I went through one of those big life-altering changes recently. A lot of the really important changes in my life have announced themselves with big, bold transitions: the moment I fell in love (to the soundtrack of Kate Bush's Wuthering Heights — long story); the birth of my son; the day I quit my day job to make a living from guitar and writing. This change didn't happen like that, exactly. In fact it happened so slowly that I didn't even realize it at first: I fell in love with loud music again.
When I was a teenager, I used to get to stay at home on Sundays while my parents and my two brothers went to soccer. This was my sacred time to crank up my guitar, thrash out some Metallica riffs and, perhaps best of all, have the stereo all to myself at whatever volume I wanted. In a small house with five people, two cats and two dogs this was a rare luxury and I took full advantage of it. I'd commandeer the hi-fi to play favorite albums like Steve Vai's Sex & Religion, Jimmy Page's The Outrider (and pretty much all Led Zeppelin), Black Sabbath's Paranoid, Joe Satriani's Flying In A Blue Dream, Sepultura's Arise… it was such a rare treat to hear those albums echoing off the walls, instead of played at whisper-quiet volume in a busy house.
I did, of course, have headphones and they were always great for listening to things in fine detail: getting lost in the depth of Jimmy Page's soundstages, figuring out which Beatle sang which harmony, trying to figure out what the hell Vernon Reid was doing and how I could find a way to do it too… there's a certain charm to listening to music in headphones, especially really well-produced stuff that can stand up to that kind of scrutiny. Or poorly-produced stuff where headphones reveal the flaws and the humanity of the track. That's kinda cool too. But the thing with listening to music in headphones is, it becomes a very private experience. A sort of one-way communication from the music to the listener. Any time that you get to spend with music is time well-spent, as far as I'm concerned.
But something different happens when you’re listening to music at crockery-rattling volume: the environment you're listening in actually becomes a part of the music. Black Sabbath's Black Sabbath sounds chilling and creepy in headphones, but when echoing off the walls of your house and reverberating through the halls, it becomes downright majestic. And somewhere in between the notes Steve Vai plays and the delay repeats of those same notes, there seems to lurk this whole new world of harmonic information that you can only really access when those notes are screaming around your living room and scaring the cats.
I guess one thing that really made me think of this stuff was an interview with Extreme's Nuno Bettencourt back when that band's III Sides To Every Story album came out. Nuno said (and I'm paraphrasing here) that they purposely went for a very dry, reverb-less guitar tone because this prompted the listener to want to turn the music up louder. I guess the idea is that when you have a recorded tone that's swimming in reverb, the recorded ambience clashes with the ambience of the room and the music gets a bit lost. By stripping out the ambience on the recording you're letting the room do all the work. And that can be quite addictive.
So lately I've found myself listening to music at neighbor-disturbing levels once again, and discovering new things about some of my favorite albums, as well as forming attachments to new bands. After all, I've welcomed them into my living room, and heard their voices bouncing off the very same walls that reflect the voices of everyone else in the house.
What about you? Do you listen to music on cranked speakers? Or are headphones more your style?
Check out these top headphones for your loud rock and roll listening. These are pretty amazing too, as are these professional DJ headphones.