I’m in the process of working up a short essay on the topic of “treble culture” for a volume on “mobile music.” I’m hoping that some of my awesome readers/interlocutors might lend me a hand (and/or ear). There are two main areas in which I am interested:
1) the rise of “treble culture” and the crucial relation to music technologies (incl mobile devices)
2) the effects of “treble culture,” esp as, ironically, a means of filtering “bass culture”
With regard to the first point, I’m hoping to offer a historical overview of the attenuation of bass frequencies in consumer/commercial music culture with the successive advent of particular player/media technologies. In particular, I intend to trace, alongside an increase in audiophilia and high fidelity, a steady march toward consumer-end devices that have different priorities and have, in effect, progressively moved us toward a rather trebly everyday engagement with music. There are plenty of technologies which have contributed to this “rolling off” of bass frequencies. Here’s a partial list; if you can think of other notable factors/tech (esp particular devices and their quirks), please make a note in the comments:
* vinyl records, esp 78s, 45s, and 33 rpm LPs (the 12″ single, with its deeper grooves, offers an exception)
* early AAD CD transfers, which often didn’t account for the bass boost in record-player pre-amps
* lo-fi speakers, portable radios, boomboxes, headphones, cellphones, etc. (recognizing a wide degree of difference across brands & platforms)
* audio compression (in the studio, but also for radio, in clubs, etc.)
* MP3 (and other file format) compression
With regard to the second, I’d like to explore the cultural/phenomenological significance of this trend — what is gained & what is lost, besides certain frequencies — using some ethnography and interview data. In this sense, I’m interested both in listeners’ perspectives and experiences (how frequently do you encounter, or practice, treble culture?), as well as producers’ (from savvy 80s hip-hop heads pushing stuff “into the red” to compensate for attenuated bass to the more recent mid-freq emulation of bass in bassline, niche/electro/blog house, etc.). Please feel free to share any and all thoughts on this. It seems to me that “treble culture” is increasingly broadcast across our city soundscapes. Tell me about the kids on the bus, walking down the street, outside the club, huddled around computer speakers. I’d love to offer more cross-cultural/geographical context than my own curious ears and eyes have witnessed.
Getting us toward phenomenological effects, consider some of the following perspectives (all, admittedly/interestingly, “British”):
Don Letts: “It’s disturbing when I see kids on buses, listening to music on their phones, and it’s just going: tsk, tsk, tsk, tsk, with no bass. Bass culture is Jamaica’s gift to the world and technology is, kind of, ruining that. Bass is sexy. Women respond to bass.”
Kode9: “there’s a particular kind of bass sound which really fucks me off. … a kind of lowest common denominator way of getting people to move. … a complex of frequencies which works on even the shittest soundsystems. And you can’t underestimate the impact having to play on shit sound systems has on a music culture…”
K-Punk: “Both dubstep and minimal techno only achieve their full potency when played on a club soundsystem. The subtle pressure of sub-bass, the way it moves the very air itself, the hypnotic pulse of the drums, not to mention the role of the dancing crowd iself: none of this can be replicated at home, still less on iPod headphones.”
Finally, here is my (lengthy) abstract, in case it provides further food for thought:
Since the advent of the handheld radio, listeners have long adopted portable music technologies and adapted to the (often tinny) range of frequencies supported by such devices. For their part, producers have tailored their mixes in order to exploit the popularity of such technologies. From one perspective, then, the rise of personal mobile devices — especially mp3 players and cellphones — represents yet another stage in a historical continuum which includes the boombox and the walkman. There are, however, significant differences presented by the latest wave of mobile music products and practices, especially with regard to their ubiquity, their social uses, and their narrow frequency ranges. Whereas previous portable music devices certainly enjoyed some popularity, even that degree of usage stands in stark contrast to the present: today most people — in the overdeveloped world, that is — have a cellphone, an iPod, a laptop on their person, much of the time. (And cellphone usage is rising drastically in the “developing” world.) These digital devices have become, for many, the primary interfaces with sound recordings, especially in the form of mp3s, compressed music files that allow for easy circulation and storage by adding a further layer of frequency range constraint (albeit mostly out of the range of human hearing). While some bemoan the social isolation symbolized by Apple’s white earbuds, remarkably, especially among young people, these personal portable technologies also enable the sharing of music in public. It is not uncommon in major cities such as New York or London to observe a crowd of teenagers clustered around a tinny piece of plastic broadcasting a trebly slice of the latest pop hit.
Despite ongoing endeavors in audiophilia, some of the most commonly used devices for listening today — cellphones, mp3 players, laptops — were not designed with high fidelity as a priority. Rather, as size constraints and style have dominated design, certain sonic dimensions have been conspicuously left out, namely bass. So ironically, even as what Linton Kwesi-Johnson calls “bass culture” remains strong as ever through the global reach of hip-hop, reggae, and other electronically-produced dance music, we simultaneously witness a filtering of such low-end-centric genres through what we might rightly call “treble culture,” as mediated by mobile music devices and their physical limitations. The attenuation of bass is a product not just of the size of these devices but — as highlighted by the issue of bandwidth (both internet/wifi and telephonic systems) — results also from the transformation of sound into digital representations capable of being easily transmitted and stored (i.e., “lossy” encoding).
But beyond tech specs, the rise of “treble culture” calls attention to a number of crucial intersections between music, technology, society, and culture. In offering a history of treble culture, this essay will place today’s digital mobile music players alongside twentieth-century precedents, considering their relative frequency range constraints as well as their relative popularity, but it will also attend to the new practices emerging with such devices: the class issues surrounding cellphone vs. iPod use, the racially-tinged discourses around public projection of mobile sound (or “noise”), the socialization of such technologies via communal listening practices, and the representational strategies on the part of producers and engineers to compose music that “works” through such devices. Just as Phil Spector’s “Wall of Sound” was meant to evoke grandiosity through even the most “consumer-end” radio, the recent embrace of mid-range synth lines and square waveforms suggests a kind of zeitgeist aesthetic feedback loop, a way of suggesting bass amidst all the treble. As an utterly mundane — indeed, naturalized — and yet largely unexamined phenomenon, the advent of treble culture merits a serious and critical appraisal.
Hit me on Twitter, in the comments, etc. Tell me all about those trebly slices of life you’ve been a part of and/or a witness to. I’d love to collect some anecdotes, find some angles I hadn’t considered, flesh out my brief history, and so on.
94 thoughts on “Mobile Music & Treble Culture”
Andy Moor and I were just in Mulhouse France — we noticed that every day we saw people — often music students – playing music over their mobile phone speakers. Some where actively listening w/ friends, one couple on a date had it on the table as background music, lots of different uses…
he mentioned that Motown (like Spector) tailored its sound so it’d sound well over the transistor radio. and — Wait! did you just say zeitgeist aesthetic feedback loop?
haha. not sure what you (dis)like about that phrase exactly, but curious.
& thx for the anecdotals! i’ll add one of my own. recently, i stepped outside a local dubstep night (where the system is pretty bass-friendly) and found a trio of club goers gathered around an iPhone playing a BeeGees song, probably off a YouTube stream (which is another level of leveling-off that I should mention above). The increasing commonness of accessing audio streams via video streams via cellphone adds yet another layer of trebling to this phenom.
also, I spoke to plenty of engineers in Jamaica who, like Motown, were quite concerned with mastering their recordings so that they’d work on a big club system or a likkle radio (for the man dem on the street). One guy, at Anchor Studio, actually had a switch to route the sound back-and-forth from studio monitors to a tiny/tinny little radio, making sure that the bass signal “carried” through.
had a similar experience in Jamaica, Wayne, talking to producers about where people listen to music…
also I’d like to point out the interesting, equally essentialized & problematic (in opposite ways) framing of bass in Kode9’s and Don Lett’s quotes here.
bass = bodies = women = “lowest common denominator”
(there are also racialized aspects of discussion something as ‘appealing to the body’ but women have historically been understood as “too much body” “essentially body” or “ruled by their body” across racial categories -although the nature of how women are ruled by their bodies changes across those categories)
interestingly K-punk’s use of “potency” (hah) evokes a differently gendered discussion of bass, as penetrative, perhaps, rather than enveloping?
A rich, provocative & problematic set of assumptions and assertions to start an analysis of bass with!
Good points, Ripley. Definitely a lot to tease out in the gendered, racialized discourse around bass pressure (or lack thereof).
I think we need to be a little more careful about fingering Kode9 as a bass misogynist here, especially since he wasn’t really talking about (sub)bass but about a particular sort of “fake” “rocky” (rockist?) “bass.” From what I can tell — though I intend to ask him about it — Steve is interested in bass as a powerful means of mobilization, irrespective of race, gender, nation, or other social categories.
I agree that Letts comes off as a bit more classic macho, though I also appreciate — clunky/facile as that quote is — the distinction that he implies between men and women and proclivities to dance (ie, the social dimensions of bass).
As for K-Punk, he’s done some odd gendering of genres over the years (e.g., grime&dubstep are the “yang” to bassline’s femme “ying”), so I’m not sure what to make of that penetrate/envelope dichotomy.
A fantastic post! really got me thinking about my own engagement with bass and treble.
From a different, but possilby related context, treble culture seems to have leaked into the underground experimental “noise” scene, where bands like Aerial Pink, The Skaters, Vodka Soap and Dolphins Into The Future have been exploring the strangely hypnotic properties of extreme levels of treble. These groups are also pre-occupied with defunct, or outdated mediums like the tape cassette, often releasing on tape as well as using them in live performances (for loops etc). I mention this because it is an example of using treble for aesthetic/artistic reasons instead of as a compromise, but also because I think this artistic desicion reflects a sort of nostalgia for treble, evoking decades gone by when popular culture was filtered through lo-fi TV speakers, hand-held cassette walkman, straight-to-tape radio rips, VHS etc etc. Bass is not always possible, but neither is it always desirable, sometimes its absense can be just as interesting!
Great points, Rob! Thanks. Good to remember things like TV speakers and radio rips as adding yet additional levels of treble. I take your point about aesthetics & nostalgia — very much important to bear in mind. Don’t mean for the project to be bass-centric, necessarily, much as my own affinities may point that way.
Dunno if any of this will help:
Anecdote 1: What I recall about Motown wasn’t just that the sound was tailored to play over the radio, but that each instrument was assigned a different frequency to boost.
Ancedote 2: I tried to import a CD into iTunes and it asked me something weird – I think it wanted to know if I wanted to chop off the low ends for my iPod. Then there is iTunes sound enhancer. Or there used to be. So many things that used to be optional in iTunes are just not anymore. Worrisome.
Ancedote 3: The countless reggae records I own where the bass has been rolled back on purpose, to keep likkle soundbwoys like me from competing at a big dance. But this is more from bass culture, yeah, and it’s like you can never enjoy it in the comfort of your own home – not ever laying claim to the home stereo is a good reason to be left behind on mobile devices.
So ‘Treble culture’ as a reaction to bass culture seems like a stretch. Dancehall, by the early 90s, was using bass far more for impact than anything else (eg riddims like batty rider, kumina and your favorite dem bow: MIX ME!) – I don’t hear anyone caring about the fidelity of each frequency, only giving it as much boom as possible. And what kind of frequencies can your Casio produce anyway?
The lamentations of people deep in music production don’t tell me there is any such cause and effect.
Ancedote 4: Whither MIDI ringtones?
Anecdote 5: Your treble culture doesn’t exist in a vacuum – what about low-res culture as a broader category? If you follow the trajectory of gaming on mobile devices, from brickles and palm pilot drug-dealer-lemonade people are now playing tower and other full screen color games. Doesn’t it make sense that music playback will follow suit? We will have phones with nice speakers someday.
You’re always very helpful, Goldbug (whoever you are). Thx for all these thoughts. A few quick responses —
* I’ll have to look into iTunes’ default compression schemes. I know that the advanced settings give users a fair amount of flexibility wrt file format / kbps. I don’t want to get too mired in this minutiae, however, but noting that it’s another layer of trebling seems useful.
* I’m not posing/stretching “treble culture” as an equivalent to “bass culture.” They’re very different phenomena, I think, for lots of reasons. It *is* interesting to me, tho, that so much “bass culture” (ie., reggae & its socio-sonic kin) is today filtered thru “treble culture” tricknology. Also, I think “as much boom as possible” is definitely a way of “caring about the fidelity” (or primacy) of certain frequencies. Also also, if we learn any one thing from the sudden success of Sleng Teng, Casio bass frequencies mastered by a reggae engineer and played through a proper soundsystem can be quite MASSIVE.
* Yes, MIDI ringtones (not to mention mp3 ringtones) are a part of this as well. See the work of Sumanth Gopinath (co-editor of the volume to which I’m contributing) for some research in that realm. Sumanth recently delivered a paper called “Integrated Circuits, Small Speakers, and the Sound of Treble Culture.” I should acknowledge here that it was Sumanth and the other editor, Jason Stanyek, who suggested the title “treble culture” to me.
* Finally, I appreciate your noting that “treble culture” as a dimension of auditory culture more generally should also be understood/analyzed in the broader context of low/hi-fi trajectories. What’s interesting in this regard is that audio fidelity has seemingly moved in both directions at once, with extreme audiophiles at one end and could-care-less consumer-end users on the other. I *do* think that we’ll one day have phones with nice speakers, and that we’ll be circulating big beautiful wav/aif/flac files instead of all these compressed bits (at least some of us will; the future is unevenly distributed, as you may have heard ;)
Might check AM vs. FM radio frequencies, and MTV/BET too… I remember plenty of times where a song I’d heard on Rap City opened up on CD/MP3 because the TV chopped off the lower freqs.
Also thinking about early recording tech… Edison stuck with cylinders because they had better quality than early discs (though dunno about bass)… Of course, discs won out, mostly due to convenience of storage and cheapness — one of my favorite anecdotes for audiophiles. Same with earbuds & mobiles winning over higher quality playback.
Good points, Gavin. I think that discs also won out because of ease of mass (re)producibility. Just read that somewhere recently; need to dig up the reference.
Also, here’s an interesting passage about early recording and fidelity/simulation of bass & treble:
I have no idea how to track down data about TV compression/attenuation. Could be a mammoth task. Perhaps just noting that it’s another layer is enough. For the purposes of my essay, I think so. But I’m grateful to anyone who can point me in a fruitful direction.
I think I managed to mangle up an attempted comment earlier today, but I’ll try to reconstruct:
I’ve been thinking about similar issues around mediation as they relate to compositional indeterminacy (like John Cage stuff) and “output hardware.” For the most obvious example to come to mind, “Wait” by the Ying Yang Twins is practically all bass, but if I played it only on my laptop speakers, I might never hear frequencies that low. Does this mean that “Wait” is optimized for the club or the car? Probably, but it doesn’t mean I won’t try to listen in whatever way my tech allows. The inability of the recording artist to control playback hardware is like a kind of inadvertent indeterminacy. (If John Cage has indeterminacy with regard to composition and indeterminacy with regard to performance, we might call it “indeterminacy with regard to playback.”)
I don’t have much background with “bass culture,” but an example that comes to mind from experimental music is Ryoji Ikeda’s stuff. Using high frequencies that go beyond what either lo-fi speakers can produce or human ears can hear, Ikeda plays with what I guess you could call supra-treble. Depending on the system I try to play this stuff on, I get wild distortion that forces the frequencies to do things in mid-range or sometimes nothing at all. Given the data-driven aesthetic of Ikeda’s music, you get the sense that he is actually testing the limits your hardware (and your brain/ears).
I recently found a quotation from Raymond Scott that gets at this problem (yoinked from Wikipedia):
And my favorite example of mediation as frequency filtering: man showing off home stereo sine sweep on YouTube (recorded on what seems to be a cellphone cam). The ironies are almost as deep as the levels of mediation separating us from those original sine tones.
The Motown anecdotes seem to come up again and again, so here’s the one I’ve heard: each week Berry Gordy would have a weekly meeting where he would play the latest singles his production teams had come up with through a tinny low-end transistor radio. If they didn’t sound good even then, he would send them back for retooling before commiting to releasing them.
Personal anecdotes/thoughts: Until recently my only record player was a portable mono Dux from the mid-sixties, and listening to it was a very interesting experience. It played records from the sixties great, especially the pre-stereo stuff, but all later releases sounded like shit. Didn’t matter if it was re-released sixties records, once they got onto 80s microgroove the sound was awful. Not sure why – different compression/mastering, or something actually physical in the smaller groove?
In any case, wouldn’t you basically agree that the “treble culture” is a bit of a return thing? Before the late sixties, bass frequencies were generally gone from music for technical reasons, a development we’re seeing again because of the mobile phones/computer speakers. Hi-fi – boomboxes – FM radio were developments towards better sound in between, we’rent they? Other things have “returned” too – kids listen to music together a lot more than they used to when I was a kid, both privately and in public. Connected?
(BTW – brainstorm – kids can hear treble better?)
It’s ALWAYS children/teens who listen to music on cell phones without headphones – at least in my experience. (It’s surprisingly often Kardinall Ofishall as well, but that’s probably a coincidence.) Is “treble culture” also a culture in the tradional sense, the set of values and experience filters of a group of people, in this case a generation (bought up on video games?).
Finally, here’s my own, modest, blogging on the subject:
One more – this is obviously a v interesting topic – there ARE decent quality, reasonable cost mobile phone speakers. But the kids aren’t buying them, despite them (or their parents) spending way more on unused features of the actual phone. WHY?
In the words of Smith&Mighty: Bass is maternal and when it’s loud I feel safer
also this (via):
real interesting post Wayne. I’m curious, are higher frequencies or lower frequencies worse for your hearing?
Similar to the Gordy anecdotes… There’s a mention in ‘Phil Spector – tearing down the wall of sound’ of how he used shitty car radios as a bench reference for his productions. Taking tapes straight from the studio out to the car to check them out during the engineering process – ‘because that’s how the kids listen to them’.
@droid, thx 4 the ref. seems like this is a pretty std approach for producers/engineers.
@davequam, i’m not an otolaryngologist, so i really can’t say. my kneejerk sense would be that high freqs might damage your ears, whereas low freqs just rumble your guts. there’s a volume issue, of course: to be damaging, the sounds will have to be powerful enough, or they simply won’t be heard. this latter point relates to birdseed’s query about kids hearing high frequencies better; they do. of course, various sonic, ultrasonic, and infrasonic weapons exist and are employed, often as forms of non-lethal crowd control — a topic that i can’t wait to read about in kode9’s forthcoming book. i have an uncle in the marines who works in this area, and he describes the effect of one of these bass guns on a rioting crowd as immediately reducing it to an eerie silence.
@birdseed, i can’t speak to the reasons kids buy the phones they buy, but it probably has as much (or more) to do with style and peer-based familiarity as quality. at any rate, i like your emphasis on the “return” aspect here: both in terms of a return to lo-fi (in this sense, the tech arc seems like quite a loping curve) and a return to social listening. but i also want to contest the idea that only young people are listening this way. if we factor in listening thru laptop speakers, never mind phones, i think it’s a much broader slice of society now enmeshed in “treble culture.” re: that phrase, however, i really don’t think we can posit “treble culture” as a discrete thing in the way you suggest. i generally shy away from using “culture” in that manner; rather, i prefer to think of culture as a big, messy, porous set of practices and values constantly in negotiation, contestation, reformation. so for me, “treble culture” is a much broader and diffuse thing than, say, “bass culture” (at least in Linton Kwesi Johnson’s sense).
finally, i want to add — esp re: the idea of social listening to tinny devices — that a few conversations i’ve had in the last day on google reader and via gchat (thx, esp, to canyon and ripley) have brought up the interesting point that even when we listen in “treble culture” many of us likely assume/imagine bass. this really complicates the relationship between heard frequencies and the idiosyncratic richness of the listening process/experience, perhaps in a way that might diffuse (or increase?) anxieties about the phenomenologies of “treble culture.”
Interesting. I listen to music at work on tiny speakers and earbuds and maybe on my phone. I notice that I listen to more merengue on small devices because I can hear the “small percussion” and get the feel of the music but reggaeton is harder to hear.
I like my midi ringtones and go with salsa, old school stuff, because the lack of bass doesn’t really pose a problem. I rather like the tinkling of the pianos and toot of the horns.
A little randomness.
Since I was a kid MOST of my listening has been on:
Scratchy kiddie record player
Tiny Cube Clock Radio
Itty bitty portable walkman speakers
Cheap walkman headphones
When at home I have full bass, since I married a guy who stuffed speakers into cars as a hobby so my home system is set up to play Magic Mike. (My car and PC were too, but I blew out the car speakers and lost the PC speakers in a move.) Now I usually just listen thru the speakers on my monitor or thru my iPod earbuds. It still sounds better than music on old cassettes recorded on for the 30th time from some crappy AM station that only has a clear signal when the sun is out.
Maybe money makes a difference? Because I know plenty of people my age(39) who are pretty ok with music played on cellphones, in fact some of us sort of like the empty flat fake scratchy lp quality of the music. Bass has always been a bonus, its for house parties and cars and clubs. When not in those situations the priority is hearing music, by any means neccessary.
My listening patterns may make a difference. I listen to it almost 24-7. Since I spend most of my time in public, most of my music listening has been on small devices. If I listened only at home or in my car, perhaps I’d shun lil tiny music with lil tiny sounds.
My current MP3 ringtone is El Amor by Tito El Bambino because that little high voice and the strings cut thru the hum of all the crap in the world and I can hear it. Normally I dont like mp3 ringtones because I cant HEAR them, they blend into all the other noise around me. My default is a midi, Castigala by Orlando Maraca Valle. Again, it SLICES thru the din and easy to hear.
Music with guiros and cowbells and claves doesn’t need a lot of bass to get the point across and sounds fine on a cell.
Im mentally listening to Prince, If I Was Your Girlfriend, which TOTALLY needs good bass to be played right. But you’re right, I mentally supply the bass for songs I know. When I was a kid, we supplied our own bass as well. Full Force’s Unselfish Lover aint nothin without the boom, but we knew how to recreate a broad array of thump using whatever surfaces we had that could be banged. No surfaces? BEAT BOX. LOL
I like the lil video clip on bass frequencies. It surprises people to hear that my baby sleeps to LOUD reggaeton, but its quite soothing IMO.
This is a great topic!
Perhaps this is obvious, but I see the attenuation of bass throughout the history of music reproduction technologies as being generally proportional to the democratizing potential of the medium. Prior to the introduction of the battery powered, portable transistor radio, phonographs and console radios were generally unaffordable for most third world listeners (ironically, the cultures producing all the great bass music we love). The transistor radio engendered a whole new class of music consumers who might have only previously experienced recorded music in a passive, communal setting, giving them individual agency over their personal soundtrack.
We see the same pattern with ipods and youtube: despite advancing technologies like SACD and HDTV that promise greater-than-ever high fidelity reproduction, consumers generally eschew hifi in favor of highly compressed media that they can easily consume, disseminate, remix at will.
Also interesting that nina mentions Prince above, since he is notable for having produces a few famous singles (Kiss, When Doves Cry) that lack bass lines.
I can certainly relate to her idea of “mentally supplying the bass” when it’s not currently audible. Another form of interaction/participation with the music, in an odd way.
haha I almost included a disclaimer about how I was only taking off from those quotes and did not in anyway mean to be read as attacking the people quoted as if that was their entire position.
I think that’s what my final line was trying to get at — that there are some rich, gendered & political implications in the terminology that we can kick around ..not that anyone’s *motives* in using that terminology needs to be questioned, necessarily! Actually discussing the authors as people is the least interesting aspect of this – color me a sampler at heart, but I was just using those text chunks as the springboard for a set of points about gendered & classed & racialized language.. although if it inspires future authors to interrogate their own language along those lines I’ll be happy!
I seem to recall having it explained to me that treble “hurts” your ears in that you feel it hurting, but that bass does more lasting damage without you being able to feel it.. can’t remember who told me that though.
Yesterday I was walking around looking at shops selling bootleg DVDs, whose terrible-quality images out of hollywood & nollywood are eagerly consumed and enjoyed, by people who I’m guessing “fill in” the missing stuff (including sometimes plot?) reminds me again of the creative aspect of listening (which is maybe part of your point in your legal brief, wayne?) about what we ADD when we listen to stuff.
My ability to dance to trebly music is directly related to my ability to imagine where the bass would be, I think..
I like the drop of Nina and her “Maybe money makes a difference?”. i’ll drop a question too but first, I disagree with her. Bass vs treble culture as it is laid down here (and so far that my english level lets me understand…) can’t be a money matter since Jamaica/jamaicans were and are poor when bass culture emerge. Money does not make the difference; It’s a choice that makes the difference.
Anecdote 1: I grew up in an humble farmer’s family in south France but my father would spend all his savings on high fidelity good quality amplification and “JBL L.something” in the 70’s that are still sounding perfect. The bass, without saturating, was making shake people and all the kitchen battery together !! The 100 meters away neighbours knew when there was a party. So, to me, the bass vs treble today seems to be more a question of choice since an Ipod (classic or touch models) and some luxuous cellphones can nowadays equal the price of a good pair of speakers…with BASSSSS. In some bass cultures like Jamaica/jamaicans one or the one I see here in Colombia with champeta, the picoteros and sound systems, they have little money but they make the choice to invest in sound and to go to parties to hear bass and hevy sound.
Anecdote 2: With this background, I first bought good sound amplificator, and then crappy cellphones that I never use to listen music since they don’t even feature the fonction (but would not). The mobile computer came ten years later in my order of choice. It was a consumer choice, a sound choice and a culture choice:
This part of your essay really interests me:
“While some bemoan the social isolation symbolized by Apple’s white earbuds, remarkably, especially among young people, these personal portable technologies also enable the sharing of music in public. It is not uncommon in major cities such as New York or London to observe a crowd of teenagers clustered around a tinny piece of plastic broadcasting a trebly slice of the latest pop hit.”
Are the two phenomenon: the “social isolation” and the “sharing around tiniy piece of plastic” of the same range (importance) ? I would say no. Will you do a statistic research ? I feel like saying social isolation is much more commom. I wonder if treble culture does not seem closing itself to the world: the 24-7 pattern scares me !! I don’t judge that, but how do they communicate with the outter world with a 24-7 music pattern on ears ? What about the social improvisation (as in music with jazz) from work to home ? I always turn damned freaky when I was seeing all theses parisians (and paisas here in Medellin in a smaller amount) close in their phones, cellphones, ipod, etc.
They close themselves to the world, and music was just the opposite idea…!
Well my point is, and there’s only soft thoughts in this comment, so that so I can be totally wrong: is there an opposition “opened bass culture ” Vs “closing treble culture ”
open-close; open close, a Fela Kuti classic.
Regarding money- the money an adult has for a system and the money a child/teen may have for personal devices aren’t neccessarily comparable. My parents had a pretty booming system, that doesnt mean their child had access to personal devices that allowed me any bass.
At parties and when the parents weren’t home, I blew it UP. I spent high school where I am, the Dirty South, bass was what it was all about. Still is.
But in my room, on the school bus, walking to the park, on campus when I was in college etc I had what I could afford- a walkman or discman and some cheap headphones or some cheap little portable speakers. So lack of money means my peers and I, though we had access to the big booming sounds, usually were listening to smaller devices.
Poverty is relative. My parents and my kids parents obviously had access to decent sound equipment. I wasnt POOR. But there are people who cant even manage to have savings, and spending them on sound? Not gonna happen. Even if a boombox were within reach, you have to be able afford to keep batteries in it.
Listening to music 24-7 isolating? Depends on how. I keep one earbud in when in public, its like Muzak. When I am with others, we share the music thats why I have and have had an assortment of crappy little speakers. The music isn’t something that isolates us, but brings us together.
2 years ago, my son had to go to the ER. What a DRAG,w e were waiting forEVER. I couldnt ease his impatience then I remembered that when he was a baby When Doves Cry seemed to have a hypnotic effect on him, as it happened I had a full length midi of it on my phone.And so he and I listened to WDC over and over on my cheap phone in an ER room, nodding our heads and the nurses would come in and nod their heads and hum and smile with recognition.
In fact, when my kids have to go to the doctor we usually do share the earbuds and sing kiddie songs together softly.
For me music has usually served to cut through the isolation, not add to it. Having a shared external focus got us out of our heads and into the same space, so to speak.
Some of my best memories from my teen years were listening to crappy music with friends and banging on cars or attempting to beat box to supply the percussion.
TV is already mentioned above, but i think it’s worth highlighting the music video connection here. When music videos came about it was very rare for televisions to have quality speakers, although today home theatre systems are becoming more common.
Similar to the Phil Spector car speaker story, I always try to check the sound mix (and image quality) for a film i’m editing on several shitty TVs, some stereo, some mono, because that’s where the vast majority of my audience will see it.
Great work, Wayne. Been lurking at your work for quite a while as I’ve been working on relatively similar stuff and find it fascinating and am jealous for the incredible ‘access’ you have over in the US compared to us mortals at the edges of the Empire –I’m in Italy (I’ve been trying to do some work on our own homegrown version of ‘ghettotech’ which is Neapolitan neo-melodic pop and it’s ties to gangsta culture but it just doesn’t fit that zeitgeist aesthetic feedback loop even if it definitely has that trebly quality to it, consumed on cell phones for the most part). One thing that your piece brought to mind is how ‘treble’, even in mainstream culture, signifies mediation or a calling to attention of the means of sound reproduction –a sort of a cue towards self-reflexivity. Film does that all the time –the tinny sound of diegetic music versus the fuller experience of the non-diegetic soundtrack. There’s a lot of examples in pop music as well –the cutting of high frequencies in house music (ie. Spiller, Daft Punk, Crydamore) in one case –autotune in a way is an extension of this. It all comes in a way together in that old Raspberries tune ‘Overnight Sensation (Hit Record)’. I mean, reproduction technologies affect aesthetics but treble (as well as bass) are also sonic signifiers of one sort or another. Keep up the great work. Peace. Peter.
Very interesting Wayne.
That topic have being recurrent the last few years once in a while in some discussions I had.
So here’s some stuff :
– When I go to mastering, my mastering man always talk about the highs in crunk and the latest hip-hop as “Sky is the limit” because it went really high and more high “recently” (last 5-10 years).
– Hip-hop in NYC was conceived and mixed/mastered to be consumed on headphone thru walkman and discman.
– Crunk in the south was conceived and mixed/mastered to be consumed on car sound system. That’s why the low are sooooooooooo low. But I don’t know why the highs are so highs too.
– I guess today it’s for the mp3 player/ipod and portable shitty speakers…
– It’s common in my circle to judge music, bass music i should say, thru laptop speakers, even if we don’t hear the bass. We just guess where it is. I’ve seen that with DJs, producers and labels peoples. Primarly because the laptop is right there in your face, it’s the main object you work with, especially for peoples in the music circle, the laptop is definitely the guitare of now. When you travel and meet people on the road, the laptop is the boombox.
– I noticed that we entered a pretty strong post-Justice era. Now, the kids when to hear riff music, mid-range riffs. Riff in electro. Riff in dubstep. Riff everywhere. It’s not about the bassline anymore, it’s not about the push of a constant kick anymore, it’s thru the RIFF that the kids go crazy. It’s probably a phase, but it’s really interesting to see it happening in front of us.
That’s my 2 cents for now.
I’d guess that the highs in crunk are so high because “We” listen to music with LOWWWW bass in cars, in parking lots, in driveways, in places with a lot of voices and noise and you cant hear anything over all the din unless its Out There.
Wayne? More tiny speakers= more electro/techno reggaeton less heavy demBOW?
Thanks to all for keeping the conversation going! All of the thoughts and stories you’re sharing are wonderful and very useful as I shape the essay. A few things to *riff* on (pace Ghis’s comment) —
* I’m fascinated by the rise of mid-range-riff-centered tracks that Ghis describes, and I think it maps onto the same thing that Kode9 was criticizing in the quotation above: an attempt by producers to recognize that their music will be, inevitably, filtered through treble culture. This is essentially what I mean by “zeitgeist aesthetic feedback loop.” Also, returning to the “rocky” element Kode9 refers to: riffs really work; they’re sticky like that — perhaps it has something to do with hummability/singability? It’s not so easy to hum along to sub-bass, or hi-hats, after all.
* I’m also pleased by the affirmation I’m hearing about us all supplying/assuming/imagining bass even when we can’t hear it. Not sure about the implications of that.
* Ghislain’s points about different intentions by NYC/Southern producers wrt primary listening contexts/technologies relates nicely to Nina’s point about $$’s role in all of this. Also, to bring in Canalh’s questions, I think we need to note that although Jamaica pioneered bass culture and massive soundsystems, this doesn’t mean that everyone in JA had/has personal access to such equipment. Yes, one can go to the dancehall, or (if one has $$) the club, and be utterly immersed by bass, but a lot of folks’ everyday engagement with reggae inna JA is via transistor radios, overdriven minibus speakers, television, and, increasingly, computers and cellphones.
* The question of isolation vs. sociability in an age of treble culture also seems, to me, to relate to questions of class (and race). Canalh may be right to point out that there are more people closing themselves off (though that is open to debate) with their earbuds in, but it really depends where we look/listen. A remarkable percentage (though I don’t have hard data) of teens I walk past here in Cambridge — especially, but not exclusively, when in groups or pairs — feature at least one member broadcasting a trebly slice of hip-hop, reggae, reggaeton, etc. In part, this seems to serve an ambient purpose, maintaining pop’s presence in our/their lives, esp by keeping the latest hot tunes in the air. But it also clearly serves to project their sense of selfhood/neighborhood/nationhood, much as a ringtone might, or — via visual cues — a fresh fitted cap, or a pair of trendy jeans. I should note that most of these kids are ppl-of-color. I really need to start stopping folks on the street and asking them about their habits/practices in this regard, I guess.
nice post, there are a millie directions this could take you. I like this idea of bass culture as filtered thru treble culture, its something thats been making me laugh. I think bass is sometimes more of a mythical / worship / cultural thing more than like an actual lived music thing.
While it may be a return, esp wrt all the new tech/internets involved, its also important to see a CONSTANT wrt class/age/3rd&4th worlds. The public aspect of it only makes treble more visible, although its going on all over all the time. It certainly leads to a lot of interesting subway/school/shared space situations. The class/race/socioecons of it are important and the rules are interesting too – like for some its always obnoxious. Some people won’t do it in busses but subway is ok. Before I got my ipod i was totally an offender, tho i do it in the station, not the enclosed space of the actual traincar and well shut it off if I get a ‘look’.
WRT the cellvs.ipod divide, the same kids with tinny cells might spend their money on bass crazy car sound systems, or kids rocking youtubevids & distorted mp3 do so on their bose headpones. My fav so far is using youtube on a pricy cell playing music thru a car tape deck. I think economics led behavior but like Canalh is saying, it obvi doesnt describe all behavior.
Its not just a communal event either. In Haiti we’d be hanging out talking and somebody would just start playing their ring tone over and over. I’d be like dude get yr phone but to them its muzak too, not just’let me play you this cool song’. You see it all the time on the train, people alone just singing along to their cell songs.
For me just as theres music that only sounds great on vinyl and theres music that only sounds great on tinny radio. I swear some things ‘sound better on youtube’. I think this can be a barrier to entry for third wold musics sold abroad, or changes what crosses, just as some american music sounds crap in most third word options. (21 questions get played all the time, it sounds awesome tinny but goldigger=mess).
fantastic & fascinating.
it’s making me think about how this plays out or doesn’t in the street-brass world i hang out in (what you could call the live & unamplified wing of globalized ghettotech)… and in other live & un-/minimally-amplified contexts.
lots of the brass music that my circles play (and listen to on record), especially the older stuff, is from contexts where the emphasis was on high, fast and loud, the balkans in particular. and as instrumentation changed over the past century-plus (and recordings began to be made), the highs there got higher and the louds got louder (fiddle to clarinet to trumpet leads in the balkans, for instance). my understanding is that this is partly the same as the tenor-centrism of older opera: the higher it is, the farther it carries, especially over a crowd that’s chatting in the usual conversational range.
a lot of the current bands, though, have serious low end, and often prioritize it in their arrangements. part of this probably has to do with bringing the (‘bass culture’) new orleans brass tradition into contact with the balkan side of things. and that change being reinforced by bands covering pop songs that come out of other faces of bass culture (“Push It”, “Crazy In Love”, “Thriller”, &c). and it’s least evident in the most trad-oriented bands, which supports that theory. but i wonder whether it’s also about acculturation to a general bass-heavy mode of listening to music, and whether it’ll change over time if this ‘treble culture’ motion continues.
you might want to look at charlie keil’s work, which often focuses on musical education and literacy, and has lately been talking about the drum & flute (bass & treble) pairings at the base of much balkan and roma musical traditions…
Lovely links you’re making there, Rozele! & I’m not surprised by the Charlie Keil reference, given your brass band background. Although I differ with Charlie on a few points (such as his suspicion of and disdain for non-acoustic, or as he put it “electrocuted,” instruments — tho, in his defense, he said that long before it was clear just how much people *play* with electronic things, and he *did* write an article sympathetic to karaoke), I am definitely an admirer of all the work he’s done, especially in pedagogy and public outreach. (This piece by Bob Christau, which I ran across recently, is a good introduction for readers who’d like to know more.) Are there particular articles you think I should consult for this project?
@rachel — thx as always for sharing yr perspective. and for reminding me of the many times i’ve seen people publicly listening aloud to their cellphones ALONE. i also appreciate your emphasis on the different contexts and ethics — idiosyncratically textured of course — that might inform someone’s choice (or ability) to broadcast a trebly slice of something, whether to themselves, their peers/friends, or the world/neighbors/strangers. interesting also about which *songs* succeed in treble culture, or not — good to remember that purchase in treble culture isn’t necessarily true simply according to genre.
Please click on the link for some wonderful prose by Luc Sante, author of the book “Low Life,” which is germane to the discussion at hand…
“We went there for the bass, and the trance state resulting from hours of dancing to riddim that stretched forever, the groove a fabric of stacked beats fractally splitting into halves of halves of halves of halves, a tree that spread its branches…
the sum of her was exactly like the music: the massive horsepower of the bass below and the delicate broken crystal guitar and plaintive childlike melodica above.”
Just curious, but have you taken economics and price into the equation? When I was in the States, I had a great soundsystem with really good base. However, since moving to the Belfast for grad school, I’ve not been able to afford a sound system here yet (gotta love grad school poverty!). As such, despite my preference for a more bass-filled and balanced sound, I am force to just use the speakers on my laptop or my headphones. While I have cans with killer sound range/response I previously bought for my field recordings, it still does not impact the body sonically. This, I feel, limits the embodied experience of listening to the music, and has been something that drives me crazy. Yet, the little white earbuds came free with the iphone, the laptop speakers are in the laptop, etc. Even though I am a bit of an audiophile, cost is a major barrier in getting the sonic experiences i desire and am used to.
Have you thought about this or heard anything that touches on this factor in treble/bass culture dynamics?
Thanks for the comment, David. As you can see in several of the comments above, price/class is definitely a factor in all of this — at least many of us seem to think so. See in particular the exchange between Canalh, Nina, and Rachel — all of whom make interesting points — and my responses.
this is for dave quam (h/t nick):
yes, kiel’s a purist in ways that few of us are, though less so than he can be caricatured (i hadn’t seen that karaoke article before). and more concerned, in my experience, with music as a participatory experience than anything else (which to me makes the dj-driven dancefloor a central part of what he’s talking about, whether he thinks so or not).
i’m still only partway into it, but the main charlie kiel (& vellou kiel & feld & blau) project that comes to mind as worth a look is “Bright Balkan Morning: Romani Lives and the Power of Music in Greek Macedonia” (http://BrightBalkanMorning.com/about.html); it’s the drum & zurna project i mentioned in passing. its phenomenological/historical sections (as opposed to the more ethnographic ones) drift a bit towards the mystical for my taste at times, but do get into the effects of qualities of sound on the body in very interesting ways. some of the “groove” sections of kiel’s education project Born To Grove (http://borntogroove.org) might be tangentially related too, though it veers more towards the spiritual than towards the body, unfortunately.
Great line of thinking/questioning,
Some brief considerations by a third-world (Brazil)record producer/composer.
Somewhere in the early nineties I noticed that all my serious music listening was done in the car. I was quite concerned about this , thinking that this change from the living room stereo to the car sound , was something very meaningful for someone who lives of creating soundscapes.
So I began asking questions and discovered that, what I thought was a personal quirk , was indeed an widespread trend.
I realized by talking to people, that although sound quality was to some an issue ( Car speakers provide a surround atmosphere that stereo could not, and generally speakers in the car are bigger than most home systems) , to most people the visual aspect of driving and listening to music, offered a new context to music…
So I concluded, perhaps wrongly, that the marriage of images in motion and music was what made people prefer mobile music..
On this informal inquiry I also noted that the change from vinyl to CD , was for most not only a change of a vinyl player to a CD player, but also a change from a living room system with various components ( power amp, monitors, players) to an integrated system with smaller bass reflex monitors , and lower power. Even those who kept the living room systems, did most of their listening on the smaller integrated systems.
So what became clear to me was that we were dealing not only with a change of media , but also a crucial change on listening environment, with major significance to music making.
From the low end perspective I think that most home systems became unresponsive to bass, and we needed to adjust to that.
Bass needs two things to physically exist ( let´s not forget that music is a physical phenomena) : space and power. Both of these are unavailable in the current modes of personal music experience. Real lows are merely an illusion in headphones , for this illusion of low-end to exist , everything else , meaning mid-treble ,mids,and low-mids musts go. That´s why we end up with what a call boom -shiii ( deepl ows and hi treble) sound spectrum in most of current music production.
Since on most home sound equipments real bass cannot exist , we tend to go to discos/bailes ..whatever to experience them and then low-end became a sort of communal experience.
I gather that it was the increased quality of reproduction on the final consumer product
sorry for the loose meaningless phrase in the end….
I was at a festival recently, and about 4 in the morning when the stages were shutting down, we ended up sitting round listening to tunes on my mobile phone.
Someone showed me that if you put the phone in a paper/plastic cup it amplifies the speaker output and gives it more bass. It made a big difference, though it wasn’t Stone Love or anything still. We called it rave in a cup :-)
One more thing I’ve been considering is what happens to music that you’re used to listening to on shitty laptop speakers once it gets onto a real hi-fi. I’m subletting an appartment from a guy with a huge home-theatre subwoofer setup and a damn lot of (ringtoney) music just sound’s TOO bass-heavy, with totally muddled midrange and tweets.
i guess the point of the rave in a cup story is what nina says above:
“Bass has always been a bonus, its for house parties and cars and clubs. When not in those situations the priority is hearing music, by any means neccessary.”
also, i’d rather listen to big tunes on my phone than ones i don’t like on a soundsystem
“rave in a cup”! Love that. thx, Gabriel.
And thx, Beni, for the comments. I think it’s clear that a lot of music has been produced expressly for car consumption. Crunk is especially like that, I think. Reminds me of an offhand comment in a piece by SFJ —
Finally, Birdseed, I guess that phenomenon — listening to treble-culture-friendly (and therefor muddy?) fare on hi-fi equipment — is similar to the effect of playing a low-bitrate mp3 on a good system. It sounds like shite. I’ve had some seriously cringeful moments when I’ve mistakenly played a crappy mp3 in a club.
thx 2 all for the continued thoughts. great stuff!
I was thinking the other day, as I posted here. I went outside and was thinking about bass and humming Lisa Lisa- Can You Feel the Beat. It made me think- most songs I listen to refer to bass/the beat as something you FEEL.
The lack of bass in an iPod or phone or tiny computer speakers is pretty irrelevant. If you know the song, you know where the bass is. And even if you can hear the beat, you can’t FEEL the bass. So what does it matter how good the speakers are, if you can’t feel the boom and the beat doesn’t threaten to take away your breath or stop your heart. (I remember riding with friends when I was a kid and the BOOM would literally make me lose the rhythm of my breathing)
Not only do we supply the beat by making noise, but we do what for ME, is the most important thing- supply the FEEL of bass. At my desk or at an appointment when I sit and wait, I sometimes tense and untense my quads or very subtly bounce in my seat. And if Im walking, I kinda bop. I dont need to hear the bass if I can FEEL the beat. The sound is secondary to the physical sensation of a nice good THUMP.
As a female let me respond to this, and I don’t mean to be nasty-
“Hip-hop became music for driving; it was designed to soothe. (The heavy bass frequencies cause car seats to vibrate, literally massaging the passengers)”
Heavy bass vibrating through the female pelvis (and perhaps the male, but I’ve got female anatomy and haven’t discussed this with any guys so I dunno) is “soothing” if soothing means highly stimulating and erotic.
The right beats and enough heavy bass coming through the seats of a car get you “CRUNK”, all that boom goes straight through the seats and to the genitalia and buttocks. And a “good” song with the correct tempo is like a real quick fast hard screw. If you make out or sit on a guys lap in a car with a lot of boom going on, you can be perfectly still and the car will do the nasty for you. Even the slow songs and love songs have to have a lot of heavy bass. There was an art to seduction by stereo. The car stereo was a huge programmable vibrator.
I find a lot of beat heavy music soothing, so Im not dismissing the previous statement.
But my experience in the skreets of the dirty south (Georgia and across the Gulf Coast to Houston) suggests to me that for people of a certain age, the vibrations in a car aren’t meant primarily to relax or soothe or massage unless massage is meant in a sexual sense.
Interesting stuff as always, Nina! I take it that “skreets” was a Freudian slip on the keyboard? (streets + skeet?) Or did you intend to make that pun?
At any rate, I also appreciate your note about bass as a feeling; I think this is what Beni means too when he notes that for bass to really be bass, you need space (for the frequencies to actually get into the air).
Yeah, i agree. I think SPACE is necessary for the bass to develop and envelop you.
And Wayne! SKREETS is what one calls the streets down this way. Skreets, skrenf , skrong, skrimp. SKREETS? You never heard of the skreet?
color me ignant. not familiar with that form of slanguage. obv i need to listen to more crunk!
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