I love music. I suppose that doesn’t exactly put me into a scorned minority.
So I’m listening to Weezer’s “Island in the Sun,” a song which I rather love, on Pandora. Offhand I’m not certain if this is a quirk of this particular listen, or if I’ve just never noticed it before — perhaps I’ve never really listened to it with headphones. But when the song starts, there’s only sound coming from my right headphone.
Immediately I feel a bit unbalanced. I pull the working speaker away and verify that no, it’s not my imagination. Instrumentals are emanating from the right speaker only. My first thought goes something like, “Crud, has one earpiece gone out on yet another pair of headphones? Or is this intentional?” Then the vocals start up on the other speaker and I feel better. I can get back to what I was doing (namely, reading through the Penny Arcade archives).
And I contemplate how it really, really annoys me when songs do that. It would be great if no one ever did that to a poor defenseless song. My mind immediately counters: is it not a valid artistic technique? And of course it is. I could easily imagine a song recorded to make it sound like two singers are on different sides of you. My wife has a collection of Final Fantasy VIII music on which Ultimecia’s theme opens with a beautiful swooping instrumental that sounds like it’s flying around you. (As memory serves. I think it’s Ultimecia’s theme.)
I thought about it for a little while, and I think I’ve distilled what bugs me down to a few things.
- I have had bad experiences with headphones going out on one side in the past. Bad problems. Horrible problems. As in, my headphones have a usual life expectancy of a few months, and then one or the other side goes out. It might have something to do with my occasional forgetting that they’re plugged into the computer when I stand up. So when I’m only getting sound from one ear, I get really paranoid.
- Sound on only one side makes me feel off-balance. It really does.
- If one speaker is out, I miss out on a big part of the song. Worse yet, if it’s cleverly mixing sound from one side and the other, I might not even know it. That really bugs me.
For the first, really short headphone cords are a real problem. They’re never, ever long enough for me to sit comfortably while they’re plugged into the computer. These days I use mostly headsets, both because I don’t have to switch when I’m voiping, and because they tend to have longer cords with volume controls. I’ve considered going wireless, but I hate keeping up with batteries and wireless headsets cost money.
Regarding the second — I pretty much stand by this. Why not have the sound coming out of both sides, but quieter on one, if you want it to sound like it’s to one side? That’s pretty much how it works in real life.
The third I think requires no further explanation.
One other thing — and this really drives me nuts — once in a great while I come across a strangely-encoded audio file that will only play on one side. No sound comes from the other speaker. E v e r . And it drives me nuts.
Current music: I have no idea, let me check.
Okay, it seems to be Collapse (Post America) by Rise Against. And over the course of this post, the highlights of what Pandora has fed me include . . . well, this, I rather like it: Weezer’s Island in the Sun: Sheryl Crow’s Soak Up the Sun: and Billy Talent’s Standing in the Rain (which may be my favorite of theirs, but that’s a really hard choice).
EDIT: No sooner do I finish this post than Pandora hands me a song that does it really, really well. Pandora, are you psychic?
The song is Alkaline Trio’s I Found A Way, and the relevant part is the very opening. It’s mostly illegible bass speech, in that sort of voice that immediately makes you think “cult.” In the “holy awesome plot” kind of way, I should add. And of course it varies from earphone to earphone (or I wouldn’t be writing about it here and now), but there’s always sound from each side, and it honestly sounds very freaking cool.