Sounding Off Joe Levy

Joe Levy, a veteran music writer and the newly-appointed editor-in-chief of Blender magazine, has keenly observed the music industry throughout its digital transformation. He's seen it all - from the last spools of magnetic tape to studio techniques that compress songs until they sound like Burger King commercials. We asked him to set his beater to frappé and share his thoughts on the old sounds, the new noise, the direction the industry is going in and what happened when Axl met Pro Tools. Besides Botox and braids. Interview by John Capone

Most blockbuster albums are digital from recording through distribution. Should we be concerned that digital technology is affecting the creative process?

Absolutely. Music on CD ushered in a wave of sound compression - music that sounds louder, pops out of the speakers. MP3s have added compression on top of compression. The dynamic range of the music is severely compromised - almost everything you hear is squashed into the same loud space, like a commercial on TV. That tells you all you need to know, since we all skip the commercials, right?

In essence, we're talking about music made on computers to be played on computers. Is it any wonder that we humans are so easily bored by it?

In a recent commemoration of the 20th anniversary of "Welcome to the Jungle," a producer is quoted as saying that it might have been the last epic rock album to be recorded on 3/4-inch tape. Aside from the recent White Stripes singles collection and a few other anomalies, we don't hear much music that has been touched by human hands anymore. Are the old recording methods really gone?

Possibly. GN'R wanted to make a classic album the classic way. But even then it was on its way out, replaced by cheaper, faster technology.

We've reached the point where it's hard to make an album that way today because no one even manufactures the tape anymore. Sad.

How has the music industry adapted to changing technology?

Late, for one thing. The industry's recent move to DRM-free MP3s may be the first time it has responded to its listeners' desires. Good, even if it has more to do with the industry's relationship with Apple than its consumers. But in the industry's defense, an entire business model has been digitally vaporized. That's pretty tough to adapt to.

In your opinion, what's the biggest positive that has come from the digital switch?

Convenience and variety. More music, more portable than ever. And fewer of those damned, useless CD jewel cases.

Who has this shift helped?

The digital shift empowers listeners and musicians. It puts them in charge and connects them instantly - musicians can make an album (or song) on a laptop and distribute it at virtually no cost.

But it's hurt everyone who used to be in charge.

What's your biggest fear about the end of analog?

Sentimentally, I'll miss the sound of analog. It's warmer, bigger, more dynamic - all the things audiophiles say it is. No one in the music industry denies that all that digital compression cuts out highs and lows in the sound, but they don't necessarily connect that flattened sound to flattened sales. There's a real worry there.

But I don't hate MP3s - for one thing, it'd be like arguing with the wind. Waste of time and doesn't change anything. And MP3s give the average kid access to a music library more vast than the greatest record store in the world. That's amazing, and we're just at the start of what that can mean, both creatively and commercially.

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