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Thursday, November 6, 2014

I Love Taylor Swift, But Her New Album Sounds Terrible and I Might Hate It

Posted By on Thu, Nov 6, 2014 at 3:21 AM

Page 2 of 2

Here's the deal: I can hardly even get to the songwriting or the lyrics because my ears are rejecting the actual sound of the album. If I try to play it at normal volume, my ears -- I swear -- literally hurt and feel like they are physically clamping shut. It just sounds way too...high? Shrill? Screechy? I tried it on my home stereo. I tried it in my car. I tried it on my phone. I tried it with earbuds. I tried it with my amazing-sounding fancy vintage headphones. Nope. Every single time I tried to play it, I caught myself wincing and reaching for the volume button to make it go away.

How in the heck is this possible? At first, I reasoned that this album was mixed for ears quite a few years younger (and less rock & roll-damaged) than mine, but upon deeper reflection that didn't make any sense. Aren't kids supposed to hear higher sounds better than adults? That's how they use those secret ringtones and whatnot, right? So by that logic, this album should hurt their ears even more than mine. And I'm not cruel enough to play 1989 around a dog or other animal with exceptional hearing, but I'd be interested in knowing their reaction.

As one does, I took my whining to Facebook, hoping that someone could explain to me what my problem was with this damn album. My many musician friends had their theories, and a friend linked me a to an article where another writer had the same problem. Other Googling led to many blog posts and complaints that were similar to mine. And still others were unsure about her new pop sound. Thank you! You're never alone when you have the Internet, friends.

My searching led me to something called the "acoustic reflex." I think that's my problem. It's "an involuntary muscle contraction that occurs in the middle ear of mammals in response to high-intensity sound stimuli." Yep. Exactly.

As it turns out, there are a bunch of possible scientific explanations for what feels like my ears screaming, clamping down and then going dull. Further research brought me to topics like listener fatigue ("thought to be an extension of the quantifiable psychological perception of sound") and I even have some high-tech theories related to something called "Fletcher-Munson curves."

I decided to bring in an audio expert. (And obvious full disclosure here: a friend.) I'd been engaged in a years-long conversation with Mario Viele (of St. Louis band Sex Robots) about Taylor Swift. He's a highly skilled engineer, mix engineer and producer currently based in New York, but he's also a Swift fan, too, and therefore uniquely qualified to speak on the subject. We'd been texting each other for days about the new album and I asked him to go on the record to explain the problem with my ears.

For the most part, these songs sound weirdly like '90s club hits to me. Reminiscent of, like, Danity Kane or those boys bands or something. It's an unexpected observation that was backed up by Viele's musical knowledge. His smart (and fun) answers to my confused questions are below.


Jaime Lees: Why does the new Taylor Swift album hurt my ears? And what does "Mastered for iTunes" mean, exactly? Explain it to me like I don't know anything about audio production-- because I don't.

Mario Viele: You don't need to know anything about production to get the vibe here; the neon all over the artwork says it all. It's mixed bright and hyped like a Hollywood nightclub, with full intent to pop and buzz and shine.

Mastered for iTunes -- which is a process -- is different than mixing and mastering for the iTunes age, which is more of a concept. Now, a separate master is often made from the source mixes direct to iTunes quality, skipping the CD master stage and resulting in a "better" inferior format. It's not exactly ideal, nor is it a terrible thing. It's kinda like sonic sex ed -- don't tell the kids not to when they're just gonna anyway.

The "Mastered for iTunes" that you will see tagged on this album in the iTunes store means that instead of having a middle man in the mastering stage -- the CD master -- a master was encoded direct to the iTunes AAC format from the source mixes, retaining higher bit rates and sampling rates than CDs contain, yet AAC is a less desirable and more compressed format than CD audio. It's controversial for these basic reasons.

What is bugging you is probably more the production technique -- what I'd call mixing and mastering for the iTunes age -- which is an aesthetic choice by the team that you as a listener are being objective about. There are moments on the record (notably: the hooks) where compression is used as a tool to excite the track.

Think of a pipe: There is only so much water pressure that can go through it. Imagine that pipe pushed to it's fullest limit, shaking and spurting water from its valves. That's kind of the sentiment, but done in a deliberate way with a high grade pipe that can handle the pressure. So it's more implied than it is literally ready to explode. It's a lot coming at you, which may be why your ears are going, "AHH!!" a little bit.

Is there any way to fix this problem on my own when listening to the album? Like, what if I crank the bass or wear my headphones over decibel-canceling ear plugs?

The record isn't just named 1989 for Taylor's year of birth; it's also filled with '80s style production... drum machine samples, keyboards, etc. Sure, you can crank the bass, but you might be better off busting out your Pizza Hut Back To The Future II sunglasses and strapping on some Air Mags for the dance floor.

As an engineer, your ears are already stressed all day, but how did the album sound to you? What would you have done differently?

I think she achieved what she set out to. It's full of synth and vocal-heavy tracks influenced by both '80s/'90s arena-pop and current mainstream pop alike. There is a big difference between error and intent, if I could change anything I'd invent a time machine and try and get "This Love" on the Heathers soundtrack.

Who do I blame for this? One of the dozen producers on 1989? All of the producers on 1989? The engineer? The mixer-person? "The current state of pop music"? John Mayer?

The "executive producer," Max Martin, is responsible for big '90s hits by the likes of Britney, N*SYNC, and the Backstreet Boys. if you're gonna blame anyone, BLAME THAT GUY. Seriously though, he was around for Red and is no doubt a big part of the path to 1989, right behind Debbie Gibson, Paula Abdul and that cartoon rap cat, Mc Skat Kat. If there's truly anything to blame here it's most definitely the lack of cat raps!


As far as I can gather from attempting to listen to the songs, they sound like the future, but it might not be a future that I am ready for just yet. As with some of her other tunes, maybe repeated listenings will somehow force it all into order in my brain, and also make my ears calm down. Generally, the more you listen the better she gets. This has always been true of all of her other albums. It's been a week since 1989 dropped and I already like the album (what I've heard of it) way more than I did last week.

As a good student of history, I'm already interested in what I'll think of it six weeks or six months from now. I suspect that I will have adjusted and that it will somehow become my new favorite thing ever. She has some kind of creepy and creeping magic, I think, and I'm still a believer. Bring it on, Swift.

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