As I write this, one of the most talked-about bootleg albums circulating the web is a fan-remastered version of Taylor Swift’s 1989 (Taylor’s Version), undertaken to fix some of the odd sonic artifacts of the official release, which dropped on October 27 of this year.
CRT monitors were originally blamed for the problems, but it turns out that’s probably not it. Some fans are driven borderline mad by the sonic artifacts, and others can’t hear them at all. But perhaps the most interesting thing to come out of this whole kerfuffle is a larger discussion among Swifties about hearing health, aging, orchestral music, and the distinction between mixing and mastering. And yes, there’s a lot to unpack there, but don’t worry, I’ll walk you through the stuff you need to know to make sense of it all.
Why Taylor Swift fans are deconstructing 1989 TV’s mix
In case you didn’t know—or didn’t care—Ms. Swift has been re-recording her first six studio albums because a troll who loves Ye and hates Tay Tay bought her old record label and started taunting her with the master files. 1989 TV is the fourth such re-recording to hit the market, and it’s probably the best-received to date. But to be honest with you, I probably wouldn’t have known any of the above had I not been surfing Reddit, where I stumbled upon a thread about some consistent high-frequency noise plaguing the vocal tracks across the entire album.
The noise, it seems, is somewhere in the neighborhood of 15,000Hz, which explains why some Swifties think it’s no big deal, while others find it to be a source of legitimate torment. The former group largely can’t hear it, or their hearing acuity is so low at that frequency that it barely registers.
I fall into the former category, of course. I’m old enough that 15,000Hz isn’t far from the point where my ears impose a steep low-pass filter on everything that passes through them. So when I bought 1989 TV to see how much this artifact would affect someone like me, I struggled to hear it on any song other than “Clean.” And even on that track, it didn’t register for me as a discrete noise, but rather a harsh, brittle edge to Swift’s vocals.
My buddy Lauren Dragan—headphone expert for Wirecutter—is a lot younger and has much better hearing, but she had the same experience. “I can hear a distinct difference between the original and the new versions,” she said to me. “But it sounds more to me like, ‘Ugh, someone cranked up some EQ somewhere.’”
So, needless to say, neither I in my 50s nor Lauren—much younger though she may be—is as bothered by this as some. But we were both immediately fascinated by the story and quickly went down a rabbit hole discussing it for nearly an entire day.
Is it the CRTs, or isn’t it?
In another thread on the subject, someone pointed out that the noise seemed likely to be 15,700Hz, which happens to be the horizontal scanning frequency of some CRT displays, which seemed odd to me. Lauren, though, discovered that CRTs are still quite common in the recording industry, and a similar 15.7kHz noise plagues many of Hans Zimmer’s recordings, as well as some of Porcupine Tree’s records.
But as Brent Butterworth and I were preparing to record an episode of the Audio Unleashed podcast about this whole kerfuffle, I dug a little deeper and did my own spectrogram of “Clean,” and I discovered that the most prominent persistent tone in that region actually isn’t at 15,700Hz, but rather 15,460Hz (with another weird buzzing at 19,000Hz that even the youngest of Swifties seem to have ignored). 15.46kHz doesn’t really correspond to any CRT scanning rate I’m aware of at any resolution, so that threw that hypothesis into question.
Digging even deeper, though, I realized something. The presence of that 15.46kHz artifact didn’t correlate with the weird high-frequency edge I was hearing only on Swift’s vocal track. Zooming in a little farther and switching the color map on my spectrogram while playing the song made me realize that the high-frequency noise I could perceive (what little of it there was to my aging ears) was a handful of different discrete bands ranging from 14,875 to 15,250Hz. Might that be some sort of resonance? Aliasing from some audio plugin that should have been oversampled but wasn’t? Aliens? Quantum noise? Honestly, I just don’t know.
(OK, I know for sure it’s not quantum noise.)
What I do know is, it sort of doesn’t matter to Swifties. They’ve already taken matters into their own hands and applied some very high-Q parametric EQ to the entire album with a center frequency of 15kHz, and for those truly bothered by the noise, that seems to be a big improvement.
The distinction between mixing and mastering
What’s fascinating for me as I follow this conversation across multiple Reddit threads and on social media is that as a result of all this, many of Ms. Swift’s fans are learning a real lesson about the difference between mixing and mastering, and many are pointing out that a notch filter applied to the entire final mix is more aggressive than necessary. What would truly resolve this problem would be to go back to the original stems and apply judicious PEQ to only Swift’s vocal track (and apparently her acoustic guitar track in at least one song, but I can’t hear the noise in that track, so I can’t confirm).
It’s giving those who care a truly meaningful lesson on audio production and all the things that can affect the final mix. It’s leading to larger discussions about the differences between music formats, including why those who purchased the album on vinyl can’t hear the noise regardless of their age. Unfortunately, many of them seem to believe that it’s because the vinyl release comes from a different master, not because it’s a lower-fidelity medium, but oh well. Not everything can be tied up in such a neat bow.
The reason I’m sharing this story is because I think us senior citizens can learn something from it. Far too many hi-fi enthusiasts my age and older look down their noses at the youths and their music. There’s this pervasive notion that they don’t care about sound quality because they’re all listening through crappy earbuds, and it wouldn’t matter even if they weren’t because something-something EQ, something-something compression, something-something Loudness Wars, something-something get off my lawn.
But ultimately, this all indicates to me that these kids—and yes, I’m calling anyone who finds a 15kHz buzz truly unnerving a kid—don’t merely care about sound quality; they’re absolutely passionate about it. Whether they’re listening on vinyl (and a lot are), via streaming on good headphones, or whatever the medium may be, they’re noticing things that fly under the radar of most aging audiophiles.
Moreover, instead of simply demanding a re-release of the album, they’re remastering it themselves. To pretty good effect! I got my hands on one such fan remaster and compared it to the official release, and that edge I’m hearing on Swift’s vocals on “Clean” is gone. Of course, I simply have to take it on faith that the other high-frequency buzzing—which I can’t hear on the other tracks—has been fixed as well.
Who knows? By the time this article is published—a few weeks after I write it—it could be that the news will have reached Swift’s team and files provided to streaming services will be updated. I doubt the CDs will be re-pressed, though. And again, this isn’t an issue with vinyl.
Is this our opportunity to bring Swifties into the hobby?
All of that’s sort of beside the point. Whatever the format, us codgers have an opportunity to use all of this to our advantage, to invite younger fans into our hobby instead of chasing them off and telling them they’re ruining the world with their avocado toast and their Bluetooth speakers and their social justice. If you have a young Swiftie in your life, invite them over to listen to the fan-remastered 1989 TV on your hi-fi setup.
Don’t tell them what to listen for. Just let them listen. They’ll hear the way a proper stereo speaker setup adds depth to the mix of “This Love.” They’ll pick up on the way a good listening room lets the decay of the reverberant vocals of “Wildest Dreams” hang in the air, enhancing the mood of the tune. They’ll feel the way the bass of “Style” hits you in the chest on a good full-range system rather than merely registering as deep bass in the ears.
They’re listening a lot more closely than you think they are. I promise. They’re hearing things that I (and you, if you’re older than I am) can’t even begin to hear anymore. Most importantly, they care passionately about every ounce of sonic minutiae baked into Swift’s music, good or bad. And to be honest with you, they’re discussing it all on a technical level that is probably over the head of most of the old-guard audiophile press.
I’m also seeing so many discussions online right now about how the ability to hear this high-pitched whine diminishes with age, but also with sustained exposure to loud sounds. Hell, Taylor Swift is already responsible for a 23 percent increase in voter registration this year. Could she also—admittedly inadvertently—contribute to an entire generation taking hearing health seriously in a way that none before it did? Honestly, stranger things have happened . . . like, this month.
. . . Dennis Burger