Long, but interesting. DL
Everything Louder Than Everything Else : Have the loudness wars reached their
By Joe Gross <mailto:jgross@xxxxxxxxxxxxx>
Wednesday, September 27, 2006
"You listen to these modern records, they're atrocious, they have sound
all over them. There's no definition of nothing, no vocal, no nothing,
just like - static."
- Bob Dylan in Rolling Stone magazine
The ranting of a cranky old man? Perhaps.
One man's opinion? Hardly.
In August, an open letter from a music industry executive on the state of
commercial compact disc mastering and manufacturing was sent to
an industry tip sheet/e-mail list run by a music pundit named Bob Lefsetz.
The letter was written by Angelo Montrone, a vice president for A&R (the
folks who scout and sign music acts) for One Haven Music, a
Sony Music company.
"There's something . . . sinister in audio that is causing our listeners
fatigue and even pain while trying to enjoy their favorite music. It has
been propagated by A&R departments for the last eight years: The complete
abuse of compression in mastering (forced on the mastering
engineers against their will and better judgment)."
This compression thing has been a topic of discussion among audiophiles
and music fans for nearly a decade. But hearing a music industry
executive cop to it was pretty unusual.
The letter was almost immediately reprinted online in audio discussion
"The mistaken belief that a 'super loud' record will sound better and
magically turn a song into a hit has caused most major label releases in the
past eight years to be an aural assault on the listener," Montrone's
letter continued. "Have you ever heard one of those test tones on TV when
the station is off the air? Notice how it becomes painfully annoying in a
very short time? That's essentially what you do to a song when you
super compress it. You eliminate all dynamics."
For those already confused, Montrone was essentially saying that there are
millions of copies of CDs being released that are physically
exhausting listeners, most of whom probably don't know why their ears and
brains are feeling worn out.
He continued, citing an album that proved very popular with Austinites.
"Just to prove that the 'super loud' record has no correlation to actual
sales, when we mastered the first Los Lonely Boys record I went to the
session and specifically told our mastering engineer NOT to make this a
loud record. Could it be that a record that actually had dynamic range
could compete? Two and a half million records and a year of constant
airplay of 'Heaven' confirmed my suspicion. Loud records are for the
Loud records? Can't you just turn it down? Well, yes and no.
Let's say you go to the store to buy a CD, a brand-new CD of a popular
rock band. The group is your favorite, you've been looking forward
to this CD for some time. You have the band's other recordings, you've
seen them live, perhaps you've even heard the new songs once or
twice at a show.
You buy the CD. You take it home and throw it in the CD player. You
couldn't be more excited as it starts to play.
But something weird happens as you listen to it. You like the songs, but
you don't really want to listen to it for very long and you're not
entirely sure why. You take it off. A few minutes, later you put it back
on. Same thing happens: You like the music, but you still want to take
the CD off. It's more than a little weird.
Condolences. You are officially a casualty of the loudness wars, the
ongoing competition among bands, labels and A&R folks to make
Artists, recording engineers and record companies have been trying to make
the loudest possible record since the dawn of 78 rpm technology
back in the early 20th century.
When 33 1/3 rpm and 45 rpm became the industry standard, engineers strove
to make those records as loud as possible as well, often using
something called compression during the mastering stage.
Compression means squeezing the dynamic range of an audio signal, usually
to boost the perceived volume of a song or performance.
Compression works on recorded music the way MSG works on food: It makes
everything sound more more. Used with discretion in the
recording stage (and even in the mastering stage) it's an invaluable tool
for recording engineers.
The idea was the greater the perceived volume of the record, the more
attractive the sound would be to the listener. Which meant more
attractive to potential DJs, which meant more airplay, more exposure and
more sales of the record.
But there were literal physical limitations to this process when vinyl was
the primary recording medium - the music's dynamic range was
naturally restricted by the medium itself. During mastering, you could
only compress so far; if the sounds were too extreme, the needle would
pop out of the groove.
With the advent of compact disc technology in the early 1980s, almost all
of this went out the window, as CDs lacked the physical
limitations of vinyl.
In theory, this was a good thing. The dynamic range of CDs was far larger
than vinyl, and could closer replicate the highs and lows of actual
performance. But something else happened.
For the past 10 or so years, artists and record companies have been
increasing the overall loudness of pop and rock albums, using ever
increasing degrees of compression during mastering, altering the
properties of the music being recorded. Quiet sounds and loud sounds are now
squashed together, decreasing the recording's dynamic range, raising the
average loudness as much as possible.
As Jerry Tubb at Austin's Terra Nova Mastering puts it, "Listening to
something that's mastered too hot is like sitting in the front row at the
movies. All the images are in your face."
This is why the reissued X album 'Los Angeles' (see story at right) sounds
louder at the same volume as the old version, why you turn the
2005 X album down and still hear music, parts that are supposed to be
quieter and louder, up front and buried in the mix, at the same time.
For some of you, this difference might be hard to notice at first.
Consider yourselves lucky. For some of us, hearing this sort of mastering is
like seeing the goblet between two faces in that classic optical illusion
- once you perceive it, you can't unperceive it. Soon, it's all you can see
- or hear.
Erik Wofford is a producer and mastering engineer in Austin at Cacophony
Recorders. He's worked on albums by such local bands as
Explosions in the Sky, Zykos and Voxtrot, and finds the loudness wars
exhausting to deal with.
"Over-compressing stuff gives everything a flatness," he says. "If loud
sounds are the same as quiet sounds, you've destroyed any excitement
or natural dynamics that the band creates."
We're sitting with Wofford in Bruce Robison's Premium Recording Service
studio, listening to various CDs old and new, running them though
the ProTools computer software and looking at their relative loudness. The
studio has a woody, '70s vibe. You can totally see Fleetwood Mac
recording here (which seems fitting for a man related to the Dixie
Chicks). It seems a weirdly inappropriate place to talk about the limitations
of modern pop music.
We're looking at the wave forms generated by a number of modern albums.
Sound waves should look like what they're called: waves, with
sharp peaks and valleys. But the music we're looking at is all peak. It's
like looking at a butte or a brick.
"These square waves are a very unnatural occurrence," Wofford says. "It
sounds wrong to the ear. You can't hear detail."
There are all sorts of metrics usable to measure loudness, but the Root
Mean Squared (RMS) number is a reasonably useful one. It's a measure
of average sound level. A smaller RMS number means higher average level;
i.e., minus 10 dB RMS is 2 dB louder than minus 12 dB. The
maximum RMS value is zero.
Here's the weird part. In the early to late '80s, most pop records
averaged around minus 15. (The peak level we see for the old version of "Los
Angeles" is minus 14.4 dB RMS.)
Now, modern CDs average at around minus 12 to minus 9 dB. Average.
When a soundwave squares off, something called "clipping" can occur.
Clipping in the digital realm means digital distortion, which different
CD players handle different ways. Some just won't play that frequency,
resulting in loss of dynamic range (you're literally not hearing the
whole song). Some digitally distort, which is quite an unpleasant,
static-like sound indeed. Some really old CD players skip the song entirely.
There's plenty of clipping on the contemporary songs Wofford and I look
at; a red light goes on and stays on the screen when a song clips.
Christina Aguilera. Red Hot Chili Peppers. Mastodon. Brick, brick, brick.
Clip, clip, clip.
Wofford sighs. "Clipping should just be forbidden," he says. "You used not
to be able to turn a redbook CD (the CD from which all others are
made) into a manufacturer with clipping on it. That's not true any more."
Thanks to folks on the Internet, there are lists of famously loud CDs. The
Red Hot Chili Pepper's 1999 album "Californication" is a notorious
example. It clips constantly, and the title track peaks at a whopping
minus 5.6 dB, which was really uncomfortable for almost everybody.
That Los Lonely Boys CD Montrone was so proud of? The song "Heaven"
averages at around minus 12.5 dB, and peaks at minus 8.9,
completely reasonable for modern records.
But the song "Diamonds," on the band's new album "Sacred," clips
throughout, averaging at about minus 8.9 dB, peaking at minus 7.7 db
"I wasn't able to go to that mastering session for the second one,"
Montrone says from his New York office. "The first record came out when
I was with Or Music (the label that released the first Los Lonely Boys
album before being acquired by Sony). I wasn't as involved with this
new one. I wish I had been."
Who knows if consumers are sick of the band, or the songwriting isn't up
to snuff or it has something to do with that louder sound, but
"Sacred" thus far has sold about 185,000 copies, and continues to drop on
the Billboard albums chart.
So why aren't more people noticing this sort of thing? One word:
We listen to music in completely different ways than we did 20 or 30 years
ago. For most people, music is listened to on the go, in cars, on
headphones while running, on computers at work. Music has to compete with
the sound of your car's engine, has to punch through the
background noise of street traffic or a loud office.
"Ours is a culture of competition," Wofford says. "Maybe labels think the
music has to be super aggressive, super bright, like a kid screaming
in a supermarket, to get your attention."
The idea is that louder recordings automatically sound better on
low-quality reproduction systems, but this isn't really true in practice. MP3
players such as iPods have their own compressors and limiters, further
reducing the dynamic range of recordings, as do computers. A CD
doesn't have to be mastered loud; the iPod can make it as loud as
everything else it plays.
This is especially true of radio, which, in order to make sure that every
song played has a uniform loudness, uses its own compressors and
limiters. The idea that a sound has to be mastered loud to be noticed on
the radio is just false.
"It's a myth," Tubb says. "Actually, a really loud CD might sound worse on
the radio after being fed through a station's processors. (This is
what Montrone was talking about with "Heaven.")
This is why the Christina Aguilera song "Ain't No Other Man" (average RMS:
about minus 8.4, peak: minus 6.3), which sounds
OK-to-irritating on the radio or an iPod, sounds like you are being
punched in the face on a real stereo system.
Yet, bands keep asking for it. That rustling you hear is the mastering
community shrugging its shoulders.
"Ours is a service business," Tubb says. "If that's what the client wants,
I try to explain the trade-offs in clarity. In reality, we're just trying
to accommodate requests from labels or A&R guys or the artists themselves.
They'll walk in with a handful of CDs and say, 'I want it to be as
loud as this one.' The last five years it's gone absolutely mad."
"Ask any mastering engineer which they prefer," Wofford says, "Something
that's super-compressed or not compressed. But they keep their
mouths shut about it if they want to keep working."
"It becomes part of (a mastering engineer's) reputation," Montrone says.
"Suddenly, you become known for your really loud records. Unless
you specify that you don't want it to be loud, they just make it loud.
It's become the standard now.
"And it's infected other steps in the chain," Montrone continues.
Mixing engineers often make spec mixes of songs to try and win the bid to
mix a particular song or album. "Mixing engineers will turn in spec
mixes of tracks that they just slam the heck out of because they think
that will get them the gig," Montrone says. "And they're not wrong."
So we're at the chicken-or-egg stage. Is it changing the way we listen to
music, or because the way we are listening to music has changed?
Here's the punch line: The brain can't process sounds that lack a dynamic
range for very long. It's an almost subconscious response. This is
what Montrone was talking about when he mentioned the TV test tone.
"It's ear fatigue," Tubbs says, "After three songs you take it off.
There's no play to give your ears even a few milliseconds of depth and rest."
Alan Bean is a recording/mastering engineer in Harrison, Maine. He's a
former professional musician and a doctor of occupational medicine.
"It stinks that this has happened," he says. "Our brains just can't handle
hearing high average levels of anything very long, whereas we can
stand very loud passages, as long as it is not constant. It's the lack of
soft that fatigues the human ear."
This is part of the reason that some people are really fanatical about
vinyl. "It's not necessarily that vinyl sounds 'better,' " Bean says. "It's
that it's impossible for vinyl to be fatiguing."
And yet, record companies wonder why consumers are buying less of them.
"I definitely think it's a contributing factor," Montrone says. "People
have a lot of entertainment options. If listening to music is not a highly
enjoyable experience, we're just giving people another reason not to
purchase the stuff."
Of course, that's the weird part: Consumers may not know why they are
buying fewer CDs or listening to them less or are perfectly happy
with low-def MP3s from the Internet.
"That's the big 'too bad' about all this," Bean says: The music is not
necessarily at fault.
The story of popular music is a materialist one - as playback technology
has changed, so has the music.
The LP could hold about 50 minutes of sound (25 minutes a side) if you
really squashed the grooves together. As a result, most albums came
in at about 40 to 45 minutes. CDs can hold about 80 minutes of sound, and
artists have filled them up; the majority of major label pop CDs
are an hour or more. The rule seems to be, if you can do it, you should do
So it is with mastering: We can make it incredibly loud, so we should make
it incredibly loud. Though there is talk in the mastering community
of universal mastering standards, it's still just talk.
Again, there is, of course, an element of subjectivity to all this. It is
entirely possible that anyone younger than 18 reading this has no idea
what we're talking about. They may not bother to buy CDs anymore, such is
the availability of MP3s single downloads. To them, popular
music has always been hyper-compressed, square-wave stuff, able to punch
through background noise with a single snare drum hit, clipping
all over the place.
To them, one can say only: You don't know what you're missing.
X: A study in volume vs. loudness
Without getting technical, it's probably important here to define the
difference, for our purposes, between "loudness" and "volume." (It's also
important to recall that this all gets very relative very fast and that
many would argue that there are few true absolutes involved.)
When we talk here about volume, we're talking about the thing which you
can control with the knob on your stereo or iPod or boombox.
When we talk here about loudness, we're talking about your perception of a
sound at any particular volume.
For example, if you listen to the 1988 CD version of the album "Los
Angeles" by the noted roots-punk band X, you have to turn it up to a
certain volume to enjoy it. Turn it down low and much of the music
vanishes, which is what you might expect when you turn something
Now listen to the 2005 CD remaster of the same album. At the same volume
as the first version, the songs seem to jump out of the speakers
more. The quiet sounds sound almost as loud as the guitar sounds. Turn it
down, and you can still hear the quiet sounds almost as well as the
louder sounds. This is because the CD has been remastered to bring it more
in line with contemporary CDs, which are often mastered louder
As one employee at a local record store put it, "When we put in older CDs
into the CD changer to play in the store, you can't even hear
Can't you turn it up?
"Not really," he said. "Because then the newer CDs would be incredibly
loud at the new volume. So we don't even play older CDs in the store
- Joe Gross