space. I look forward to reading more.

  3. I’ve never really believed in that whole “CDs sound cold, LPs warm” line of argument, and until now, I’ve always believed it was just as much an emotional thing than an acoustic, but the practice of over-compression on CDs all of a sudden makes it plausible.
    For the record (pun intended, albeit not very funny…), I’m just referring to what other people have found out.

  4. Eyolf –
    First off- thanks so much for the vast amounts of time and effort i know you’ve spent on this wonderful site. It has given me so many hours off playing time with one of my favorites.
    Now – I just want to say that i agree on ‘Christmas in the heart’ – a beautiful album. Bobs interpretation of these songs makes me feel like i am hearing them for the very first time. Little Drummer boy actually brings tears to my eyes!
    However i have to respectfully disagree with your assessment of Bob’s output of the last decade. In my mind, this has been an incredibly rich period – as Dylan settles in to maturity. His writing is still filled with dry wit, and thought-provoking imagery. The production and musicianship of his recent albums has never been better. And as torn and ragged as his voice has become – for my money, he is one of the greatest singers alive – giving his lyrics life with remarkable character and charisma.
    I hope you’ll come to appreciate Bob’s recent output as much as i do. In the mean time, keep up the great work – and again – thanks so much!

  5. Eyolf, Just thought I would direct readers to well worth a read for those not familiar with the issue. This may be something that is more noticable to musicians, for whom dynamics is one of the tools of their trade. I’ve become convinced that most CD’s are mastered to be listened to in cars and hence the push to make the quiet bits louder. In Jack Frosts defence I suspect that many times the “boost signal and hard limit” decision is made by whoever is mastering it for pressing. Bob knows what he likes, he’s surely approving Jack’s finally mixxes but the sound probably changes afair bit after he hands the hard drive (or however it works) off the Company Men.

    As an aside i might mention I agree with you for the most part about the last few albums. I think Love and Theft is a masterwork but must confess I don’t really get the enthusiasim for Modern Times. I think it’s half good. “TLT” 1/4 good. Tell Tale Signs works to confirm what we always knew, Bob should maybe record the songs and then let someone else pick what ends up on the records. Christmas In The Heart, a return to form I say.

    Love your work!

  6. @Greg: Don’t worry, I’m used to people disagreeing with me — some more respectfully than others. I do think Modern Times is a fine album with some great songs on it, and Together Through Life is an album with some fine songs on it. If you think more highly of them, I’m happy for you. .)

    @Darrell: Thanks for that link. I was thinking of putting up some more general link like that, but you beat me to it. I also agree about Tell Tale Signs — it’s a treasure trove.

    I found this article on the Loudness War pretty funny.

    “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…”

    “Here are three recent albums noted for their depth and dynamic range…
    Modern Times, Bob Dylan
    On these albums, the music breathes: Check out the true-to-life sound of Dylan’s ‘Thunder on the Mountain.'”

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