Ruining Oxygene

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I didn’t mean to write a post about ruining Oxygene by Jean-Michel Jarre. Instead I had hoped to write a post about the joy of having got my hands on one of Sony’s legendary D-Z555 Discman. That post will have to wait for another time.

Jean-Michel Jarre - Oxygène (1976)
Oxygene shot by luna715

I had a 1980s vintage CD of Oxygene. Moving to Hong Kong had seen it go along with a lot of my other belongings. I had wanted to listen to it to hear the quality of the D-Z555. I got a new copy from Amazon. The Oxygene I remembered has highs and lows. It makes use of stereo spacing to move its sweeping sound around you. I paired it with a modern pair of Sony in-ear monitors (MDR-EX800ST) with custom Snugs ear moulds.

This is wasn’t the Oxygene that I’d previously heard. The first thing that I noticed was the that the constant peak across frequencies on the on-board display. Then it stayed loud, when it doesn’t go quiet. So loud it made the hair stand up at the back of my neck and became uncomfortable to continue listening.

I took the CD out and played E2 – E4 by Manuel Göttsching. But this sounded glorious and the onboard display was more what I expected. The highs, the lows. The space that allows all the instruments room to shine.

Tried a new copy of Jean Michel Jarre’s album Magnetic Fields and had a similarly uncomfortable listening experience.

So I went back to the Oxygene CD case. In the small writing it said that the album had been digitally remastered from the original analogue tapes. The same remastering company had also done the Magnetic Fields CD as well.

This remastering process has been what was ruining Oxygene for me. Looking at reviews around the web, it was obvious that this process had been unpopular. Looking at the prices of Oxygene and Magnetics Fields CDs on Discogs showed that there was premium price on the original CD versions. This wasn’t just about rarity. Like Dire Straits and Sade albums, these were commonplace in CD collections.

I delved into reading about the loudness war. I was aware of the loudness war and the effect that it had on pop music. But Jean Michel Jarre isn’t really radio play material. (Although Magnetics Fields had been used as a signature track for an Egyptian numbers station* in the past. His albums whilst popular are slow steady sellers.

A lot of the music that I listen to didn’t need high dynamic range compression. I knew that sampled instruments and digitally synthesised instruments are naturally more compressed, lacking the peak transients of live performances. My friend Joe used to record dance music before building a property empire. His uncle was a long-time musician (ex-Mission, Pulp and Artery) who then left to record electronic music in New Mexico. I vicariously got some of my studio recording knowledge from him through Joe.

Overall I hadn’t really been exposed to large amounts of high dynamic compression in music before. This practice of making loud music. This had started in earnest in the 1990s as digital signal processing put more tools in the hands of the mastering engineers.

Historically compression techniques had been used creatively. Motown frequently pushed the limits of vinyl recordings, particularly 7 inch singles.

Motown was notorious for cutting some of the hottest 45s in the industry

Nashville mastering engineer Bob Olhsson

Digital signal processing seems to have led to a dramatic acceleration in this evolution

There’s a 12 to 14dB apparent loudness difference between Black Sabbath, produced in 1977 or so and transferred to compact disc in the early ’80s, and the Black Eyed Peas’ ‘Let’s Get It Started.

Bob Katz, mastering engineer

Both quotes were from an article written in 2005 and things seem to have got only worse. The reasons for this are myriad:

  • In-car listening and iPods were considered to blame. But the level of compression is far beyond that
  • The decline of consumers actively listening to music, using it as audio background
  • Inexperienced engineers who don’t know what good sounds like
  • Inexperienced artists think that overly compressed masters sound better

Whilst record label A&R people were considered partly responsible for loud mixes on vinyl singles. By 2005, record labels weren’t considered to be pressuring mastering engineers for louder mixes.

Ruining Oxygene seems to have occurred a few years later as streaming services built up steam. I remember how Yahoo! Music used to master their streams when I worked for Yahoo! Europe. They were ripped straight from CD on a desktop HP computer by whoever had time in the music team.

All of my research into the process of ruining Oxygene seems to have been a vicious circle. Various pressures on compression lowered the bar on what was good and that went through several cycles.

The morals contained the story for music listeners are

  • Progress doesn’t mean better
  • We have lost something with the move away from actively listening to music

*Numbers stations are a rabbit hole that you can descend into on the internet. So rather than having to go there, here’s a potted explanation. Countries would have spies embedded abroad, often for years at a time. In order to give them instructions or information, it would be preferable to do it in a manner that didn’t involve directly interacting with the agent. Shortwave radio filled this breach. The signals carry over huge distances. The messages would be concealed in numbers, often read out using speech synthesis – which gives them an other worldly feel.