Friday, 21 December 2007

The Loudness War

Since about 1992, CDs have sounded fucking terrible.

This isn't because I'm an old fogey who only likes old music (although I'll admit that's a small factor...) but because modern CDs have no dynamic range.

Dynamic range, in layman's terms, is the potential a medium or player has to resolve changes in volume. To explain, imagine an orchestra playing. There's silence, there's the sound of a triangle, and there's the sound of the entire orchestra playing at full volume. A CD is almost capable of recording that entire gamut of volume. Very soft to very loud. This makes music move. A quiet piece can swell to vast, overpowering crescendo and shake the rafters and raise your neck hairs.

Not anymore.

The recording industry (which is a marketing department, not a group of musicians or engineers) is competing to make every CD sound as loud as possible, which means that all the soft sounds are now as loud as the loud sounds.

This is immensely stupid.


The top track is a song by Cranes called Adrift. It is by no means a quiet song. Those whiskery bits are drum hits. Notice how loud they are in comparison to all the other instruments. They jump out of the track. The drums stop, and then an absolutely vast howl of distorted guitar and fortissimo bass starts to roar, which you can see as two big chunks of sound. Even though it's very loud (listen to the track: it's LOUD), the drums still have room to thwack out a pounding

The bottom track is Neighbourhood #1 (Tunnels) by The Arcade Fire. Not a very loud song if you go by instrumentation. By modern standards, this is relatively restrained, but notice how there is never any variation in volume once the song starts. The drums are as loud as everything else. No matter what part of the song you're in, it's the same fucking volume. The net effect? I turn the volume down to escape the constant fucking shouting despite the fact that I really like the song.

You know how ads on TV are so loud that you have to quickly turn down the volume? Same thing. It's called dynamic range compression.

This is a fuckwitted practice. It makes music lifeless, static, unlistenable, fatiguing and in the worst cases (quite a few recordings lately), actually causes a phenomenon called "clipping" where the tops of the waveforms are sliced off, resulting in a shitty crackling sound where there should be music. This not only sounds abominable, it can damage your amplifier and speakers.

The worst part is that the cunts in the recording industry are now going back and "remastering" older works. Imagine Stairway to Heaven with an intro as loud as the climax. That would be idiotic, right? Notice how very reissue of every album seems louder. Except it isn't: they've simply chopped off the loud bits to make the soft bits louder. It doesn't even matter what the artists or engineers recorded, the CD gets "fixed" before it reaches the shops.

The recording industry has decided that since you like a bit of salt, they're going to screw off the cap and tip the entire fucking cruet on your meal.

The recording industry has decided that since you enjoy driving fast, they're going to bolt your accelerator pedal all the way fucking down for you.

Thank you, recording industry, for further removing any incentive to pay for music.


Jimbalaya said...

It's also why you get so damn tired while listening to that stuff ... All the instruments/frequencies pound at your ears for the entire length of the song, it's amateurish really.

As much as I'll complain about this crap as the next person who knows anything about volume levels..... I MUST admit that there are SOME songs out there that really SHOULD be blocks (visually (wavform) speaking) of sound that feel like they're being kicked into your ear canal. Really, though, those are pretty much few and far between (or at least genre-specific).

Nice post, by the way - thank you for writing it.

Ladyfingers said...

Absolutely. It can be a perfectly valid creative choice.

Mafoo said...

It's not exactly black and white though. Compression and Limiting have their artistic uses. The problem is that dynamic range compression in mastering is often overdone. The problem isn't simply loud mastering, it's bad mastering. Nigel Godrich can engineer a Radiohead track that is as loud as most mainstream pop but it still sounds good.

Anonymous said...

Mostly you have the radio industry to thank. To make a more radio friendly song they are compressed and tweaked and expanded and limited like crazy, and then when it does air on the radio its compressed more (sometimes up to a 20 to 1 ratio) all this to make a more uniform cookie cutter world.

Ladyfingers said...

Well, actually, radio is not really to blame, since the compression they perform (and have always performed) actually makes the mastering stage compression redundant. There's no need to master tracks louder for radio, because all tracks are already equally loud on the radio.

In fact, super-compressed audio becomes slightly softer due to radio broadcast compression.

Radio compression, sadly, is something of a necessity. Because radios have such a wide variety of audio fidelity and tend to be used in such a wide variety of environments, most of the audio below a certain level would disappear into noise.

Anonymous said...

One (main?) reason radio broadcasters compress the dynamic range of the audio is so they can cram as much signal into the band without over modulating into forbidden, adjacent frequencies. Better transmission range, & no fines from the FCC that way.

great blog!

RhiOset said...

I agree - and living in a world where a variety of frequencies can have an effect on the phsyical as well as emotional being it doesn't make sense to distort this.
It's like asking a bunch of Tibetan Monks to chant their mantras in the same tone, pitch and frequency at all times with no variation.
Sort of defeats the object.
Awesome blog ... best I go practice my articulation skills haha

Louw said...

I think that too many groups are not really artistic in their music but panders to the biggest possible audience to buy their product. In doing so they fall prey to the music houses who just need to blast out something that the masses wants.
And what DOES the masses need? I think they need aural valium and thats exactly what they get, anything to lessen the pain.