Tuesday, September 05, 2006

Musical punch

Seeing that Terry Lin's blogger had been wiped made me sad since he had lots of interesting stuff there. But instead of bitching about it, I just went ahead and dug up some of the most interesting stuff from the various caches you can find on the web, and will now blatantly infringe on his copyright by reproducing some of it here. (Since the text came as one huge block from the cache, I took the liberty to segment it off in paragraphs. Some small stuff was also altered.)
There's a little term I'd like to discuss with my readers today. It's called Musical Punch.

When it comes to Musical Taste, I'm afraid I'm pretty below average. I have no idea what it is to have Musical Taste. I still listen to Mandy Moore from time to time. But when it comes to recognizing Musical Punch, I'm always on the money. I guess you could say my girlfriend has good Musical Taste because she enjoys listening to semi-fringe artists like Björk and despises just about anything mainstream. But her Musical Punch radar is totally off. Sorry, I haven't even come up with a definition of Musical Punch. The best way I can describe it is by using associative words. On the positive side, we have mainstream, catchy, powerful. On the negative side, we have cliched, unoriginal, commercialized. There are certain artists which I will always associate with Musical Punch. I'll give you what I think are the 3 biggest representives from the 3 countries that I listen to music from: US - Britney Spears, JPN - Utada Hikaru, TWN - Jay Chou. What these artists all have in common is that their music is produced with only one thing in mind, to appeal to as many people as possible. "Expression" is just an afterthought. To that end, they have big budget studios equipped with the fanciest gear and have the most wiley audio engineers working for them.

You cannot appreciate how difficult it is to get a sound that punchy until you try making music for yourself. It's not easy. The mixing technique is impeccable. The snares have crazy bite. The bass has definition and presence. The vocals are superbly enhanced with all kinds of choruses. The riffs are catchy and jump out at you. This is not something that happens with coincidence, they have experienced engineers working for many hours long after the artist has finished the recording session, tweaking this, tweaking that, until they have filled the entire stereo audio spectrum with just as much stuff as they can possibly stuff. And no, it's not as simple as adding a Aural Exciter into a mix and watch as dust turns into gold. I've tried those BBE Sonic Maximizers, all they do is tire your ears out. These engineers are the real magicians, the real alchemists. They can turn dust into gold, with their secretive voodoo techniques. The final result is similiar to McDonalds food. It has superb mass appeal and you cannot deny that at some primal level, it is extremely gratifying to consume. On a higher intellectual level, you may reject it on the basis of "it's junk", but you cannot deny the primal satisfaction. The popularity speaks for itself.

I say I don't have Musical Taste because to me, Musical Taste is so goddamn pretentious. It's like fashion trends. There's no sound basis for liking this style over the over, it's just... whatever's hip at the time. I bet all those people who knock Britney Spears would be praising her if she wasn't as popular and Pop music was considered "Alternative". However, Musical Punch has a deep and serious foundation in both musical theory and audio engineering. You can appreciate that like you can appreicate a well-made car. It's something that only trained professionals can produce. It can even be measured with a sonic analysis tool, with criteria such as Average RMS power.

There are some artists that sort of sit in between Musical Punch and Musical Taste. Like for instance, Radiohead's OK Computer. I think that's really catchy and punchy, and all those jaded music reviewers think so too. Red Hot Chili Peppers also falls into this category. Whenever you hear one of their tracks used on TV, it's a GUARANTEE that it particuarily excels in Musical Punch. Then there are some artists which are pretty much all Musical Taste and zero Musical Punch. I don't really know any artists off the top of my head, because I can't stand that kind of music. But any of the following characterists would pretty much qualify: 1. Retarded lyrics that make no sense or try to make the listener feel uncomfortable 2. Constant screaming, long durations of acapella singing. 3. Overuse of dissonant chords, unconventional chord progressions, unusual scales etc. etc. 4. Purposely not filling the entire audio spectrum when it should, leaving the listener with a strange uncomfortable feeling 5. Overuse of strange sounds that do not elicit any feelings of familiarity from the listener 6. Overuse of strange effect boxes Generally, not following the conventions of popular music pretty much qualifies. I much liken it to covering a canvas in red paint, giving it a fancy title, and then calling it "art".
Disclaimer: the opinions of Terry Lin do not necessarily reflect my own.

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