Is Music Getting Louder?

Shopping at Kohl’s is always a dodgy proposition for many reasons, not the least of which is that I feel like the music playing overhead is assaulting me whenever I’m there. Though saying so may put me in the category of “cranky old man,” I can’t help feeling that the music in that store is just too loud — so loud, in fact, that I can rarely remember what I stopped in to buy in the first place. (Socks? Underpants? A new bow tie?)

The problem, of course, isn’t just isolated to the shopping experience at Kohl’s. Everywhere I go, I feel like music is louder than it used to be. And it turns out that I might be right — not just because someone in some back office is cranking up the volume on the in-store sound system, but because the nature of recorded music has changed.

I was working on some music of my own the other day when I decided to check the sound quality of my own work against the sound of another artist. So I picked a track called “Watching the Detectives” from Elvis Costello‘s My Aim Is True CD and loaded it into the program I use to record my own music (Adobe Audition). When Audition rendered the song visually, it looked like this:


“Watching the Detectives” by Elvis Costello. 1993 Rykodisc reissue.

What you’re seeing in this image is essentially how loud the song sounds as it’s playing. The X-axis represents time, and the Y-axis represents amplitude or loudness. As you can see, the amplitude goes up and down a lot over the course of the song, and just past the 2:40 mark, you can see that the song gets quiet before getting loud again.

Musicians refer to this up and down movement as a reflection of musical dynamics, and the difference between the lowest low-point and the highest high-point can be described as a song’s “dynamic range.”

Dynamics lend drama to music. That’s why classical music scores include symbols that tell musicians to play quietly in some places and loudly in others.

The same goes for movie scores. Sometimes the sudden juxtaposition of loud and quiet music can add immensely to the atmosphere of a movie. Think, for example, of any scene in a horror movie just before a monster jumps out of the shadows… Quiet, foreboding music leading up to… LOUD SCARY MUSIC AT JUST THE RIGHT MOMENT!

All of this is to say that the Elvis Costello track illustrated above has a nice dynamic range that complements the mood of the song. It’s also worth noting that the song was originally recorded in 1976 in a fairly basic recording studio, and that the version above was digitized in 1993 for release as a CD from Rykodisc.

By way of contrast, let’s take a look at another track I used as a reference the last time I was working on some music. This one is a more-recently recorded song (2016) called “Gone Insane” by Lucius (another favorite of mine). One thing to keep in mind is that though the title might imply that it’s a crazy rocker a la Black Sabbath’s “Paranoid,” it’s actually a fairly poppy take on love gone wrong. Here’s what it looks like:


“Gone Insane” by Lucius (2016)

One thing you’ll notice if you compare this image to the first one is that (in line with my initial theory), it’s louder. The amplitude of the Elvis Costello track generally peaked at around -3 db (with a few peaks a little higher than that), and this one appears to be consistently peaking at or near 0 db.

Additionally, this track isn’t just louder. Its dynamics are different. Where the amplitude of the Elvis Costello track shifted considerably from one second to the next, the amplitude of this track stays consistently high. Granted, there are a few instances in the song where the dynamics shift dramatically and to good effect. The first is around the 1:10 mark, the second around 1:55, and the third for the stretch between 2:50 and 3:50. In fact, that dynamic shift in the middle gives the song a nice bit of dramatic tension before it shifts back to a higher amplitude in its final thirty seconds. Overall, though, the song’s amplitude stays consistently high.

When I saw the difference between these two tracks, I checked out another track, “Default” by Django Django, which was released in 2012. Here’s what it looked like:


“Default” by Django Django (2012)

Again, the amplitude and dynamics of this one are considerably different from those of the Elvis Costello track. Once again, we’re seeing consistently higher amplitude and shallower dynamics.

One thing that accounts for these differences is compression, a process that sound engineers use to eliminate peaks and raise valleys in amplitude. Essentially, by applying compression, sound engineers can increase amplitude or loudness, but that increase comes at the expense of dynamic range.

It’s probably safe to say that the music I’m hearing when I go to Kohl’s has been compressed — and probably compressed even more than the tracks by Lucius and Django Django that are illustrated above. In other words, music is actually getting louder.

But why?

One reason may be that the way we listen to music is changing. Back in 1993, when Rykodisc reissued Elvis Costello’s catalog, people mainly listened to CDs on home stereos, in their cars, or through headphones. These sound systems could handle music with a wide dynamic range fairly well.

Today, by way of contrast, people listen to music on a wider range of devices. While the iPod delivers music in much the same way as the Sony Walkman of old (i.e., through headphones), many people today listen to music on the tiny, tinny speakers built into their laptops, and others listen through the speakers built into their iPhones. My guess (and it’s only a guess) is that speakers like these aren’t great at handling highly dynamic music. As a result, the music needs to be compressed in order for it to sound as “present” as possible on today’s speakers.

I also wonder if advances in recording technology have allowed sound engineers to apply compression more liberally than they used to. My thinking is that older recordings (like “Watching the Detectives”) were made on analog tape machines, and that a certain degree of residual “tape hiss” made its way into those recordings. If a sound engineer applied too much compression, that hiss would be audible, but left at low levels, nobody would notice.

By way of contrast, today’s recordings are made digitally, so there’s no tape hiss. What’s more, sound editing programs make it fairly easy to eliminate unwanted noises, which means that sound engineers can compress the heck out of recordings without worrying that those unwanted noises will end up on the songs they’re producing. So if the goal is to make louder music that will sound good on a wider range of devices, there’s no reason not to use compression — other than the fact that too much of it can crush the dynamics of a song.

Again, these are only theories, so if anyone can shed light on any of this, please let me know! Based on what I’m seeing in these images, though, I can say with relative certainty that I’m not being paranoid…

The music in Kohl’s really is assaulting me!

Wherefore M. Zapatero?

As you may have noticed, my last few blog posts have included music attributed to M. Zapatero. It’s a name I’ve been thinking about using for a dozen years or so, ever since I found out that Zapatero is (more or less) Spanish for Schuster. I like the name for several reasons, one of which is that it begins with a Z and therefore reminds me of Zorro. I also like that the word “zap” is in it (as are the key ingredients of “zero“), and that it calls to mind the name of one of my musical heroes, Frank Zappa.

One of the reasons I decided to record (and write and perform) under another name is that a lot of my favorite performers have done the same thing: Elvis Costello (born Declan MacManus), Bob Dylan (born Robert Zimmerman), David Bowie (born David Jones), Gene Simmons (born Chaim Witz), Paul Stanley (born Stanley Eisen), and the Ramones (born Jeff Hyman, John Cummings, Doug Colvin,  and Tommy Erdelyi, aka Joey, Johnny, Dee Dee, and Tommy Ramone (not to mention Richard Reinhardt, Marc Bell, and Christopher John Ward, aka Richie, Marky, and CJ Ramone).

A bigger reason, though, is that I wanted to put some distance between myself and my artistic output. One thing I learned from writing a few books several years ago is that I hated the marketing end of things — “getting my name out there,” constantly trying to convince people to read what I’d written, and essentially turning myself into a product. But I kept at it anyway since, to some degree or another, I associated my success as a writer with my worth as a person.

Unfortunately, I wasn’t content to tell myself that I’d written books and stories that I considered good. Instead, I linked the quality of my writing to what people said about it. In this respect, risking a quick glance at Goodreads could be completely demoralizing, and so could visiting with certain book groups who had apparently invited me into their parlors for the sole purpose of raking me over some carefully arranged coals.

Yet while I certainly want to put some distance between myself and the slings and arrows of outrageous critics, the greater distance I want is between myself and the artificial persona that represents me online. The trouble with social media, as I see it, is that sites like Facebook and Twitter have a tendency to make us present ourselves in somewhat flat, two-dimensional ways.

Or maybe a better way to say this is that being on Facebook (and, to a lesser extent, Twitter) always made me feel like an advertisement for myself. Everything I posted always had to be awesome: pithy observations, links to interesting articles, exaggerated news of my literary accomplishments — all in the service of creating an oversimplified version of myself that was increasingly at odds with the real me.

Granted, a lot of people are good at being themselves online. I just don’t happen to be one of them. What I need for my own peace of mind is a construct that is explicitly not me — a character who shares many of my interests and concerns, but whom I can also hold at a critical distance.

Ultimately, then, Martin Zapatero is a fiction, kind of like the Demon, the Star Child, the Space Ace, or the Cat Man that the members of KISS became onstage, or like the character David Jones became when he became David Bowie and, in turn, Ziggy Stardust. I can send him (along with his music and writing) out into virtual world and go about my real life in peace.

Follow Martin Zapatero on Twitter: @ZapateroMusic

Read his blog:


How to Use Twitter to Tell a Story

By the time I read “How to Use Twitter to Publicly Humiliate an Attempted Adulterer” yesterday afternoon, the essay was already on its way to becoming the latest internet meme. Of course, I’m using the term “essay” loosely. More than anything, it’s a series of tweets strung together to tell the story of one woman’s encounter with a would-be adulterer. Yet over the course of 20 tweets, the woman in question, Melissa Stetten, gives us a complete (if somewhat tragic and embarrassing) narrative with a beginning, middle, and end.

What’s more, this brief narrative makes good use of Twitter’s unique format and takes full advantage of the application’s peculiarities. In short, it’s a piece written with both a particular medium and audience in mind: by playing to Twitter’s strengths, Stetten has written what is arguably the perfect Twitter narrative. By way of contrast, Jennifer Egan’s “Black Box,” which appears in the current issue of The New Yorker and which was tweeted with some degree of fanfare last week, is not.

This isn’t to say that Egan’s story is bad — not by any stretch of the imagination. “Black Box” is a highly engaging page-turner that does everything a good story should do. It gives us well-developed characters, creates a believable world, sets up tension, and resolves that tension in a satisfying way. Even on my best days, I wish I could write half as well Egan. My concern, however, is with the story’s form. Specifically, why was it tweeted? And why was the print version of the story made to look like a series of tweets — or cookie fortunes, depending on your point of reference?

With respect to the first question, I’m guessing it had something to do with the fact that this was the magazine’s special science-fiction edition, and what could be more sci-fi, more forward-looking and futuristic than telling a story via a medium that’s been around since 2006? Additionally, Egan is well-known for experimenting with different media to tell stories. One of the most memorable and moving chapters in A Visit from the Goon Squad, “Great Rock and Roll Pauses,” is written as a PowerPoint presentation, so conveying “Black Box” as a series of tweets probably seemed like a natural fit.

The problem, however, is that when Egan gave us a story in the form of a PowerPoint presentation, she took full advantage of PowerPoint’s unique qualities. Not only did she give us very few words per page, but she also gave us flow charts, graphs, blank pages, Venn diagrams, and other graphic representations of the narrator’s thoughts. That is, she pushed the PowerPoint format to its limits and created something new. She gave us art. “Black Box,” on the other hand, does none of these things, nor does it play with our understanding of how Twitter works or what it can do. In effect, it’s a PowerPoint presentation consisting only of text, a series of declarative sentences meant to be read in a particular order.

That is, it’s a traditional story.

That happens to be broken up.

Into short bursts.

To no apparent purpose.

Stetten’s tweeted narrative, however, offers more than a series of sentences, each of which is under 140 characters in length. Instead, it plays the same kinds of games that Egan’s “Great Rock and Roll Pauses” played. It gives us pictures and allows them to do some of the storytelling (as opposed to simply illustrating points). It offers links. It provides an IMDB bio and a revealing interview with the would-be adulterer. It also implies a degree of interaction between Stetten and her followers, as one tweet includes a response: “Yes, this is BRIAN!”

As readers — specifically as an audience steeped in the habit of reading tweets — we know how to fill in the blanks and figure out what’s going on in this short, sad narrative. In fact, we revel in it. Just as “Great Rock and Roll Pauses” was a joy to read because it forced us to gain our bearings and piece the narrative together little by little, Stetten’s narrative also engages by making us think not just about what we’re reading but, at some level, how we’re reading.

And this is where “Black Box” fails.