Some ears miss the warmth of records' snap, crackle, pop, so CDs makers add fake scratches

Music lovers crave pre-digital-era flaws

January 09, 2003|By Randy Lewis | Randy Lewis,SPECIAL TO THE SUN

What do rapper Eminem, country singer Toby Keith and the Transplants, an alternative-rock band, have in common?

Listen to some songs on their latest albums, and you'll pick up scratchy clues. Each CD features the kind of snaps, crackles and pops that marred the bygone era of vinyl records. But these noises were not caused by wear, tear or an inebriated party guest bumping into a phonograph. They were put there deliberately.

Today's pure-sounding digital CDs leave some musicians and listeners cold, like a hearth with a blazing fire that's all flame, no crackle or heat.

So, like furniture makers who pound, ding and scratch to make tables and chairs look time-ravaged, musicians and record producers are using computer technology to make songs captured in crystalline digital audio sound as if they've been spun on a cheap record player for years.

"A lot of contemporary recordings can sound very similar," says singer-songwriter Pete Yorn, whose modern-rock hit, "Life on a Chain," starts out sounding like a battered 78 rpm. "So, an old record that's very dirty sounding and all static-ky can sound pretty good when you put it on."

For some artists, surface noise is a way to make recordings stand out.

For others, it's a heartfelt nod to an earlier era, when records themselves, not just the music within their grooves, were cherished objects whose nicks and scars, like the dog-eared pages of a beloved book, attested to the years of enjoyment they'd given.

Computer-conjured imperfections can provide a shortcut to instant character, similar to the post-production tricks that make new movies look pitted and scratched black-and-white films.

The sound effect isn't new. Songs in the 1980s and 1990s by such rap artists as Public Enemy and the Black Sheep often retained the vinyl-based noises that accompanied the record samples of musical hooks.

Since then, the crackles and pops of vinyl have been heard on the songs of countless rap, R&B and pop acts, often placed for effect amid music through sampling. Today, the effect is being used by an even wider range of artists and producers.

Eminem tosses in vinyl noise at the start of "Without Me," the lively hit single from The Eminem Show, the best-selling album of 2002.

Toby Keith uses it on "Good to Go to Mexico" from Unleashed, one of the top-selling country collections.

The Transplants' "Diamonds and Guns," one of the hottest songs on alternative-rock stations, sounds as if it has taken a few too many rides on a turntable.

More hissing, ticks and assorted noises turn up on recent tracks by alt-rockers Wilco and Bright Eyes, pop singer-songwriter Lamya, even Johnny Cash.

"I think it's an answer to how pristine everything sounds today," says Jeff Greenberg, chief executive of the Village recording studio in Los Angeles, and vice president of the Society of Professional Audio Recording Services. "Everybody's striving for such technical perfection, they're forgetting that some of the greatest records in history were done in scratchy old mono. You could tell that the players put their hearts and souls into their playing."

Two decades ago, the music and consumer-electronics industries trumpeted a quantum leap in audio technology. The birth of digital recording and the invention of the compact disc as a playback medium would forever eliminate the pops and scratches that often came between music and music lovers. And unlike vinyl LPs, CDs would never wear out.

But a funny thing happened on the way to sonic perfection: Some people found they missed the noise.

"If it's your vinyl, all those scratches mean it's your soundtrack," says Pete Howard, publisher of ICE , a monthly publication for music junkies.

Says Greenberg: "It puts a record into a frame of reference that suddenly orients you toward another time as well as a specific sound."

With digital recordings, "there's almost too much clarity, so you hear everything separately ... and sometimes that's a little distracting to the music," says Eric Persing, creative director of Spectrasonics, a software manufacturer in Burbank, Calif. He's the inventor of Stylus, the company's software that allows vinyl noise effects to be added during editing.

"Some aspects of older recordings make them a more pleasant way to listen to the music," he said. "The brain is not trying to focus on all the individual elements, so it can focus on the song."

Although CDs long ago replaced LPs and cassette tapes as the music industry's dominant format, a cult of vinyl worshipers persists. These fans say that so-called analog recordings, pressed on vinyl, sound warmer and capture performances more faithfully than do digital CDs.

Analog recording transforms sound waves into electrical signals that are etched into the grooves of the vinyl disc and converted back into sound waves by a phonograph needle, amplifier and loudspeakers.

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