Tuesday, April 19, 2005

Why Vapor Trails sounds like noise

The most recent Rush album, Vapor Trails, is a return to the intensity of Exit Stage Left and from a songwriting standpoint is in some ways an advance. The lyrics reflect Peart's harrowing losses of his wife and daughter since Counterparts and are probably his best. And Lifeson's guitars are front and center.

But it's hard for me to listen to more than a few songs in a row, and I used to think the arrangements were not transparent. Now I've learned the truth from Rip Rowan:

Rush album db(t) Posted by Hello

The article is excellent - you don't have to be a Rush fan to appreciate it. In it, Rowan says that the album's sound was likely a money-driven decision made by the record label. However, I was recently told by someone who spoke to someone from the house that mastered the album that the band sent the recording out to a bunch of places and picked the sound they liked best. Something like that, anyway.

Supposedly there's talk of a more conventional mastering of Vapor Trails being released. In the meantime I'll have to go listen to the album again, as soon as the friend who borrowed it gives it back. Perhaps there's an artistic reason for the muddy sound and clipped drum transients. Probably I'll still think it's a great album that happens to sound awful, leaving it only near-great.


Anonymous Le Chien Sale said...

Another reason I can think of for compressing the dynamic range is because people listen to CD's in their cars. Some CD players have a "compress dynamic range" button that helps in a car. Otherwise, classical music, for example, is a disaster in a car. (At least in my not-so-quiet 1989 corolla.)

What I didn't understand is that CD's have at least a 90 dB signal to noise ratio. There should be plenty of room for peaks without clipping. What am I missing here?

21/4/05 11:26  
Blogger rilkefan said...

Well, but people's likelihood of listening to Rush in the car has not grown over the last albums, and as you note car cd players may be able to flatten the dynamic range as is.

Another idea is reducing the range for radio play - but I'd guess Rush relies less on radio exposure than they did 25 years ago.

So the point is presumably that you have your cd player's volume set to 17, like me, and when you put in Vapor Trails you experience a very loud sound, the thing the people who invented the orchestra were reaching for.

And of course there's something expressive in an unvaried dynamic. And the clipping could also be expressive - "play as loud as possible then louder than possible" - like the cello line in a Schubert piece that tries to resolve below the instrument's range and is forced upwards.

Or the clipping might be intended to evoke old recordings, or garage recordings, or 8-tracks, or who know what.

Finally, note that Rush has long felt a tension between meticulous perfectionism and a more emotional, freer, less perfect performance - esp. in their live music - and this spoiling of the sound might be intended to make the album seem less calculated.

Maybe if a new mastering is released we'll get a better handle on this question.

24/4/05 21:32  

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