Compression Depression


“Research finds MP3s make your music sound more depressing” says the latest bit of breathless reportage to come floating down the audio/science news feeds. In this new ‘post fact’ age, I guess I’m no longer supposed to be surprised by the paucity of actual evidence offered up in support of any particular assertion put forward as scientific ‘research’ but in the interests of actual reality, let’s focus the Hummadruz lens on this affair.

As usual, nearly every mention of this that I saw completely uncritically regurgitated copy that looked like it came from one source. I couldn’t narrow it down to a first instance, but the coverage from NME was typical:

New research has found that listening to music in low-quality digital formats can dampened its emotional impact.

According to a study by the Audio Engineering Library, MP3s can have a distinct effect on the “timbral and emotional characteristics” of the instruments involved.

Researchers compared responses to compressed and uncompressed music over ten emotional categories at several bit rates.

It’s always instructive to find out who is responsible for research, so my obvious first action when I read the above quote was to click on that link to the ‘Audio Engineering Library’ and find out who those dudes actually are. Puzzlingly, the link just leads to the abstract of the actual paper, which makes no mention of that organisation.

In fact, searching the web for the ‘Audio Engineering Library’ reveals that there is no such entity, and, instructively, pretty much every search result leads to some variation or other of the story about ‘How compression makes your music depressing’. It’s a veritable self-referential maelstrom. Audio Engineering Library? Someone just made that shit up.*

If ever there was an indication that we are about to enter the land of hogwash and horsepiss, here we have it.

Still, we have the paper right? Published on Researchgate – the science industry equivalent of LinkedIn – to be sure, but proper science will out!

The first thing we should note is that this research is a one-off  publication, on an online site, of a conference presentation. The research it entails has neither been replicated, nor peer-reviewed. This is, in scientific terms, not much more than a bunch of opinions.

We don’t have to delve far into the paper to find its true worth:

3.2 ListeningTest

We used eight sustained instrument sounds: bassoon (bs), clarinet (cl), flute (fl), horn (hn), oboe (ob), saxophone (sx), trumpet (tp), and violin (vn).

Whoa there cowboy! I was told by NME that the compression made my music more depressing. You do know what music is, don’t you NME? What it is not, is a bunch of fixed-note sustained instrument noises taken entirely out of musical context.

In addition to that complete clanger, there is no mention anywhere in the paper about how many subjects were used in these tests, nor anything about how they were conducted – just a lot of technical hocus-pocus about compression methods, and some graphs that are totally meaningless given what we just read. Wading further through this procedural mess, we find so much experimenter subjectivity stirred into the mix that the study is rendered all but useless as a piece of viable science.

To sum up, an unpublished, un peer-reviewed paper, conducted by a fictional institution,  tells us that in an un-replicated study, an unspecified number of listeners (keeping in mind that could be as few as two) were played compressed timbral instrumental single tones (not music) and asked to subjectively choose – from a list pre-determined by the researchers – how those noises made them feel.

Would you conclude that from there you could get to “Research finds MP3s make your music sound more depressing”?

No, me neither.

*Addendum: It seems they probably mean the AES (Audio Engineering Society) Library, where the paper is also archived. So let’s chalk that one up to sloppy journalism, rather than wilful deception. On the AES site, the presentation appears under its actual title The Effects of MP3 Compression on Perceived Emotional Characteristics in Musical Instruments [my emphasis].

Notice that this doesn’t make any claims about music, per se, and is a much more accurate appraisal of what the study was actually looking at (see comments below for further clarification).

Horses Don’t Think

We’re all familiar with the phenomenon of pareidolia – the tendency of the human brain to try to make sense of random visual information by forming it into something we recognize (like the face of Jesus on a tortilla or a likeness of Mother Theresa on a cinnamon bun). Today on Hummadruz we’re going to look at an aural version of pareidolia which goes under the name of Electronic Voice Phenomena, or EVP.

EVP is the term given for the appearance of strange, indistinct human voices on previously recorded magnetic tape – voices that supposedly weren’t there when the original recording was made.

This phenomenon was first ‘discovered’ by Attila von Szalay, in the early 1940s. Von Szalay was a ‘ghost’ photographer and was looking for some additional corroboration of his belief in a spirit world. After making recordings of ‘silence’ on a reel-to-reel tape recorder, von Szalay claimed to have captured voices on his tapes, voices that he believed belonged to people who had died. With psychic researcher Raymond Bayless, he published his findings in the Journal of the American Society for Psychical Research in 1959.

In that same year, philosopher, film producer and birdwatcher Friedrich Jürgenson had made some recordings of bird sounds in the backyard of his Swedish house. On playing back those recordings, Jürgenson became convinced that they contained the voices of his deceased father and wife speaking to him, and he published his experiences in a book: Voices from Space. A few years later, Latvian author Konstantīns Raudive read Jürgenson’s book and, intrigued, contacted him. The two men began to make recordings of the ‘voices’ and compiled an astonishing 100,000 of them, which Raudive went on to document in his 1968 book Unhörbares wird hörbar (“What is inaudible becomes audible”), later published in English in 1971 as Breakthrough: An Amazing Experiment in Electronic Communication with the Dead. Over the course of their experiments, Jürgenson and Raudive became completely convinced that these faint voices that appeared in the etheric hiss of the magnetic tape were nothing less than the spirits of the dead attempting to make contact with us living folk. Furthermore, the two men were of the mind that they could actually communicate with these spirits by asking questions and then leaving pauses in which the voices might answer.

I have an original copy of Breakthrough. It is, I have to say, pretty much unreadable. A small portion of the book is given over to explanations of how the spirit voices are captured and to rambling accounts, daft philosophizing and pseudo-scientific jargon about the voices and hypnosis and psychology and acoustics and all manner of other abstruse matters.

The larger part of the book consists of transcripts of what the voices had to say. The thing that becomes apparent very quickly on reading them is that if these really are the spirits of the dead trying to communicate with us, then the dear departed have either all gone completely bonkers, or only the lunatics among them are bothering to keep in contact. To make things even more crazy, the messages Raudive and Jürgenson received were also polylingual, with the ‘spirits’ sometimes speaking in German, sometimes French, Swedish or Russian, and sometimes in Raudive’s own Latvian tongue. Often they alternated language on every second word. Here are just a smattering of the things the spirits wanted Raudive to know (you can read the interminable babbling of the spirits for yourself here, should you care to):

Nedoma zirgi (Horses don’t think)

Matei sip galva (Mother has a headache)

Tada flickes nakti (Such a girl at night!)

Golva! Golvas nav! Konstantin, Konstantin, esmu ar tevi vienmer (Head! No head! Konstantin, Konstantin, I am always with you)

Vi koordinati (We are co-ordinated)

Ka tu skrini var tupet? Furchtbar tu dzer, muns Koste! (How can you hover in the cupboard? You drink terribly, my Koste!)

Kosta, van, pietiek ar muziku (Kosta, friend, it is sufficient with the music)

Nomierinies, te Erde oben (Calm yourself; up here is the earth)

…and on and on and on for hundreds of pages with thousands of other incomprehensible and/or dreary snippets. The voices seem entirely incapable of stringing together more that about a half a dozen words into any semblence of coherence. Frankly, if you accept that EVP has any credibility at all, the afterlife comes across as some kind of huge dull and sprawling cocktail party filled with the kind of people you’d step in front of buses to avoid. All on acid.

I know you’re dying to hear some examples of what I’m talking about, so here are some clips from recordings made in the 1970s by EVP researcher Raymond Cass, who is a well known figure among the EVP community, and whose recordings have been collected in recent times on the CD The Ghost Orchid. In each these examples, Mr Cass tells you what you should be hearing. Now go to another page on the same site and see if you can figure out what any of these voices are saying.

As quaint as it all sounds, EVP is not merely an archaic remnant of fin de siecle spiritualism. There are numerous EVP societies still in existence, some even progressing on from analog magnetic tape methodology to embrace new media such as digital audio recording and computer technology. In addition, the phenomenon appears in popular culture from time to time, such as in the film White Noise (where it formed the basis for a lot of extra silliness) and in tv shows such as Fact or Faked. Paranormal Files (where it is invoked to provide silliness in its own right). And, of course, the wonderful eclectic ramble of the internet has seen to it that EVP, like so many other misguided interpretations of the world, continues to have some traction among the less rationally minded.

The mechanisms for recording EVP vary considerably, but they all basically boil down to one thing – getting a recording of something that has a vague enough informational content to allow the listener to impose a personal interpretation on it. Mostly this is done by creating a recording that has a very high noise floor. In audio terms, noise manifests as an evenly distributed amount of random audio information – you would be familiar with it as the sound you hear along with the static that you see on a tv screen that isn’t tuned to a channel. In early EVP recordings, this kind of sound was quite likely to occur on a recording because in those days electronic sound equipment was much more prone to high levels of system interference and tape noise than today. An early EVP researcher might typically proceed by making a recording with a microphone in a sealed cabinet in a quiet room, or even by dispensing with the microphone entirely and simply setting the recorder running with the gain turned up high. This would pretty much ensure plenty of wide bandwidth noise in the end result, along with the amplification of any electrical hums, buzzes, whines and static that can easily be induced in these old electronic systems.

The application of this kind of technique in the late 1940s and early 1950s coincided with another helpful element for EVP: the rise of radio broadcasting. When these old tape machines were recording with the gain turned right up, there was a very high likelihood that they might pick up and amplify extraneous radio signals. These faint signals – in those days more often than not consisting of  spoken word – would wax and wane under the threshhold of the noise floor and background hum and voila! – on listening back to the ‘blank’ tape: ‘spirit’ voices.

The funny thing is, to me this seems so obviously all that is happening that it’s hard to understand how anyone can think it’s anything else, but in the ’40s and ’50s (and being generous, even in the early ’60s) I’m willing to accept that it possibly could have seemed more mysterious. These days, though, with the explanation readily at hand and easily demonstrated, it’s perplexing that anyone can still maintain a belief that EVP is any kind of communication from the spirit world. There are so many questions that must be answered before Occam’s Razor can be blunted here: Why are the spirit voices always so indistinct and their words so open to interpretation? How is it that they sound so much like snippets from terrestrial radio broadcasts? Why do they speak in platitudes and non-sequiturs and can hardly ever manage a  sensible or meaningful sentence? In short, why do they seem so much more like the vague dissemblings of spirit mediums and the abstruse meanderings of astrologers than concise communications from sentient beings? Even if we accept that the vague vocal mutterings are from spirits of the dead, what is the point of talking to them if they make no sense?

Like many matters of pseudoscience and superstition, most of the EVP phenomenon comes down to the peculiar psychology of the human brain. There is no doubt that practitioners and exponents of EVP want their recordings to be evidence of life after death. This powerful influence sways their judgement in such a way that the phenomena of pareidolia (discerning patterns in randomness) and apophenia (finding significance in unconnected and meaningless events) conspire to provide, for them, persuasive evidence for their already-formed beliefs, even in the face of a much more likely and scientifically demonstrable explanation.

This will become a core theme of the matters we will go on to examine in Hummadruz, there is no doubt.