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The loudness wars part 2: Ukelele edition

Posted by r on January 19, 2012

(edit cleanup 3.19.13: In which I contemplate the last half-decade of ubiquitous ukeleles– and casual, user-friendly glockenspiels– in commercial music and muse on this fad’s connection to the last decade-and-a-half’s worth of highly questionable commercial mixdown practices and/or The Alleged End of Interesting Music.)

Everybody’s got ukelele fever. Maybe it started with that goddamned Train song, maybe not. Sales are up by anywhere from 50% to 500% year over year for the last three years, depending on who you ask. You can’t find a prescription drug or chain store TV commercial that isn’t scored almost entirely by uke and bells right now (although they add sleigh bells too for Christmas). Guitar Center, the Wal-Mart of rock (and the ultimate weekend haven for middle-aged douchebags, myself possibly included), now has a huge ukelele display by the front door. What’s that horrible network sitcom that has the girl playing “cute” little ukelele numbers at every turn to fill holes in the narrative? I don’t know, but I know that show sucks.

I have theories about the nature of the uke revival as well. I am pretty sure that most of the sane and educated world despises Train, and hates “Hey Soul Sister” most of all… although I may only be kidding myself in order to avoid abandoning all remaining hope in Western civilization.

Guitar Center keeps the ukes by the front door for a reason. They know that players who wander in looking for ukes aren’t their typical customers. They know that the usual Guitar Center experience is likely to be a huge turnoff for these types of customers– if you’ll forgive the use of a US state’s two-letter postal code in a particularly horrible pun, let’s call them “HI-curious”– and they want to get a uke into the hands of these new customers right away before they notice the horror that surrounds them / run away screaming.

The uke seems like an approachable instrument, especially for ladytypes and twee, hairless college boys. It’s small. It’s relatively inexpensive (or it can be; good luck finding an acoustic guitar for the $30-90 of a brand-new entry-level uke). It’s got four strings instead of six or more, with a narrow neck and wide, fumble-proof spacing between the strings, and so it’s relatively easy to pick up basic chords. It’s meant to be strummed; far as I know, there aren’t a whole lot of ukelele finger-picking wizards out there to embarrass you as you learn. The strings are usually nylon and easy on the fingers compared to a steel-string electric or acoustic. It’s perhaps one step above an autoharp in difficulty, but a lot simpler to maintain. And in contrast to the autoharp, you can actually sing with a uke in your hands without looking funny (or, alternately, Xiu Xiu-grade crazy).

Perhaps the most important factor in its explosive popularity with millennials and Gen Y’ers: Despite its similarities to its bigger, more common brother, the uke doesn’t carry all the cultural baggage / liabilities of the guitar– which understandably offends many potential uke buyers. Rock is pretty much over, or so it seems from here, and it’s not like playing a guitar is going to get you laid in high school any more.

So that may explain its popularity from a sales perspective. Young adults, looking for something organic to do in an increasingly artificial world, limited in their spare time, terrified by the expense, learning curve, and possibly the recent overexposure of more traditional instruments… sure, the uke does make some sense in this context.

But what is perhaps more surprising is how ready the commercial-jingle world has been to re-adopt the uke. Commercials are scored by ostensible professionals. The ukelele has always been the joke of the stringed-instrument world, with its last appearance (pre-Train) on a hit record involving Tiny Tim. Why is it suddenly everywhere in inescapable recordings?

Again, I don’t think it’s all about Train– but I have to give it to them: Given the current monodynamic engineering climate, I think they may have accidentally hit on something.

It’s those damned loudness wars again.

The brickwall limiters that made the loudness wars possible are designed, of course, to make quiet and loud sections look exactly the same on a waveform display. Quiet sections don’t sound so great any more, nor do they have the impact they might have had in more honestly dynamic times. (The quiet-loud-quiet formula of the 90s didn’t just die because it was overdone from ’91 on; if you want evidence, look at how long abuse of Autotune has persisted in allegedly popular culture.)

With no real dynamics to rely on to give songs form, with more and more compression being applied (even before the brickwall limiter) to accompanying instruments in order to get them out of the way of the increasingly-squashed vocal… it makes sense that we would see form being defined in the Era of 0dB more by “spectral fill” than through dynamics.

This kind of formal delineation through pure moment-to-moment frequency spread is nothing new at all (how many songs from the 70s can you name that start with just an acoustic guitar before the band comes in and blows the doors off?), but it’s happening an awful lot more / in more exaggerated fashion within electronically-derived genres than it used to. Now it’s becoming more and more common in rock too.

Take the horrid Train song as an example (and then, let’s never speak of it again). Now, if I recall from my many supermarket encounters with that total piece of shit, there’s no bass to speak of, except for perhaps an isolated kick / snare drum, in the verses.

The lone uke in the verses, tuned way up yonder (as they are wont to be tuned), and more or less solo save for the vocal accompanying it, produces no low or even moderately low frequencies. For that matter, with nylon strings, it doesn’t produce a terrific amount of high-frequency output either. That means it won’t get in the way of lyric comprehensibility despite being in more or less the same register as the human voice. You can hear every ill-advised word, and so can your mom, and your mom will possibly even like those words, but let’s hope you don’t.

The choruses add fuller rock instrumentation. The instrumentation fills out more of the low and high registers– “spectral fill.” Meanwhile, whatever-his-name-is brings his lyrical insult to the collective intelligence of the United States up into a higher tessitura with a contrasting, slower-moving rhythm underpinning his melodic ascent. That’s our melodic cue that a new section is taking place, with the added richness of spectral information providing added clues as to the Importance of that section.

Alright, so as promised, let’s never discuss that fucking song again. But what of all the latest commercial backing tracks? The uke-and-bells-and-maybe-light-but-highly-compressed-drums commercial backing tracks?

We’re not meant to notice the music in those things at all. If there is added “spectral fill,” it comes in in the form of a bass guitar added over the commercial’s final moments, with an overly quick fadeout to totally downplay and degrade its emergence. (It’s a fakeout designed to leave you wanting more. …Wanting more commercial? Nice trick.)

Commercials were perhaps the first shot fired in the loudness wars. For decades, they’ve been compressed to death, exceeding the volume of actual TV programs by 3-6dB or more, making everyone reach for the mute button on the remote during the breaks. Fidelity has never mattered in commercials. They didn’t need to wait for the added “nuances” provided by the digital brickwall limiters that started the war proper in music. They just turned that shiz right up so it was impossible to miss, distortion be damned.

The uke is great for the loudness wars beyond its limited registral and spectral production. Its strikingly quick decay means that the audible artifacts of balls-out compression are easier to deal with and less noticeable than on, say, a more sustained instrument like a steel-string acoustic. It leaves plenty of spectral room for that smarmy-sounding voiceover, even with a female voice. Its register is perfectly heard on even the shittiest of TV speakers.

The uke also conveys a relaxed, casual atmosphere that has a soothing effect, arguably making it easier to stomach that compressed-to-the-point-of-pure-square-wave voiceover track being ice-picked into your TV set and eardrums. And those bells that are invariably paired with the uke go soaring right over all the important phonetic content, adding the “melodic flair” that the strum-strumma-strum uke isn’t really that capable of generating, without really being that noticeable either.

Does all this mean I hate the uke? Absolutely not. I have no strong feelings about it one way or the other. I think it’s great that so many non-musical types are picking one up, and I hope it will serve as a gateway drug to other, more flexible instruments for at least some of those casual buyers. But as with everything else that is incredibly popular these days, I think it serves us well to be at least a little bit cynical about the reasons for its current ubiquity.

Or not.

3 Responses to “The loudness wars part 2: Ukelele edition”

  1. katie s. said

    my uke entered the house when i announced to sid, somewhat out of nowhere, that if i had one i’d learn to accompany myself with the songs i sign to the dog, and record videos to put on youtube. he indulges my worst whims. but once it entered the house, he was hooked, bought a second uke, and sold his guitar – primarily because of the portability. it’s easy to keep in the living room and strum on idly from his chair while watching tv or whatever. and it’s easy for him to travel with when he’s working out of town. i loathe that train song, for the record.

    • r said

      Somebody ought to tell Sid that travel-sized guitars exist! While it would be fun to have one, I’m sure… I cannot imagine ever giving up guitar for uke. But I’m sure he’ll have no problem finding another one when he comes back around. Or maybe you’ll both become virtuoso mandolinists after seeing Chris Thile play or something. I would definitely love to have two virtuoso mandolinists peripherally in my life!

      Of course I knew you hated that Train song. You’re a good person and a smart person. It logically follows.

    • r said

      Perhaps Sid might someday be interested in semi-regressing to the Yamaha Guitarlele! I have to admit, this one intrigues me.

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