I cannot lie; I’ve aged into the “Greatest Hits” demographic. I find myself regularly listening to one of the 2 “Greatest Hits” stations here in Boston. Now, they used to be called “Oldies” but over the last few years, the music from the 50’s and 60’s has been phased out in favor of 70’s and now 80’s. They’re still oldies but Greatest Hits is more PC. Oldies? Isn’t that what our grandparents listened to? I like the music from the 70’s. It’s what I was listening to in my formative years. Oh sure, you’ll still hear a song from the 60’s but it will likely be Motown or the Beatles. And yes, I still like to keep up with today’s music, and you can get a good idea about what’s going on by listening to the Top-40 station for sixty minutes (or as long as the ear will take). Okay, what’s the point? What I’ve been noticing is that I’m hearing things in old songs I never heard before. Instruments are crisp, percussion distinct, backup vocals, stereo separation, etc. That got me to thinking. We’ve never heard these songs like this before. When we first heard these pop hits on the radio, it was on AM. they were being played off EQ’d 45’s through early solid state audio equipment, pre-historic audio processing and tubed AM transmitters. The total harmonic distortion and inter-modulation distortion was huge. FM was coming along with slightly better fidelity and stereo, but it was where you went for “progressive rock” or “beautiful music”, the hits were on AM. Now the songs have been re-mastered, loaded into linear digital playout systems, run through state of the art audio consoles, processed intelligently, and transmitted by state of the art solid state transmitters. Even if the final transmitter amplifier is a tube, everything that comes before has been built for low distortion. It’s all really quite remarkable.
When I was the Chief Engineer for the local Top-40 station I always was envious of the engineers over at the Greatest Hits stations. They always sounded good. There was nothing I could do to make my station sound like theirs. I didn’t have re-mastered songs with real instrumentation to run through my air chain. No, I was stuck with clipped, distorted, overly processed content. You know that phrase “Garbage in, garbage out”? In this case it became “Garbage in, more garbage out”. This leads me to my next point, the improvement in broadcast audio processors. I recently read a commentary by Frank Foti in Radio World. Along with Bob Orban, Frank is one of the luminaries in the processing world. His commentary discussed how with modern technology, processors can be loud but with much less distortion. The trick is to build loudness in the AGC stage and not in the limiters and clippers. It’s been tough to do that up until now because AGC control wasn’t up to the task. Now with better detectors, it can be done. If I was still in the game at a top-40 station, I’d now have the tools to make the station sound loud without adding more limiting/clipping distortion to the already distorted content. But, I’d still be listening to those Greatest Hits stations!