One of the fascinating effects of today’s technology world, is the way we mix sound. Most people are not aware of this, but music today sounds widely different than it did 20 years ago. Everyone is aware that we changed from LPs and CDs to streaming. Some people might have heard about the vinyl revival, but most people do not understand where this came from.
If you follow the media and read stories about the vinyl revival, they typically like to write about people wanting to “own” their music and vinyl is a great format to do that. It has a beautiful large sleeve and ample space for lyrics. The other angle they write about is the act of playing. It’s more gratifying to select a record, put it down on the turntable and drop the needle on the vinyl.
Now all of these reasons are valid, but it’s not where the revival came from. It stems from the way we mix music today and vinyl typically is mixed differently. Let alone old records which you can pick up from thrift stores for a few dollars. For the avid collectors there’s Discogs. Their market place has 35 million records for sale.
The way we experience music has changed significantly since early 90s. We used to live in a world with decent sized speakers with wooden cabinets to a world where we experience music through closed headphones and bluetooth speakers. The sound reproduction of these devices is widely different than what we had before. Musicians figured out that the mixing of their music had to be different to be fully enjoyed on these devices. Inherently the devices we use today lack dynamics. Lower level sounds were drowned out or not even reproduced at all. Apple’s standard earbuds and airpods are a great example of this. They can reproduce voices really well , but are terrible at reproducing sound dynamics. Most soundbars and bluetooth speakers have poor stereo separation as well. Many of them are just mono speakers.
Poor dynamics and stereo separation created the need for compression. Compressed music sounds much more enjoyable on these types of devices an has become the default for sound mixing. It arguable created more “loud” music and makes older music sound bland in comparison. Not everyone is happy with that development and they call it the loudness war because artists try to outdo each other in how loud their album is.
For audiophiles like me, it’s a sad situation though. Modern albums are not as fun to listen to. Every track blends into the next one. There is less “emotion” in music with loud and quiet passages – there’s just a wall of sound. This is the reason we tend to flock to vinyl which is often mixed less loud due to technical limitations of the format and because the publishers know that vinyl buyers have different expectations. It’s not about cover or act of playing. We all love streaming and pushing a button to select and listen to our favorite music. It’s solely because of loudness and compression of the sound mix.