The Elton/Hootie Line

Epsilon Theory PDF Download (paid subscription required): The Elton/Hootie Line

We’re talking about things that are going to change the world and change the way people listen to music and that’s not going to happen with people blogging on the internet…There’s too much technology available. I’m sure, as far as music goes, it would be much more interesting than it is today.

Elton John, Interview with The Sun (2007)
Image result for bob dylan

The records I used to listen to and still love, you can’t make a record that sounds that way. Brian Wilson, he made all his records with four tracks, but you couldn’t make his records if you had a hundred tracks today. We all like records that are played on record players, but let’s face it, those days are gone. You do the best you can, you fight that technology in all kinds of ways, but I don’t know anybody who’s made a record that sounds decent in the past twenty years, really.

You listen to these modern records, they’re atrocious, they have sound all over them. There’s no definition of nothing, no vocal, no nothing, just like – static. Even these songs probably sounded ten times better in the studio when we recorded ’em. CDs are small. There’s no stature to it. I remember when that Napster guy came up across, it was like, ‘Everybody’s gettin’ music for free.’ I was like, ‘Well, why not? It ain’t worth nothing anyway.’”

Bob Dylan, in an interview with Rolling Stone (2006)
Image result for hootie and the blowfish live

We’ve wanted to bring a party; it’s high-energy, and it’s about fun. The worst thing for me when I go to a concert is a whole bunch of ballads. You get bored.

Darius Rucker, who absolutely does not want you to call him Hootie, to the St. Louis Post-Dispatch (June 2016)

This will not be fair to Hootie.

Or the Blowfish, for that matter. He didn’t start it. He didn’t really make it worse. For God’s sake, he doesn’t even want to be called Hootie anymore. That’ll be Darius, if you please.

It is just bad luck that his was the best-selling album in the United States the year that a minor trend among heavy metal, punk and the occasional rap artist went mainstream. It’s not his fault that Elton John topped the charts with a musical-inspired soundtrack album to The Lion King that stood in stark contrast the prior year.

That year was 1995. The year we crossed the Elton/Hootie Line.

The Elton/Hootie Line is not a demarcation of musical genre. It isn’t the border between good and bad music, or between one media format and another. It hasn’t got anything to do with Napster or the RIAA or anything like that.

The Elton/Hootie Line marks the last time that we allowed popular music to be quiet sometimes.

Loud and quiet are easy ideas to understand. There’s not much gray area in the formal definition. It is trivial to measure the difference in air pressure against ambient levels caused by sound waves. Plot those measurements on a log scale, and you’ve got what you know as a decibel.

In practice, however, the human experience of loud and quiet relies heavily on context. Other qualities of a sound – its pitch, its timbre and the sustained level of its volume – influence the individual experience of loud and quiet. Many people might listen to a thrash metal album with a pressing, ostinato rhythm from a distorted electric guitar, crashing open hi-hats and double bass drum pedals and say, “that’s louder”, even if a sweet, gentle cello sonata was being played and heard at a nominally identical decibel level.

The most important context to loud and quiet, however, relates to how music is recorded and reproduced. For obvious reasons, the volume that instruments were played at passes through a mixing and mastering process that normalizes sounds for whatever medium will be sent to the consumer. Celine Dion belting an adult contemporary power ballad was a lot louder in the studio than what you’d hear if you were standing next to a pre-autotune Selena Gomez. But on Spotify, Apple Music or a CD? Not much difference. Er, with the loudness, I mean.

Through a combination of adjusting the gain, or sensitivity of the microphone used to record, and through both hardware and software tools used to adjust levels of tracks post-recording, their voices will hit a record at largely similar volumes. Yes, different genres of music have different levels of reliance on the lead vocal track that will drive marginal differences, but by and large the peak levels of vocals will reach roughly the same volume on most modern recordings.

Much of this normalized level is defined by the fact that there are limits to how loud something can be in a recording at a certain bitrate before it begins to distort. In other words, the loudest segments of a recording are going to be just a bit below where they’d create distortion.

That creates a problem for the engineer and producer alike: if the peaks – the loudest parts – of every recording are being normalized to similar levels for reproduction and you want to make your music stand out from the rest as energetic, powerful or exciting, how do you do it?

The answer: you crank up the volume on everything but limit or cap the peaks in the recording from getting so loud that they will distort.

And that’s exactly what the music industry did. They cranked up the volume of anything remotely quiet, limited the peaks from distorting, and compressed the overall dynamic range of everything we listen to. (The software and hardware tools used to achieve this are literally called compressor/limiters)

Now, they didn’t really start with Cracked Rear View in 1995, obviously. It was something that engineers and artists had experimented with many times over the years. Some pressings of Hotel California did it in 1976. Queen tried it on Sheer Heart Attack that same year. AC/DC and Ozzy, for example, released a number of records in the early 80s that were designed to crank things up. Metallica dabbled with several in 1983. The Who’s soundtrack to Tommy that same year. Twisted Sister in 1985. It wasn’t just a rock music phenomenon, although it’s clear to see why those artists and engineers thought it was an appealing strategy to make their recordings stand out for their audience. Live music also often relies on compressor/limiters to handle uncertainty, bad microphone technique, blending with crowd noise, feedback and other issues. Even live music with a decidedly relaxed groove, like Bob Marley’s live album Babylon by Bus, stands out on this dimension.

There were also some albums that still allowed some Dynamic Range after the Elton/Hootie Line had been crossed in 1995. Most were in what people outside of Texas call country music (e.g. Shania Twain’s The Woman in Me and Garth Brooks’s The Hits) and in corners of rap and hip-hop (e.g. Coolio’s Gangsta’s Paradise). By 1997, country music was the only holdout. Engineers for George Strait (PBUH) and his album Carrying Your Love With Me kept a light touch on their compressor/limiters. Same with Leann Rimes’s Unchained Melody. But for basically any other charting album and every other genre, the line had been permanently crossed.

Just as we can measure loudness with decibels, we can measure the extent to which the dynamics of music have been compressed with a measure called Dynamic Range. It is a variant of crest factor, which measures the ratio of the peak value of a waveform to a representation of its general level (RMS). Basically, a Dynamic Range of 14 or more usually means music that has not been compressed very much. Dynamic Range of 11-13 might imply a moderate level of compression that we’d usually associate with the normal process of normalizing levels in a typical mastering setting.

Below that? Either you’re listening to some weird Philip Glass album that’s like 45 minutes of a sine wave, or your engineer is dialing up the compression. All to make the music stand out to you, dear consumer. You like energetic music, don’t you? Exciting music? Stirring, thrilling, powerful music?

Making music sound more energetic and exciting through the use of heavy compression was initially a dominant and escalating strategy in an industry that was playing a Coordination Game. That doesn’t mean that there wasn’t competition, or even that it wasn’t frequently cutthroat. It meant that the nature of that competition was not to take actions which harmed the ultimate product AND forced everyone else to do the same thing.

It was what game theory calls a Stag Hunt, something we’ve written about several times in context of politics and markets. The basic idea is that if both parties coordinate their hunt, they both end up taking home a stag. Lots of meat to go around. If one party decides to go off on his own to hunt a rabbit instead, the other party will miss out on the stag and any meat altogether.

It’s a game that has two equilibria in repeated plays: when players are cooperative, pursuing a better outcome for both is an equilibrium. When one party defects and decides that they’d prefer to win a relative game more than they want to take home the most meat, they’ll win for a while. But that isn’t a stable equilibrium. Everyone else quickly realizes that the defector cares more about winning than getting a better outcome. The only way they can eat at all is to defect and settle for a rabbit, too. The worse outcome for everyone becomes a new equilibrium.


You see, when you heard it on the radio or on a CD player at your house, a Hootie and the Blowfish album that had been heavily compressed did feel more energetic. Pop in something else before or after, and even if it was more musical, more expressive and more interesting, it would be missing something. Once the top-selling albums all defected, NOT defecting to heavy compression would mean coming home from the hunt empty-handed.

And so they defected. All of them. Here is the Dynamic Range of the top-selling album by year for every year from 1968 to 2019. There was no going back.

Source: Epsilon Theory, Billboard, Dynamic Range DB

For most listeners, even this probably understates the experience. In addition to the audio compression being applied at the studio, beginning in the late 1990s many users began to consume audio in forms that applied additional digital compression to reduce the size of a recording. MP3s, and later, streaming. One of the frequent side effects of reducing the file size of a digital recording is a further reduction in its Dynamic Range.

Once the game changed, something else happened, too: the process of creating commercial music changed. What I mean is that if you knew that your music was going to be heavily compressed, the music that you would write, perform and produce would probably be different.

It was.

The music being recorded changed in ways completely unrelated to audio compression at almost the exact same time. As we crossed the Elton/Hootie Line, we also saw dramatic compression in lyrical diversity. Colin Morris at The Pudding put together a fascinating analysis of exactly that a couple years ago: how much you could compress a song’s full lyrical set using the Lempel-Ziv algorithm. You know it as the basis for most “zipping” programs you use because your IT department inexplicably limits your mailbox size at some absurdly small number.

Just like with zip files, we can compress the lyrics of a song based on repeated words and characters. The more compressible a song is, the more repetitive its lyrics. Here’s what Colin found. Essentially, pop lyrics were at a pretty consistent level for most of the 80s and early 90s. Then, around 1995/1996, lyrical complexity plummeted.

Oh sure, we may be mixing up cause and effect here. That’s OK. I’m not really saying that there’s some linear causal relationship between audio compression and lyrical compression. I’m saying that when you turn up the volume on anything, you’re defecting from a working game structure. You’re pushing the game from a Coordination Game to a Competition Game.

And it matters.

When we transform our interactions into Competition Games, it doesn’t just mean that we’re mean and yelling at each other all the time. It also means that optionality disappears. Degrees of freedom disappear. Creativity disappears. Diversity disappears. True risk-taking disappears. More of our decisions are optimized toward cartoons, abstracted versions of reality. More of our information is based on narratives and memes.

The Elton/Hootie Heuristic: When you turn up the volume, the signal to noise ratio drops.

Volume is a literal thing when it comes to music. But it’s a thing in politics and media, too. It’s extreme language. It’s big metaphors. It’s framing each issue in nearly existential terms. It’s the Flight 93 Election, every election for the rest of our lives.

In 2016, Ben wrote a seminal Epsilon Theory piece about how Donald Trump turned up the volume of our political discourse in a way that would break us.

Trump, on the other hand … I think he breaks us. Maybe he already has. He breaks us because he transforms every game we play as a country — from our domestic social games to our international security games — from a Coordination Game to a Competition Game.

Virtue Signaling , or…Why Clinton is In Trouble (Epsilon Theory, September 2016)

You can disagree about whether Donald himself is responsible. You can say he was an inevitable outcome of a prior defection in the Stag Hunt by a now almost entirely left-wing news media and academy. That’s maybe a little bit closer to my personal view. It doesn’t matter now. Whatever the proximate cause, the volume of our political discourse has been cranked to 11.

That volume manifests in our emotions about political opponents:

Growing shares in both parties give ‘cold’ ratings to those in opposing party

It manifests in extremes in the differences of our views, like the record gap in approval rating for President Trump observed between Democrats and Republicans in 2019. Like the research compiled indicating that out-group loathing was a greater political motivator than in-group preference.

But turning up the volume also does something else. It compresses the range of acceptable political ideas, policies and discourse. Through political correctness, patriotic correctness and things like cancel culture, views which don’t hew to the protective sphere of one political pole become socially impossible. There is rarely one governing narrative for any social sphere or institution, but views, opinions and actions which deviate from one of the compressed set of acceptable narratives are ruthlessly ostracized and eliminated.

But none of that is surprising. You already know that the volume has been turned up. You’ve seen the data showing our political polarization. You’ve seen the language framing each election and each issue in existential terms. You also already know that the compression is happening. Like us, you’ve probably despaired at the absence of nuance and any semblance of a political center. It’s not important to see all that data again.

What’s important is recognizing that the concepts of volume and the compression are linked. When you turn up the volume and make politics existential, you will ALWAYS limit the range of feasible views. You will ALWAYS end up with more institutional paralysis. You will ALWAYS make policy compromises far more difficult. You will ALWAYS constrain the emergence of good new ideas.

A loud political environment IS a compressed political environment.

That is just as true in media as it is in politics.

As with music, as with politics, the higher volume environment has created a tendency toward compression. What does that mean in this context? It means that when language becomes more extreme, when society becomes more polarized, narratives take on a more dominant role in defining and framing news coverage.

Consider each of the biggest news events of 2019 where it felt like the volume was turned to 11. Think about the nature of the articles you read. How long did it take for them to arrive at a discrete set of narratives, stories that everybody knew everybody knew about that event? How long did it take until you felt like you could predict exactly how each publication would frame updates about the event?

I’ll work back from the answer: A week. In 2019, it rarely took more than that to crowd out off-narrative takes on a high volume story.

Consider this list of the major news events of 2019:

  • Mueller Report
  • Impeachment of Donald Trump
  • Death of Jeffrey Epstein
  • Celebrity Admissions Scandal
  • Notre Dame Fire
  • Hong Kong Protests (Ongoing)
  • Australia Fires (Ongoing)

Imagine that you could take in every article written about these events in the first week after they took place. Now imagine that you could look at every article written in the second week. Now imagine that for each of those blocks of articles, you could measure how similar the language used was to every other article published that week. For the ongoing events that took place over multiple months, imagine you could compare the stories written in the first major news month for the event (e.g. June 2019 for US coverage of Hong Kong protests) and compare them with articles written in December 2019.

If what you wanted to identify was how much off-narrative news was permitted to exist, you’d set some threshold for that measure of linguistic similarity that represented an unusually low degree of connectedness to the rest of the coverage. Then you could look at the two periods to see whether the share of articles falling below that threshold rose or fell. If off-narrative news was being sloughed off, you’d expect it to fall.

So that’s what we did. And that’s exactly what happened. Specifically, we present below the Period 1 to Period 2 change in the percentage of articles whose normalized mean harmonic centrality in a network graph of stories about each topic fell into the bottom 10% of values we’d expect in average network of news of that size.

Around a week after a major event, more than 20% of the off-narrative angles got compressed into on-narrative takes. And while the point here is a more general one about the volume level of our volume in the aggregate, I don’t think it takes much to observe that the more political articles appear to have been more subject to compression in off-narrative perspectives between the initial and subsequent period after the event.

A loud environment for information is also a compressed environment for information.

A few weeks back I wrote a piece called We Hanged Our Harps Upon the Willows. The intent of the piece was to reiterate our long-standing belief that the only answer to Competition Games is not to play. I think some readers thought it was an argument for not doing anything. For blogging and hiding in a walled garden.

That isn’t it. At all.

Let me tell you how the Loudness War Competition Game was solved, because I think it’s instructive not only for media, but for every kind of political, financial market and other Competition Game in our world today.

The Loudness War was solved when enough people who really loved music and had had enough of overcompression got together to create a sustainable environment…for vinyl records.

That’s it. They didn’t boycott the big labels. They didn’t try to draft people into being installed as executives to shift the direction of music. They didn’t push for regulatory standards on bitrates or streaming compression. They refused to sing their songs. They refused to play their games. They created a community. They grew it. They invested themselves in it. They paid way too much for vintage tube pre-amps. They converted artists to their passion. That conversion made other adjacent communities, like those built around digitally distributed music encoded with lossless codecs, stronger, too.

Don’t get me wrong. If you’re not acting intentionally, most music you will hear today is still hilariously simplistic and overcompressed. The point is that you now have a choice. But in most – not all, but most – of the battles we will fight today and in the future, this is what victory will look like: the creation of a sustainable, opt-in world for people who want to be free from a life in which we are obliged to invest our passion, treasure and energy in cartoons. In other words: epistemic communities.

Epsilon Theory is one. There are others.

Jonathan Haidt, Debra Mashek and the Heterodox Academy are building such a community, a response to compression and volume in academia.

Claire Lehmann and Quillette are building such a community, a response to compression and volume in media.

Eric Weinstein is building such a community. It responds to compression and volume across multiple social spheres.

Yes, even the Bitcoin community fits the bill in many ways.

So, too, do local institutions connecting people in narrow geographies that are too many to count. We’ve also expressed our admiration for organizations like Let Grow and Strong Towns in the past. They are involved at a national level in empowering our lowest-level institutions: families and towns.

If your response is to say that you have an issue with one or more of the ideas that have come out of these groups, well, all I can tell you is to join the club. Me too. That’s not the point. The point is that they are organized on axes other than the prescribed axes that result from a compressed environment. They are places where creativity and autonomy of mind can exist, where quiet can exist, where cooperative, coordinated game play can be promoted.

They are arenas in which we are each free to seek out the signal amid the noise.

Find your pack.

As regular readers will know, the graph included earlier in this note was referenced without identifying information in a brief competition held here. We asked subscribers to tell us what they thought the graph presented. No one guessed it exactly, but one long-time packmember came unnervingly close with what he later disclosed was a joke submission. All the same, we’re declaring Michael Madonna the winner of this competition.

Epsilon Theory swag incoming.

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  1. on a lighter note, i suppose thats why all the music after 2000 pretty much sucks…it always amuses me that the tracks everyone gets up and dances to are from the 1970s-1990s. especially the kids today who weren’t even born then…

  2. Great note. And aside from dealing with the here and now, and offering a prescription (the hardest part, I think) that can get people engaged - I have kind of an “academic” question: Why are we now living in the “widening gyre,” and the “long now,” or why have we fully embraced the volume/compression matrix in society and politics? If you look at all sorts of measures it looks like something “breaks” in the late 1970’s and then continues growing through the 80’s and then accelerates starting in the early 90’s. I wonder if you have a view on “why” this has happened (or an essay you could point me to). Do you think there are feedback loops to the way we measure things as well?

    Just musings, I suppose (I’m not demanding explanations).

  3. Rusty, great post. It’s hard to find people who believe in something that contains more than lots of calories and no nutrition. From “A Note On The Music Industry”: “According to Pollack, this diversion is a compositional device commonly used by Lennon and McCartney, which he says is, ‘deferred gratification.’ Pollacks’ choice of words to describe the song is an interesting counter-point to more recent generation that seems obsessed with instant gratification.”

  4. Thanks for sharing this. I really enjoyed that writeup.

  5. I think you could do worse than to pin it all on the fundamental transition of social interactions from mostly bilateral to mostly crowd-watching-the-crowd over that time. That fundamental shift makes loudness - which is often explicitly but sometimes implicitly designed to exploit common knowledge - a dominant strategy that forces others to play too. Or lose.

  6. Hah. Well, of course I agree. In honestly, I think that feeling is partially nostalgia (everyone thinks this about new music!). But I DO think it’s partially reflective of the second order effects described above: “What music would you make if music were really about this?” And if that’s “sounding good on the radio so people buy records”, you’ll do X. And if it’s “Make the most money on Spotify” you’ll do Y.

    And those things are cartoons, not nearly the same as “music people will enjoy the most”, much less “the best music”, if such a thing can be argued to exist.

  7. Worth the wait.

    ‘Nuff said

  8. Ha! And there I was, convinced that my “real” guess was the correct one ? !! Very excited for the ET swag, thanks guys!

  9. I’d love to learn more about how and why optionality disappears in the transition to Competition Games.

  10. Noted. We can absolutely explore this specific dimension a bit more.

  11. Several points worth pondering. Perhaps. The digitization of music coincided with the ubiquity of ways to enjoy it. The Walkman ™ did not allow 45’s to be carried in a pack, let alone albums. Mass consumption of music practically demanded that it be made portable first cassette then CD. As we moved from analog reproduction to digital, vinyl to tape to bits to compression, there has been a corresponding increase in synthesized voices, and tones (dare I call it music?) manipulated through the devices that create and the ability to play them. BTW, I recall that all Beatles songs have vocals out of one speaker and music through the other. Did I just not get that? I saw Hot Tuna acoustic live a few months ago and nothing compares to guitars and string instruments live.

    The compression and synthetic nature of music as well as its omnipresence through streaming services mirrors the polarization of the rhetoric of the two main political parties in the U.S. The midpoints have diverged over time, and it shows by the silos one chooses to obtain fiat news from in this digitized world. The discourse has both widened and flattened, from the anti science, Covid19 is no big deal, no worse than the flu and denial saying it’s the Democrat/MSM/whoever’s fault, to the musings of Ben and Chris Martenson, both sober (most of the time, I think) and thoughtful, analytical people, as well as what the experience in the rest of the world shows. Music compression and lack of range mirrors the diet of fiat news we get. it’s flattened and compressed. John Oliver devotes a deep dive into issues that barely get 30 seconds if anything, as does Vice and some other outlets, but none have the ratings of say, Hannity.

    We live in a post-truth world, and post-music world. There no truth anymore in the US only what we believe, as pointed out by Karl Rove and Stephen Colbert in his inaugural show on The Word, “Thuthiness.” The truth is whatever I believe. The line has been crossed and a few intrepid souls are actually producing and buying analog records. Just don’t plan on driving cross country or working out to it…

  12. Avatar for Tanya Tanya says:

    Out of curiosity I ran this past a friend who is the chief engineer at one of the most well-known studios in the world and has been in the business for 35 years, and he completely agrees.

    I also definitely see the loudness and compression of discourse these days, and your realization that the way to fight it isn’t to try to change the existing system but to build a new system outside of it is eye-opening.

    A truly outstanding post all the way around. Thank you Rusty!

  13. Avatar for ABE40 ABE40 says:

    guys, you couldn’t be more wrong about the music today…first of all, the music videos are NOT all the music …and the loud definitely is not all the music either Have you listened to Billie Eilish or Ed Sheeran for example…Yes lots of noise around but def NOT all noise…unfair…

    as for 1995 as the demarcation between music and loud…you guys must be very young…did you completely miss the 70s? led zep for example…loud started with the big speakers in the 60s and eventually the music caught up…1995…good lord…like saying alaska was one of the original 13 states…

  14. Ben,

    Great great great analysis, and goes a long way towards explaining our cultural “deafness” in so many ways. You point to the Vinyl reboot as a counter to the Loudness Wars, but it’s also worth noting theres a real generational shift. In the indy-music/bedroom pop scene, Compression is evil and there’s a really strong new movement for difference: Billy Eilish’s last album averaged a 7 in DR (with many songs over 10), and some folks (Green Day in particular) are targeting all their releases and rereleases over 10. (OK, I pay too much attention to this issue, but sound engineering is a hobby). The challenge is once these originals go into “the machine” that feeds streaming services, SiriusXM or video, they get squashed back in. Hence: Vinyl.

    Finding the places where you can get to the source is key. And inspiring a younger generation to care.

  15. I think you could blame technology. If I had to pick one, I’d go with the Sony Walkman. Prior to the 70’s and 80’s almost everything was communal. TV was watched as a Family, Music was experienced together. When you were out in public, you experienced other people. Riding the train or the bus was a communal experience. Flying was communal. Late 70’s, into the 80’s, we started to separate. Head phones, portable music players, miniaturized electronics, small TV’s, even portable game consoles (Yes, I’m calling out the Game Boy) allowed us to customize our environment to our personal preference. As the technology got better, we could customize more. With the rise of Cable TV and the Internet, we don’t even have to see the same news. It is possible for 2 people to live in entirely different realities because they never see the same information presented in the same manner. This can happen even if they live in the same apartment building.

    I watched Apollo 13 for the Nth time this weekend. One of the things that always stands out is how the public was given information about the event. Early into the mission, the Astronauts were living in a reality where they thought that the Public was interested in what they were doing. The public wasn’t, the footage was never broadcast. (The astronauts were going to be told this after they landed.) After the accident with the O2 tanks, everyone was tuned in. They only had 3 channels and the channels all showed the same footage. The only difference between the broadcasts was the Anchor. (Cronkite was probably the most watched.) Compare that national event to reporting on the Cronovirus. The number of different information streams is massive, especially if you count the non-traditional news sources. As a philosophical question, if someone is getting completely different information that creates a different opinion / point of view / conclusions do they exist in the same plane of reality as you do? Are they living in a different world? If perception is reality, does different perception put you in a different reality?

    My $0.02

  16. I don’t think that mass consumption of music required the cassette tape or the walkman. I think Mass Sales required that. The industry needed to get people to listen to music on their own in order to increase the number of copies sold. Without head phones and the ability for several people to be listening to different music simultaneously, while still in close proximity to one another, you would never get the level of sales that you see today. (Or the number of streams) After all, if everyone in a house needs to listen to the same thing, you only need 1 LP or cassette or 45. How was the iPod introduced? (1000 songs in your pocket) Unless you were pirating music everyone needed to purchase a copy. With streaming, everyone needs a subscription. You can’t have people partnering up and still hit your sales targets. Why is the streaming industry starting to crack down on sharing logins? It’s what the need to do to boost sales.

  17. Newbie on the block. Can’t comment on the music analogies - in my teens in the '60s, I used to listen to Maria Callas in Carmen at full volume so I could feel it in my bones - she had that quality of voice - but as I got older my capacity for volume collapsed. We retreated to the country, first, just outside Montreal, through a large lot south of Vancouver, and now a tiny island off the west coast. Pop 350 - we all like quiet. BUT we also have the mental and communal space for uncompressed variety in points of view (definition of an island - a disagreement surrounded by water). And a significant volunteer culture to create the community and interdependence we want. Not totally cut off from the rest of the world, but picking and choosing. So there are parallel universes out there. The loud voices don’t totally define everything.

  18. Thanks, Dave!

    Personally I would have gone with Tool as the example of some moving the right direction recently, but I completely agree with everything you said. Especially the final recommendation.

  19. Ah, and Callas was SO dynamic! So much more than loud! As you mention this, I’m reminded of the Signore, ascolta! aria from her classic turn as Liu in Turandot - a perfect example of what permitting moments of gentle, peaceful quiet does to make those bone-feeling moments so much more powerful! And even then, today it is hard to find an unremastered version that captures it as much as the older pressings that I suspect would have been familiar to you in your teens.

    I love your perfect description of the qualities of an island. I also love how much you have made your life about choice. Maybe a bit envious, truth be told.

  20. I think you’re mistaking “music that gets loud” or "music with parts where cymbals and guitars get really loud sometimes " with “music for which the volume of EVERYTHING has been turned up, making any bits of instrumental dynamics completely washed out with comparably loud noises.”

    Ed Sheeran’s albums are a perfect example of what we mean by overcompressed and overproduced.

    Listen to Shape of You in any format. Try to pick out a note in his vocal that is a materially different volume from another. Try to pick out a sound from the electronic washboard and click patches that is a different volume. When the full multi-octave unison vocals come in, can you pick out parts? Individual voices? Try to find a note in the melody in which the volumes differ.

    You won’t be able to, because everything is tuned up to exactly the same volume. Even though the composition has a spartan feel (something I like about Sheeran, Lorde from a few years back, even some Taylor Swift tracks), every instrument and vocal track is dialed up to the same dynamic level.

    Zeppelin is a perfect example of the OPPOSITE.

    Listen to a good, non-remastered version of Physical Graffiti. Put on Kashmir. What I think you’re hearing is that you’ve got an immediate wall of sound from the iconic bit. Yes! But that’s not what we mean. Listen to the individual instruments. Listen to how long you get the remnant of that snare hit. Listen to how each thump of the pedal on the bass has a slightly different attack that you can discern as slightly different. That’s no Roland patch. Listen to it together, how the swell of volume has room to come together on the syncopated beat of the famous hemiola.

    Listen to Plant’s vocal decay on “time and space”, the ebbs and flows on “world has seldom seen.”

    Now listen to the brass interlude. It’s NOT a wall of sound! It’s instruments - individual instruments. Pick them out, listen to one at a time.

    Now hear after the brass interlude how the engineer allowed the bass guitar to get feisty in the mix. The orchestration to dominate the lead guitar riff this time. Now count the seconds you can hear that final crash cymbal decay into the second verse. When you get the first countermelodic riff about a minute and twenty seconds in, listen to the separation in the instruments. You hear each one, its modest intonation mistakes evidence of a string pulled ever so slightly.

    Listen to the vocals before the second brass interlude, how they trail off. Listen to them on a good, transparent amp and speakers and see how much of a mumbling vocal sits there in the background for you to find.

    And now in the bridge that Bonham made famous with that edge-of-your-seat, double-stroke from a single pedal wizardry that changed drumming forever, listen to the sparseness! The 1/8 second spans of silence, of nothing, where that bass drum accelerates into the massive snare hit. The vocals screaming, then decaying into a scratchy whisper.

    What we’re talking about here isn’t whether there are loud bits. And in Zeppelin and other music, as you point out, there are loud bits. Really loud ones! What we’re talking about is a specific feature of overcompressed music in which the levels of OTHER things have been brought up to a similar level whereby there is no room for picking out individual instruments, or dynamic swells and falls, or anything of musical interest beyond melody and meter.

  21. Callas voice was amazing - just the memory of it can still raise chills more than 50 years later. I had one of the original recordings. Just a few months ago, gave it to a young couple on the island who were in tears at the thought of hearing it. (I can borrow it back any time, but don’t have the equipment any more.) And island life (even the islands we create around us anywhere) does involve choosing distance, and takes work to maintain. I’m the editor of the local Quarterly magazine, and I put out the local private “phone” book every couple of years, and both are dedicated to underpinning our knowing each other. There are two kinds of community in my experience - groups of like-minded people joined by technology, and geographic community - anybody who lives nearby and on whom you may have to depend. Takes a different approach to make the best of the latter. But it can be a special kind of best. Hope we can keep it up. But it is enlivened by contact with the ET kind of pack - rivers of ideas flowing through. Thank you!

  22. This is why I still love music on vinyl via my circa 1962 Fisher vacuum-powered stereo. It even makes modern music on MP3s sound slightly more human. Your analogy of this to politics and information is sadly true.

  23. Avatar for PaulE PaulE says:

    This note reminded me of one of my favorite distinctions highlighted in the book Perfecting Sound Forever by Greg Milner. He characterized digital music as “perfecting approximation” as contrasted with analog/vinyl as “approximating perfection.” I think about the profound difference between these two approaches to life and decision making quite often.

  24. never been born again, just barely once. I woke up to find that the world can only be saved one person at a time. Thanks for expanding my vision.

  25. Your point about the decline in lyrical complexity of popular music struck a chord with me (sorry, I couldn’t resist). My daughter is a singer/songwriter. For years she has written songs with short refrains or sometimes no refrains at all. I suspect they have a relatively low compressibility/relatively high complexity score. I listen to them and am like: “but the Economist says that you need to hit the chorus within 15 seconds or no one on Spotify will listen to them!” (

    That’s why it was so encouraging to read your list of alternative communities organizing around different values. Still - in the spirit of turning down the volume - its easy to see why artists and producers have gone in this direction. They need to put food on the table. I suppose the counter is that “true” artists don’t care. But that’s an easy statement to make as non-artists who don’t have live the daily grind of fighting the prevailing norms.

    I’m optimistic that the road will lead to a better place. After all, the quality of my life is definitely enhanced by being able to easily listen to a selection of songs on Spotify while sitting in California traffic, even if the songs are less complex and overproduced. And there are other venues - my vinyl player, live music, etc to get the richer experience.

  26. Thanks for that, I enjoyed your post and subscribed to your blog. I hadn’t realized two guys were responsible for writing so much popular music. It does feel like there are a lot more venues offering live music now vs. 10 years ago, but that could be just that I’m looking for them more now.

  27. This is good. REALLY good.
    Reminds me of

    But, more fundamentally, are we, collectively, intellectually so lazy that this is is the inevitable consequence? Does this kind of dumbing down in one facet of culture happen, and pervasively infect our entire social sphere?

    This is the first time I’ve seem political discourse framed less in terms of polarisation and more in terms of a restriction of expression. And I think it is incredibly apt.

    see also

  28. Interestingly, I still prefer the sound of more transparent digital hardware - most of my system is late-2000 Revel - when I’m listening to classical or rock, which is most of my listening. I appreciate what the vinyl-heads accomplished without actually being one myself!

  29. I had never seen that description before. It’s marvelous - and accurate. And probably something I will steal.

  30. Really good point, Kevin! I put very little blame on the artists trying to make a buck. Once the competition game has been established, it really IS rational for most to hunt the rabbit rather than go home with nothing. Given how unevenly the rewards of the recording industry are spread, it’s not realistic to expect individual artists to be the ones to try to change the game. But it is also nice to know that some are trying to create communities where you can still make ends meet by defining the rules of your own game.

    And yes, I listen to Spotify on Sonos, too! I’m no purist, I assure you!

  31. Rusty,

    My second read over two years later was so much better than the first… Thank you for what you do, my friend.

    Jim Handshaw

  32. This is a brilliant comment, I think one that shows knowledge, experience, and finesse!
    I wish I had commented in 2020 (maybe I did?)
    LedZep are amazing, (even if they copied Taurus for a few measures).
    And don’t forget about MJ (not basketball)! His command of the choir of sound (bass, baritone, tenor, alto, mezzo-soprano, and soprano) each separately and easily discerned was so refreshing, a break from loud in all registers all the time.

  33. Thanks, Jim! This was a fun one to revisit for me, too.

  34. MJ’s albums are pure pop in their production, and in many ways he kicked off some of these trends I talk about in the note. But man, in spite of this are you ever right!

    There are some places where the dynamism of vocals and instruments IS the song. The one that comes to mind for me most prominently is Dirty Diana. Sparse where it needs to be. Dynamic on vocals and instruments where it should be. On my more transparent home system, it loses so much on the remaster.

  35. No doubt!; pure pop with some definite compression and hints of over-production, but still a Thriller!

  36. I would propose that " Babe I’m going to leave you" is a great example of non-compression. My opinion is strictly as a total amateur. But in the first few guitar picks, the sound seems to be surrounding. It is a haunting sound that beguiles the listener!

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