January 21, 2021

A “Sound” Argument

By Chaplain Mike

Let’s move away from theological topics for a few minutes and talk about what’s really filling people’s ears and minds in these days when life is lived to a continual soundtrack.

In Sunday’s New York Times, Joseph Plambeck examines how life has changed when it comes to what we expect from our music. An entire culture of stereophiles, concerned about the sonic quality of the recordings they listen to, has essentially disappeared in this age of computers, iTunes, compressed digital music formats, and portable listening devices.

Go read his article, and then come back and comment.

I am old enough to have been through many stages in the evolution of sound recordings and listening. My folks had 78’s of classical music. I clearly remember hitting the record store in our little town to buy the latest 45-rpm single.

Most days I listened to Larry Lujack on WLS in Chicago to hear the “Top Ten Countdown,” and the record store had copies of the weekly singles chart to track how my favorite songs were doing. Of course, listening to music on AM-radio left something to be desired, but I had no idea. However, when FM stations came on the scene and played exhilarating music from mysterious bands no one knew about with greater fidelity, a whole new world of secret sonic satisfaction began to open to our generation.

My first record album was by the Kingston Trio. My first record player was one of those little boxes that looked like a suitcase. To say the least, it had its limitations. I still remember when a friend across the street had a Beatles’ stereo-45. I couldn’t play it on my monaural record player. The sound was unlistenable on the wrong equipment.

Of course, we all loved 33-rpm albums. Especially after Sgt. Pepper, when the idea of the “concept” album really took off. Listening to an album was a journey, not a one-stop destination. We knew the order of the songs and the transitions between them as well as we knew the songs themselves. The album art was always great too; the packaging made for a satisfying all-around sensory experience.

Then in my early teens the question was: cassette or 8-track? 8-track had better sound quality, but several annoying characteristics as well, including the strange choice of record producers to have tracks change right in the middle of a song! I had an 8-track player first. When it worked, I liked it. But it had a lot of flutter and proved unreliable.

At one point, my best friend had a reel-to-reel recorder. We spent weekends recording albums on it. Remember the “Paul is dead” hoax? We listened to Abbey Road backwards and felt like real detectives as we tried to figure out the mystery.

As we moved to cassettes, sharing music started to become popular. We’d make mix tapes of our favorite songs, creating our own albums. Cassette decks in our cars made music portable for the first time. Then came boomboxes, Sony Walkman players, and we’ve never slowed down or traveled anywhere without a soundtrack since.

I bought my first real stereo after we got married. Living in Vermont, without TV, we liked to listen to music and public radio. It was time to get a good outfit. I can’t tell you how obsessed I was with getting just the right set. Of course I had a (severely) limited budget, but that didn’t stop me from looking far and wide, in every stereo shop and catalogue, for the best tuner (Onkyo TX4500), turntable, cassette deck, and speakers I could find.

And I got a good one. Man, I kept those speakers for over 20 years!

Eventually we got a CD-player and a newer tuner, replaced components that broke, upgraded those that didn’t, and got some newer speakers. I’ve never been able to afford to keep up with the technology and new features, so somewhere back in the 90’s I got stuck and haven’t advanced much further.

Of course, we have entered the digital music age, and I have my iPods and use them almost exclusively for listening to music now. Plambeck’s article brought back memories of slumming around stereo shops, oohing and aahing over the transcendent sound of the best equipment. I’d carry a handful of albums with me, and listen to how different styles of music sounded on different systems. It was all about the sound.

Not any more. Plambeck writes:

The last decade has brought an explosion in dazzling technological advances — including enhancements in surround sound, high definition television and 3-D — that have transformed the fan’s experience. There are improvements in the quality of media everywhere — except in music.

In many ways, the quality of what people hear — how well the playback reflects the original sound— has taken a step back. To many expert ears, compressed music files produce a crackly, tinnier and thinner sound than music on CDs and certainly on vinyl. And to compete with other songs, tracks are engineered to be much louder as well.

In one way, the music business has been the victim of its own technological success: the ease of loading songs onto a computer or an iPod has meant that a generation of fans has happily traded fidelity for portability and convenience. This is the obstacle the industry faces in any effort to create higher-quality — and more expensive — ways of listening.

Don’t get me wrong. I love my iPod. For all kinds of reasons, including the amazing ways it makes music accessible and portable. But I gotta tell you, I miss a lot of the simple pleasures of music listening I’ve known along the way. Technology has its advantages, but with every gain there are losses as well.

I guess I miss the journey and the thrill of new discoveries most of all.

One of these days, I might just get back on the road to search for that perfect sound.


  1. Debbie W. says

    My dear husband upgrades crossovers (speaker networks) on legacy gear as a side job. He does a lot of work for a lot of people who still desire high fidelity.

    Interestingly enough, there is a large market for high res music downloads, and several companies are now catering to this market, one of which is hdtracks.com.

    You don’t have to sacrifice quality for portability anymore!

  2. I agree. Hi-fi sound (I’m dating myself with this term) is better than MP3.

    But not to worry. With the volume they’re playing worship music at these days in most churches, most young Christians will have suffered substantial hearing loss (esp. in the ranges that a quality sound system brings out) so they won’t be able to tell or appreciate the difference between iTunes and a $20,000 pair of speakers matched with a high-end amplifier when they are able to afford a good sound system. I.e., they won’t need it ’cause it won’t do them any good.

    I’m not kidding. We left one church after awhile, one reason being that we had to wear 32db ear plugs during worship. A friend who still goes to that church has visited over a dozen churches within driving distance to find one that had a safe volume level, and finally gave up looking for one, because there wasn’t one. She’s still at the church, but she has to arrive after the “worship” (aka rock band performance) is done, and she hates that fact, because she loves worship time. My wife and I walked into one church we had decided to visit, and after arriving in the “sanctuary” we just kept on walking out the side door, because the music was too loud. Another church had a thumping bass note bouncing around my stomach the whole (mercifully short!) time of the worship. Three years of a capella Psalm/hymn-chanting in the Orthodox Church spoiled us against loud worship, but what we came back to when we returned to Protestantworld was not just as loud as what we had left, but LOUDER! I guess they had to crank up the volume so they could be heard by all those whose hearing had gotten worse during those 3 years. 🙂

    The hearing damage churches are doing to young kids is worse healthwise than second-hand smoke, but no one says/does anything about it or cares. C’est la vie, I guess.

    [/rant] 😐

    • There is a neurological/chemical component to hearing loud music and the resulting emotional response… dopamine levels increase with loud music. Our amazing brains are a lot more complicated than just this simple cause and effect relationship (dopamine is involved in many things, most of which I don’t understand very well :)) but the end result is that there is an emotional “high” associated with the experience of listening to loud music.

      EricW, you brought up the trend of the music in these churches being even louder than when you first left them. With modern worship having such a strong correlation with emotional response, it’s not unreasonable to speculate on a reason for this outside of sheer loss of hearing. Fairly recent developments in neuropsychology and neurophysiology have strongly indicated a process where the threshold needed for stimulation (in this case, of dopamine) grows with over-stimulation. Applied to this case, if the goal is an emotional response in a worship service, eventually you have to crank up the volume to really “feel it.”

      The wisdom and desirability of manufacturing a (weekly) emotional response from worship deserves a post all on it’s own, but the point I guess I am looking at the potential consequences of all of this. I’m wondering if my generation of Christians will still be able to hear the “still, small voice”… or if that won’t be exciting enough.

      • “ARE the potential consequences…” that’s what I get for not re-reading before posting 🙂

        • Not to be a stickler for grammar 🙂 but since the verb has to go with “the point” it should be,
          “the point I guess I am looking at IS the potential consequences.” Can’t really say — within the framework of English grammar — “the point ARE” … 🙂

          • I guess that’s what i get for not re-reading or checking to see if the verb agreed the second time around… 🙂

      • Headless Unicorn Guy says

        Fairly recent developments in neuropsychology and neurophysiology have strongly indicated a process where the threshold needed for stimulation (in this case, of dopamine) grows with over-stimulation.

        As in an addiction-tolerance response. Where you have to seek greater and greater levels of sensation for the same high, until even cutting yourselves with knives while screaming to Baal isn’t enough and you end up a Cenobite in one of the Hellraiser movies.

  3. I have as large an audiophile fetish as my very limited budget will allow (an inherited trait… passed down from my dad). Chaplain Mike, I completely resonated with your search for “just the right set up”… although mine involves eBay and websites of high end audio gear providers and the hunt for a good device to bypass the factory digital to analog converter my iPod 🙂 Same search, different generation…

    And, since I am under 30 (not by much, but who’s counting…) I am the oddity among my peers in that I still have full frequency spectrum in my hearing. I have had to guard it zealously for sure, but thank God I can still hear all those things in the music that made me fall in love with the art form in the first place. Most of my peers don’t listen to music that would sound better uncompressed anyway and, if they did, I’m not sure they would (or could) hear a large difference. If you are looking a business to start in the next 10-20 years, go to school to be an audiologist and prepare yourself for a long career of fitting hearing aids.

    • That’s been my thought, too. All of today’s young rockin’ Christians will be needing them or cochlear implants by the time they’re 50.

  4. Isaac Rehberg (the poster formerly known as Obed) says

    I’m at that strange border age between being part of the “buster” generation and the “bridger” generation. I’m one of the few in my age bracket that hasn’t gone 100% iPod. In fact, the only mp3 player I have is on my cell phone (ironically, a Sony Walkman Phone by Ericsson). Part of my die-hard loyalty to CDs is because they were the vinyl records of my generation. Good sound quality, cover art, etc. And part of it is because as a musician, I am an absolute freak about tone. If I had the money to sink into a good hi-fi system, I’d probably go back to vinyl.

    In the home recording “industry,” we have many engineers telling us to lay off the compression-for-the-sake-of-loud-volume trap (compression as in the sound processing effect, not the computer information thing… but it’s essentially a similar concept). They tell us that folks should just turn up their systems if our less-compressed music is softer. But, y’know, when I did some less compressed demos, many friends complained that it wasn’t loud enough.

    That said, I remember when Metallica recently released a ridiculously compressed album, the fans started a petition to have them remaster it with more dynamics and less compression!

    But, really, once any of that gets transferred to mp3… forget it; it doesn’t even matter at that point. And that’s probably one reason I’ll never by a $5000 amplifier or a $10,000 guitar. It totally doesn’t matter anymore.

  5. I work in radio, so I’m sort of forced to be an audiophile to an extent. I still listen to a ton of music in MP3/Ipod formats, but if encoded right (not at 128kbps, which we were told would be good enough) the differences can be minor enough to be considered a good trade-off. I prefer the music off of a CD or record, but they’re not as easy to take on a car trip or out walking.

    But before we complain about MP3s “killing” the audio quality, there’s a whole lot of musical issues before and after the conversion. Engineers have been pressured into the “Loudness Wars” (Google it for a long answer) for quite awhile, to the point that much of the dynamics of a song are taken out long before it gets to the listener. Listen to a CD from the late 80s/early 90s and compare it to something recent — I just had an un-remastered Parliament song playing next to a current rock band on my IPod, and I had to turn down the new song because it was much louder. We’ve got songs in our station’s library that are complete “bricks” when displayed as a Wave form….which is also part of the complaint about modern worship music production: There’s no variance and no subtly anymore. Everything is a wall-of-reverberating sound.

    The other thing is the quality of the speakers. I know the little white earbuds look hip and all, but they sound like tin cans. No, you don’t need your father’s 1/4″ headsets from the turntable to get a good sound, but even a little effort goes a long way.

    (And before the “get off my lawn” jokes kick in, I’m just barely into my 30s – but I also remember AM Radio music. If done right it can rival FM, but there’s little incentive anymore.)

    • Debbie W. says

      The other thing is the quality of the speakers. I know the little white earbuds look hip and all, but they sound like tin cans. No, you don’t need your father’s 1/4″ headsets from the turntable to get a good sound, but even a little effort goes a long way.

      Justin, Check out the Klipsch Image series “in ear headset.” Award winning, audiophile quality sound is now possible w/ micro-technology. They are pricey but allows one to be hip and still get a sweet sound!

  6. gomergirl says

    i LOVE music. but i really do not think too much about the technology. i use a zune (yes, i’m anti apple) and i use the zune marketplace to purchase and download music. they have a great seal where you pay a flat fee to listen to as much music as you can, as long as you listen on a zune or computer. this way i can listen to anything from modern worship to the who to chanticleer- and they are all on my zune- for me it’s about the art of the music, not the technology. but that is just me. i totally get where you all are. i’m like that with other things.

  7. I agree with Justin V that the problem is not primarily loud worship music in church — most of us don’t spend more than a couple of hours a week in church — but the overall loudness competition. Most kids will listen to loud music outside church a lot more than inside church.

    That said, I am perhaps a-typical because unless it was in a concert I never sat down to listen to music — it was always a backdrop to something else, and much of the time the ambient noise level was such that I wouldn’t have noticed quality differences anyway. Consequently HIFI was never a major interest or goal of mine.

    My main problem with earbuds is not the quality either, but the isolation they produce — you are effectively cut off from everything except the music you’re listening to, and that very often has a very antisocial effect.

    Today I listen to music mostly on my iPhone, using earphones which hang over the ears and sit lightly against the ear with a soft rubber edge; next to the membrane which produces the sound there are holes which let outside sounds through so I can still be acoustically aware of my surroundings.

  8. A few years ago a friend of mine invited me over to check out his new hi-fi set up. It had a turntable, cd machine, old school amp, and studio monitors from the 70’s. We just sat and listened to jazz fusion (a genre I was not then aware of) and classic rock all on vinyl. He put in a CD to show me the difference, and there was one. Real high fidelity sound is something special, it was a lot of fun to just sit and let the music wash over you. However, it’s so expensive to get that level of quality that it’s just not practical. Most home theater or computer sound systems are good enough for me, also much lower maintenance. That was a refreshing and fun post CM!

  9. The best sound quality is still available in the same place it’s always been: at live performances.

    The best sound experience of all is an orchestra, chamber group or other acoustic performance. And acoustic doesn’t mean the same as “Unplugged.” What you want is a small enough venue that the performer is right there in front of you with no microphones in sight.

    As far as the decline in recorded sound, I’m with everybody else. To me, though the big issue is speakers. No doubt the technology has improved, but there’s no way to get big sound out of a tiny package. Speakers ought to be just a little smaller than the couch. The ones I’m listening to right now (Watch What You’re Doing, by Larry Norman) are just a little bigger than a deck of cards.

    • MAJ Tony says

      Not really true. Try a Tivoli Henry Kloss Model 1 or 2. They’re made of good hardwood and have both primary front-firing speakers as well as rear-firing bass ports that expand the sound tremendously for a box that’s smaller than a shoebox. Other really good options aside from overpriced Bose consumer-grade stuff are Boston Acoustics radios and Sangean Wood Radios.

  10. I’m actually encouraged by some of the changes. For years, high-end audiophiles like myself have wanted higher-resolution digital source material to match the quality of vinyl without the surface noise. With a computer-based solution, that’s possible without needing a new shiny disk format (which was tried and failed). CD’s were a compromise in the first place, but that’s the only physical digital format that made it. By removing the physical disk, the problem of finding a market for a new product disappears. Anyone can offer files for download.

    My own system is built around a Mac Mini running iTunes. I have uncompressed CD images ripped from my CD’s on a hard drive, and the computer feeds the digital stream out to an outboard digital-to-analog converter using an optical connection. This setup perfectly duplicates the sound of the CD’s with the convenience of iTunes (for the audiophiles out there: Krell, Kimber, Perpetual Technologies, B&W).

    It also allows me to add music files of a higher resolution, and the hardware will support higher resolution music files as they become available. So vendors who provide higher quality recordings can market right away to computer audiophiles. Since most popular music is a wasteland anyway, the fact that these vendors sell mostly jazz and classical music is not a problem.

    And besides, the mainstream popular music industry markets for car stereos and portables, not the high-end. Most of the problems with MP3’s are created in the studio, not in the encoding process. I have numerous Mobile Fidelity remasters on CD that sound very good as 128KB AAC files on my iPod, within the limits of the device. When something sounds bad at the source, having it on a high-res format won’t make it sound better.

    I actually think the situation is more cultural. A long time ago, a good stereo was the high-status technical device. Now it’s the computer, smartphone or music player. High-end audio won’t die but it will become even more of a niche hobby than before. But for folks coming into the hobby, who like music reproduced well, there’s plenty of excellent gear out there and great sounding music to play on it. You just have to look beyond your iPod.

    • Therese Z says

      The problem is that if I start committing to downloads to my computer and ipod instead of buying CD’s or LP’s of everything and transferring it to my computer and ipod, then when new gear comes out to play better music, I’ll be stuck with the MP3’s and the detail just isn’t in those files, is it?

      Side note: the Chicago record stores’ weekly paper updates – the Silver Dollar Surveys! I wish I’d kept some, just tucked them into record albums.

      • That’s why I use the AIFF format in iTunes and rip my CD’s in the native uncompressed CD format, so I don’t lose anything from the original disk. Takes about 600MB per disk, but hard drives are cheap. Make sure to have parallel and offsite backups!

  11. As a side note:

    I’m a classically trained singer. My #1 pet peeve is the way technology can take a voice, any voice, and make it sing well and on key.

    I worked years and years and years to smooth out the breaks in my voice, establish a consistent colour between head voice and chest voice, sing on key, and sing under any and all circumstances. With barely discernable breathing, no less! and so you can understand the words. because it’s singing and the words are there for a reason!

    ARGH!!! And now, the most untrained voice can be morphed electronically to do all that at the flip of some switches…

    Give me Lena Horne and Elly Ameling and Maria Callas and Marian Anderson on vinyl on my old Bang and Olufson…and I am one Happy Camper! 🙂

    • Debbie W. says

      I feel ya! All that hard work… but like someone said above, the live performance is where it’s at! You and I won’t have to lip sync to our digi sound voice when we sing live. 😉

    • Quixotequest says

      Artists like those are great because they are artists. Technology may help smooth over some craftsmanship flaws but it cannot create the nuances of art, performance and charisma. Granted, a good producer can help with artfulness and stage stuff, and combine with technical wonders to process a sound good enough to sell to many people. Perhaps only for a record or two, though.

      An artist will still have a special something more than that. If an artist is merely an (exceptional) craftsman, then perhaps technology competition can push them to begin to create a little more. (Easier said than done, I know. Look at all the talented people oozing out of every cranny of Nashville and LA.)

    • Headless Unicorn Guy says

      Years ago, there used to be a commercial (I don’t know what for) set in a recording studio. The Celebrity singer is recording something — completely tone-deaf, in a voice like fingernails on a chalkboard. The sound-mixer deferentially thanks her for her presence, does his thing with the soundboard, and records a perfectly-voiced, perfectly-pitched track for the final mix.

  12. My sister-in-law does wedding and portrait photography. She’s noticed the same thing in the photo industry… only grandma wants to order the portrait to hang on her wall. Everyone else just wants the tiny, low-res sample images from the website to download to their smartphones and facebook profile. The whole business model of selling quality images from high-res files or from the “negatives” – typically kept as property of the photographer – has gone out the window.

  13. Headless Unicorn Guy says

    I’m no audiophile. As long as it’s understandable and not scratchy, I’m satisfied. But there’s another thing I see on the horizon that worries me:

    Lag. In a lot of digital media (like when I listen online), the sound cuts in and out intermittently and randomly due to online lag. THAT’s what drives me crazy.

    What happens when you get a generation to whom in-and-out lag is normal? They won’t be able to understand a live or non-digitally-recorded performance because those are continuous. They’ll expect the music to cut in and out, the visuals to freeze and/or pixilate. Will we be able to understand a continuous piece or music or a story, or only if lag breaks it up into two-or-three-second bites separated by moments of silence or noise?

  14. My wife and I were just commenting recently that we never just sit and listen to music anymore. We used to do this all the time. We’d buy the latest Phil Keaggy (only one per year back then), put it on the turntable, get out the liner notes from the LP sleeve, and just listen. Almost never happens anymore.

    I’ve been noticing for years the deteriorating quality of speakers that are available in stores– these days you can’t even find them– and the speaker quality on these boxed surround-sound systems just sucks. No other word for it.

    Yes, I’m a musician. Yes, I have an ipod. Yes, I still have a turntable and an analog receiver. Yes, I’m on a worship team, and Yes, I hate the loud volume. And I really, really hate change. Unless it’s cheaper or easier! 🙂

  15. I fell in love with music back in the waning days of vynyl — and despite the cracks and pops, there’s just something about vynyl on a good turn-table with hi-fi speakers or high quality headphones that brought the music alive in a way that tapes and even CD’s haven’t quite reproduced. I would lock myself in a my room for hours, spin Kansas’s Leftoverture or Yes’s Fragile or Rush’s 2112, and get lost in the musical landscapes. As far as downloaded music these days, the sound just isn’t the same — though I must admit that I love putting my MP3 on random select and enjoying my own personalized radio station. Overall, I think that most of the music major studios are putting out these days is too clinically perfect and uniform, and the messy nuances of true musicianship are too often cleaned out of the mix. Sadly, I fear the science of music production is killing the art, rather than enhancing it.

  16. Groovy article, Chaplain Mike! Listening was an activity for me, too. I was a moderate audiophile, with the disc washers and anti-static guns, always keeping my LP’s upright, swapping out record sleeves that needed to be preserved, etc. A good pair of headphones were a must. I used to lay on the living room floor for hours listening to the sound. Pre-kids days, of course.

    I haven’t got into the iPod scene and downloading of music much at all, as I’m more old school, listening to CD’s. But the stuff I have encountered is like you say, a decreased quality of sound. It makes me uninterested in getting into it all. Also with the electronic stuff and backing up, I prefer a hard copy.

    My first 45’s as a kid were Three Dog Night’s “The Show Must Go On” and (gag) John Denver’s “Sunshine on My Shoulder.” My first LP’s were Boston’s debut album and Foreigner’s “Double Vision” in junior high. Well, that dates me pretty well. Rock on, man.

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