Look what they’ve done to our songs – The loudness wars

I have been doing a little research on the apparent reduction in quality of digital music over the last few years. I am not talking about the rise of hip-hop and rap or the incessant mindless pop that kids listen to, I mean the actual quality of all contemporary digital recordings.

Initially I thought it was just my ears getting old (like the rest of me), my system or the quality of the digital files I was listening to. What I found though was astonishing – and a bit depressing for those like me who actually like to listen to music – not just hear it on the radio or in a lift or supermarket PA.

First I must say I do not consider myself an audiophile, I have just been listening to music for a long time and know what sounds good. I had noticed that many of the digital audio files I was listening to just didn’t sound as good as they should on my modest-amp-but-with-good-main-speakers home theatre. Some songs just sounded muddy and bland with no punch and no subtlety. First I noticed this with anything from Coldplay, then I noticed that it was with all more recent recordings – including the so called “remasters” of older recordings. The other thing I noticed was that the newer files were “louder” and I was forever forced to adjust the volume down to listen to them.

What I had unwittingly discovered was the so called “loudness wars” where contemporary music has been deliberately engineered to appear louder and louder. Apparently, no artist, record company, engineer wants their recording to sound quieter than others’ (as they are afraid it won’t sell) so what has resulted is an ever increasing loudness of modern music recordings.

The problem is that to make a track louder, it goes through a process known as “compression” and “limiting” where the softer sounds are amplified and the louder sounds are limited – made softer. Do it a little and it works well and lets the listener hear all the song – loud and soft bits – regardless of the medium. Do it too much and the music sounds muddy, unclear and all the instruments clash into a wall of noise. Crank it to 11 and the loud bits actually “clip” or distort – sounding as clicks or crackles as they get too much for the medium to carry – like an old LP record that’s been played too much. Unfortunately many of the recent pop/rock releases fall into the last category. There’s even a term for it – its called “brickwalling” – as the sound is pushed hard up against the brick wall of the maximum signal level of the CD format.

Audio compression has been around for a long time – I even remember playing with a compressor when I did a part time audio engineering course in the 80s – and it is needed to make sure you can hear soft sounds over the ever-present noise level without distorting the loud parts of a track. This was more of a problem in the LP vinyl days as the format has a much smaller dynamic range (the space between the base noise level of the medium and and maximum signal volume) so music was always compressed to some extent to “make it fit” without losing the quiet bits. The CD audio format has a much larger dynamic range than vinyl so it freed enginneers to produce music closer to “live”. And for many years, this is what they did. In fact, bands like Dire Straits revelled in the new format and made music designed to exploit it.

Listen to an “old” CD from the 80s and you will notice that it is much softer than a newer recording but turn the volume up on a reasonably good system and you will notice that it actually sounds better – you can hear the bass drum “punch” and you can hear each instrument specifically and the vocals are clear over the background music – i.e. the way its meant to sound. Compare that to almost anything from the last decade and the difference is glaring. Its louder alright but the overall sound quality is appalling.

How can it be that recordings made in the 1970s on analogue tape sound better than those produced in the digital era today? How is it that the original master recording of Marvin Gaye’s classic – “Whats Going On” made in 1971 sounds better than Coldplay’s “Viva La Vida”? There’s some bells and and a bass line in Viva La Vida somewhere but can anyone actually hear them? It makes you wonder why they bothered.

It amazes me that record companies, musicians and engineers are allowing this situation to persist. They are deliberately making a bad product. Do they not listen to what they produce? Have none of the members of Coldplay listened to their records on anything more than an iPod? Can’t they hear the mess they have made of “Life In Technicolor” and “Viva La Vida” on their latest album. And lets not even start on “X&Y” – one of the worst sounding albums ever produced in my opinion.

The really bad news is that once a track is compressed, the damage is done forever – so unless Coldplay have the uncompressed original recordings – this is how their music will be remembered forever. I wonder how their albums will stack up with other classics in 20 years time?

What gets me is this is the same industry that complains that CD sales are falling (6-7% year on year apparently) and no-one is buying them any more. Have they ever stopped to wonder why? Maybe its not piracy. Maybe, just maybe its because they sound so bad. Maybe, people consume less music today because their ears tire of the incessant wall of noise being forced at them that the recording industry calls music.

Its got so bad that record companies are “remastering” the quieter old recordings to make them sound as loud as contemporary recordings – with the same reduction in quality. So what they would have you believe is a “better” recording because its louder actually is far worse quality.

You can play this game too, compare an original recording of a track with a “remastered” version or one from the many modern compilation albums. I have a few in my collection. Compare the the versions of U2’s “Sunday Bloody Sunday” from the original 1983 album War and the version that appears on their compilation “18 Singles”. Another I have noticed is the original and “anniversary” editions of Micheal Jackson’s albums “Off the Wall” and “Thriller”. On the anniversary editions, the compression is so bad that the bass line noticeably distorts on many tracks. Is this how we want Michael Jackson’s brilliant recordings remembered for all time? What did the master producer/engineer Quincy Jones think about all this?

I have even started getting my CDs from second hand stores and seeking out original releases to add to my digital collection. This is one case where older definitely is better.

Apparently, the issue came to a head in 2008 with the release of two versions of the Metallica “Death Magnetic” track- one on CD and one on the video game “Guitar Hero”. I have not heard the song but apparently the CD version is overly compressed but the Guitar Hero version escaped and people noticed the difference and started to complain. But as far as I can tell, Metallica never re-released the album (and it went on to sell millions anyway).

A movement has started and a number of websites have been setup promoting good dynamic range and identifying recordings that aren’t. Search loudness wars on Google or Youtube and you will find a lot of people and experts who are as frustrated as me.

I am hopeful though that as more iPods and iPhones get connected to bigger amplifiers with better speakers, consumers will start to remember why the volume knob exists and there is a reason why the older music in their collection sounds better when played loud and demand a return to quality recordings. If it doesn’t happen, it will be the death of the recording industry as we know it and we may as well throw our expensive amplifiers and speakers away and go back to listening to highly compressed music on FM radio.

Here’s an unsolicited suggestion to the recording industry, stop your whining about piracy and lower sales and re-release all that great music on your back catalogues as it was originally mastered with all the dynamic range that today’s digital formats can support. Come up with an industry wide logo identifying the higher quality releases and put it on the cover of the these CDs. Then charge 10-20% more for these premium versions. I for one would buy (again!) the whole back-catalogue of Coldplay’s albums if they were ever re-released this way.

Hang on, I just have to turn up my 1983 original CD version of Ultravox’s Vienna…. Ooh here comes the string section… and I can hear it!

NB. Do not confuse audio compression with the process of making audio files smaller. I am not talking about this. A well made VBR MP3 or AAC file is indistinguishable from the source but if the source is bad to start with, the end result will be no better.

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