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12119Clip: Everything Louder Than Everything Else

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  • Carl Z.
    Sep 29, 2006
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      Since I just posted Mehr's article about Albini and Electrical Audio,
      I thought this might be interesting for context. Forwarded from a
      post the author made on another list.


      Everything Louder Than Everything Else
      Have the loudness wars reached their final battle?
      By Joe Gross
      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

      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 forums.

      "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 birds."

      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
      ever-louder albums.

      • •

      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

      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

      "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

      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 down.

      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 than ever.

      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
      that often."
      — Joe Gross

      'If the loudness wars struck the art world'

      On the Web site prosoundweb.com, Atlanta rock guitarist Lee Flier
      imagined a set of remastered masterpieces. Reflecting the sonic damage
      of pumping up the sound on modern CDs (lost subtleties at the high and
      low ends as everything gets louder in the middle), the original Mona
      Lisa and 'American Gothic' paintings become posterized cartoons of
      themselves. For examples, see Flier's posting at
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