07 November 2010

Just Too Loud

Much contemporary recorded music sounds absolutely awful, and it has nothing to do with the music itself. The recording industry has been waging amongst itself a loudness war. You may have noticed that of you play an older CD next to a newer CD, the older CD is much quieter. You have to turn up the volume, sometimes quite a lot, to hear it. Louder is not better; it's the sound of war.

All recorded music has a fixed dynamic range, the volume difference between the loudest and the softest sounds. The reason new CDs sound louder is because they are mastered very "hot." All sounds are pushed to be as loud as possible by compressing the dynamic range, even to the pointing of clipping or distorting it. This is sometimes called "brickwalling" since it turns the sound wave into a solid brick of noise.

When everything is made loud, the music sounds flat and harsh, and it's extremely fatiguing to listen to. I suffered from this auditory fatigue for years, listening to newer music, but had no idea what I was experiencing. I just knew there was music I liked that I couldn't stand to listen to for long at all. When I was first made aware of the loudness war, it floored me. Record labels are purposely mastering their music to be unlistenable. For the love heaven, why?

The theory behind all this is that the songs that "jump out" at the listener when they come on the radio, or Pandora, or in iTunes samples, will be the ones they like the most and buy. This is driven purely by marketing. The labels could care less about the music. They have always pushed loudness, but older technologies were prohibitive. With vinyl records, the needle will jump out of the groove if it's mastered too hot. This is one reason why contemporary albums that are released in both vinyl and digital formats sound much better on vinyl. The vinyl is mastered, necessarily, with a lot more dynamic range.

Fortunately, the loudness war has gotten increasing negative press in recent years [1, 2, 3, 4, 5] and Greg Milner's excellent book Perfecting Sound Forever has a great chapter on it. Rank and file fans are slowly becoming aware of it. There was quite an uproar in 2008 when Metallica's Death Magnetic was released. The CD version was mastered insanely hot, but the version used for Guitar Hero was an alternative master (or pre-master) that was much less dynamically compressed. The difference is easy to see and hear, and almost 22,000 fans petitioned for a remaster of the CD. The producers defended their work, refusing to remaster, and most fans probably just ended up torrenting a copy of the Guitar Hero version.

For all this, I don't know that things are changing that much. Most listeners could care less how bad something sounds. Blasted out of crappy computer speakers or throwaway earbuds, everything sounds tinny and clipped anyway. I can still listen to some brickwalled music in small doses, but I'm attracted far more to music that is well recorded and mastered. This has actually shaped my tastes. More on good recordings next post.

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