Thesis Examination Report
Dr Sean Williams
Lecturer in Music and Sound Theory,
University of Kent.
Lecturer in Music,
Walton Hall, Milton Keynes.
Understanding The Use Of Hyper-Compression In Music Production: A Systems-Based Approach To Examining Innovative Change In The Field Of Music Production
Robert W. Taylor BVA (Newcastle); MDesSc (audio & acoustics)(Sydney)
Contribution to knowledge 10/10
Knowledge in the discipline area 10/10
This thesis represents an extremely thorough examination of the subject of hyper-compression, and is a valuable contribution to the field of recorded music and sound. The subject has been examined with comprehensive reference to the history and practice of sound recording, and interweaves the technical with the social throughout both the historical and literary review as well as the research methodologies and accounts presented in the main body of the thesis.
It is very tricky to strike the right balance between highly technical concepts and the more theoretical, and social perspectives, but this has been done really well here. The main objective – to interrogate the motivations and mechanisms behind the loudness war – has been maintained and addressed throughout, with a great balance between this and other more detailed investigations of more specific and focused questions surrounding the main issue.
There is a wealth of data presented from previous studies, and the level of interpretation of this data is very high. There is great clarity shown in the explanations of the different methods of measuring and even perceiving loudness which serve to contextualise the existing data as well as providing a firm foundation for the methodology used in the original research. The comprehensive section on loudness, with a particularly interesting section on transients and perception of loudness related to duration (figs 2.8, 2.9) is particularly valuable.
One of the real strengths of the thesis lies in the way in which the social has been interwoven with the technical, both in the theoretical approach, but also in the analysis of the data and the methodology used in gathering new data. There is great use of Bourdieu, Csikszentmihalyi and Rogers to set out the territory in which the ideas are interrogated, and this proves to be an excellent and well-balanced foundation for the arguments presented.
The combination of different research methods gives great strength and authority to the findings. Taking a systems approach is an excellent way of tracking down and analysing the many different factors, technological, social, economic, political etc. that contribute to the issue. Semi-structured interviews provided a wealth of information and excellent use was made of the details and vignettes (such as the Trevor Horn story), to tease out some subtle social issues, as well as to support the central argument.
There is a very impressive list of interviewees. I would have liked to have seen Vlado Meller on there but I guess footnote 88, p.357 covers this. The temptation to make strong inferences from the unwillingness of him and the other perpetrators of questionable mastering practices to be interviewed must have been strong, but this is resisted and the reader is allowed to draw their own conclusions, which is probably the best approach.
In Chapter 4 there is some excellent probing into the issue of experienced/trained listeners, relating to musicians not necessarily being in that group. There is also very important work on the conditions of the tests carried out by others, and careful examination of whether it is DRC or other factors which might be the most salient factors within those tests.
In Chapter 5 I was rather hoping to hear more criticism of Rick Rubin’s use of savage distortion on Johnny Cash’s later albums, but an examination of the social field within the production environment he creates would have been a huge task and at least another chapter. I think this approach opens the door for this kind of work.
The “sub-fields” in section 5.2.4 the 3 really make me think differently about the field. This is a really inventive and a great application of Bourdieu and Rogers, and the section on gatekeeping citing Rogers - “controlling flow through a channel” is particularly effective.
I have learned a lot reading this thesis, and have found the balance between theory and practice to have been negotiated with skill. The subject is current and important, but also has a personal resonance. I’ve had records mastered at The Townhouse, The Exchange, and Porkys’, and have attended cuts, sent tracks away, bought a Finalizer in the 1990s, mastered some of my own, and have heard from a number of mastering engineers about various aspects of the history and current practice of mastering. Reading this thesis has enhanced my understanding of the subject and allowed me to see it from several new perspectives, stretching my appreciation of the subject area in several different directions at once.
The conclusions drawn are robust, and solidly presented, with an excellent balance between accessibility and technical detail, with a wealth of extra technical detail available in the appendices.