The Loudness Wars

If you have been a regular reader of my site, you know that without the Steve Hoffman Forums I would be lost in the sea of mostly crummy remaster jobs permanently released all around the globe. If you also happen to be a regular on those forums, you probably also know that there are various camps frequenting the site, including a large group of hardliners that basically damn everything that isn’t a flat transfer, and I can understand them, especially if they have invested heavily into extremely expensive gear which reveals each and every fault of a recording. But even if you have just a decent and maybe only a mediocre stereo setup like I do, you can’t help but notice that record labels seem to have overstepped an invisible (but clearly audible) line: Too much is just too loud, too maximized, too compressed and too darn harsh. There’s no other expression for it but to say that a large number of releases and reissues just suck.

Hell, you don’t even need a mediocre setup. Take just about any gear which plays music that isn’t compacted by a compression algorithm common to MP3s or whatever other lossy files you might be listening to on your portable player, and you can hear a difference.

Personally, I believe it might be too late, but the past few days have given rise to some weighty statements by people in the know who have started to publicly protest a tendency that most people have so far been ignoring and that relatively few have been actively discussing for years: The so-called “loudness wars”.

I have talked about the problems on this site before, and I’m a bit reluctant to bring it all to the forefront again, especially because I get so easily aggravated every time, but because there have been featured articles and discussions around the Net these past days, I thought it might be an idea to add one additional minor voice to the chorus, decrying what most music labels are forcing us to put up with. No idea if it helps, but I’m sure as hell not going to shut up about the issue any time soon. So, here we go … again.

At heart, label bigwigs have been forcing aural shite down our ears for so long that not only some big-time collectors have been going up the wall for years now, but more serious consequences have been brought about that at least should be discussed.

In short, music is mastered at such loud and utterly ear-shattering levels nowadays that without protesting the development, we are letting a few individuals affect a cultural change, a listening change, that simply shouldn’t be allowed. I do believe that one day many people are going to regret that they didn’t stand up and protest because I do believe that reversing the development will probably prove to be nearly impossible.

Let me give an example here, knowing that many of you may never have thought about any of this or, worse, simply don’t care. Because one of the culprits has been named in so many articles recently, put on the Red Hot Chilli Peppers’ “Californication” (branded unlistenable by many fans) at a really loud volume and “enjoy” the entire CD. Don’t have that? Try any Arctic Monkeys CD, Oasis’ “(What’s the Story) Morning Glory” or Rush’s “Vapor Trails”. If you don’t have any of those, research Verve’s jazz remasters which are often worse than the originals they put out in the late 80s and the early 90s, and, and, and. In fact, do some research. You’ll be amazed about how many shoddy mastering jobs you can find.

Do it now, and then return here.
Done?

Now tell me you don’t have a headache. Of course, some of you might say the experience was cool, but those of you who would readily say that either already have hearing that is shot, smoked something before you listened to the CD(s), or simply got “ready” for the experience by downing a sizable (admit it, you cheated) quart of pure Mescal (Dos Gusanos, por favor!) before.

Does your stereo have a volume knob? Yes? Ever noticed that with some (hell, many, err, most) CDs you simply can’t utilize the volume range past a quarter of what your stereo is capable of? Besides getting a headache or just getting all fidgety or – worse – fatigued, you also might actually be bringing other things down on your head. The other day, when we discussed available remasters of The Paul Butterfield Blues Band’s output on the SH forums, long-term member John Cantrell hit the nail on the head when he characterized the still available Warner twofer (S/T & East-West) as very helpful to those looking for “something along the frequency to call the dog in from the back yard.” I have to admit that this brilliant one-liner brought tears to my eyes, but also because the whole thing is so darn depressing and – of course – true.

To be quite honest, I’ve been spending quite some time in denial. I want these remasters to sound good, I do not want to spend a fortune on getting worthwhile remasters at double, triple and quadruple the price and I certainly don’t want to have to spend a year, three or ten to find the one single reissue that is worth the dye it was coated with.

It is an undisputed fact amongst not only audiophile circles but also amongst just about everyone with a love for music that what is happening and has been happening is that labels are simply ruining music. Full stop. They are taking the breath of life out of it, they are removing the dynamic range, they are virtually stuffing it down our ears, trying to equate “good” with “loud” and “harsh”. And they have been successful so far, no doubt about it.

I mean, how many times have you read reviews on Amazon.com by people praising these remasters, the rating going up with the volume? How many times have you wondered about the quality of a CD simply because someone who never spent more than a second contemplating any of this dissed a remaster because it sounded “too quiet” and “too timid”? After a while you start reading between the lines and know that someone who praised that “cutting edge” sound, the reduction of noise to a non-audible minimum as well as the clarity (meaning boosted) sound, has simply been exposed to too many of those horrid releases that make your stereo throw the sound up right at your feet. Barf!

This is not to say that there isn’t any music out there that doesn’t benefit from this kind of jacked-up mastering and, yes, there’s probably quite a bit of music that has actually made that ear-shattering harshness part of its overall sonic appearance, but what this has developed into is that executives who are at times as far removed from sonic quality as Britney Spears is from size XS right now, simply judge any engineer’s mastering by comparing it to the latest chart album that is louder and, hence, “better”. Why isn’t OUR music as much in your face as THEIRS, they might be heard saying. You know, that kind of imbecile thinking.

I mean, who says that Nat King Cole has to sound like Oasis? Who came up with the idea that Level 42 (yeah, that 80s outfit) had to be as harsh as the Arctic Monkeys? What happened to diversity and respect for the original band’s and engineers’ intention? Would you spruce up a Rubens painting by adding some fluorescent paint to make it more “hip”? Yeah, I thought so.

At the start of this rant I said that I believed it might be too late to affect a change in label policy, but it is a glimmer of hope that renowned people are gathering for a virtual “Custer’s Last Stand”. Just consider these quotes taken from a recent Times Online article entitled “Why music really is getting louder“. For example, Geoff Emerick, engineer on the Beatles’ Sgt. Pepper album, said:

A lot of what is released today is basically a scrunched-up mess. Whole layers of sound are missing. It is because record companies don’t trust the listener to decide themselves if they want to turn the volume up.

Peter Mew, himself not exactly the most innocent engineer in regard to the issues raised here, stated:

The brain is not geared to accept buzzing. The CDs induce a sense of fatigue in the listeners. It becomes psychologically tiring and almost impossible to listen to. This could be the reason why CD sales are in a slump.

Or how about these quotes from a recent Guardian Unlimited article entitled “How CDs are remastering the art of noise“:

Music nostalgia is nothing new, but this is different. There are solid technical reasons why CDs mastered today sound inferior to those made 15 years ago. The engineers who make the “master” – the mix from which the CD is pressed – are under irresistible pressure to compromise sound quality.

The pressures involved are described by reputed sound engineer, Tim Young:

In 1992 I did an album for a British heavy metal band. I got a panic-stricken message from their A&R man in America, saying ‘We’re really worried, the new album, it’s not as loud as Aerosmith’ or something. That was the start of it.

There’s a lot more to be found in these articles and I beg you to read them, hoping that you might join the small but ever-growing group of people annoyed by what they are being served with.

All of this hoopla hitting the press at a rate of an article a day might be a flash in the pan.
Still, I hope it isn’t and wasn’t.

If you are anything like me, there’s little you can do. I’m the first one guilty of going for some of these mutilated remasters simply because my budget doesn’t allow for anything else, the time I can allow myself to hunt for those elusive releases that are simply better-sounding is limited, or simply because there isn’t any better version available.

What we really should do is abstain … or invest the time and money to find those reissues or original releases that are actually worth the money. If you are wondering how to go about this, you will not get around registering at some of the many music sites that have loads of people throwing sound quality into the equation when debating the quality of a release. Try the Steve Hoffman Forums, try the Organissimo Forums. Try just about any board that is populated with people who care about music instead of merely consuming it.

It might well be your only bet. And, in the end, being there, participating and adding your voice might achieve two things: It might increase the pressure on companies to release adequately mastered CDs and, in the long run, sniffing out the reactions to new or older reissues and releases by people in the know might well help you save a shitload of money.

If that ain’t a reason to be more aware, I don’t know what might be.

Do it.

P.S.: Yes, I’m still learning to appreciate well-remastered CDs, going through a process that others have “suffered” through a long time before me. Watch out for some reviews of damn fine mastering and remastering jobs … coming to a livingwithmusic.com site near you.

Posted by Volkher Hofmann

Volkher Hofmann (deus62) has been blogging on and off since the 1990s and deus62.com is all that is left. He loves music, literature, drumming and, most of all, real life. He thinks the open web is much more important than social networks, closed-in ecosystems and other severely commercialized online endeavors.

  1. I like this article, it makes a lot of sense. I have been DJ’ingo for about 22 years and I see the same thing – music is becoming too loud, and often being played too loud, to the point where it becomes white noise or you can’t hear your nose bleeding…

    Well put article.

    Thanks

    Nick Annies

    Reply

  2. warrensomebody06/09/2007 at 7:11 am

    There’s a video up on YouTube that illustrates this nicely: http://www.youtube.com/user/LoudnessWar

    Reply

  3. Music is mixed for teenagers (there are some exceptions).  You want dynamic range? Buy a turntable, dynamic range is a thing of the past.

    Organissimo is a great band, they are local to me!!

    Reply

  4. Martin,

    I would like to disagree, although I do think we’re on the same side of the fence. There are plenty of pretty decent examples of dynamic range even on the CD medium, but there are just too few. I do agree though that analog equipment, turntable and all, is still the one medium to fully experience dynamic range.

    That music today is mixed for the apparently hearing-impaired youth of today is all too audible on just about every new release available. I’ve all but given up …

    Reply

  5. Couldn’t agree more.

    A few months ago I bought the first of three Genesis remix box sets (1976-1982). I can’t comment on the 5.1 surround mix (I only have a stereo separates system) but the stereo mixes are compressed to hell!

    Many of these original tracks previously had real dynamics – a contrast of delicate folky sections and loud and exciting dramatic rock sections. Now that has been lost. It’s all just loud and FLAT.

    In fact, the previously gentle sections are loud and flat, and the previously loud sections are now loud and flat and distorted.

    Horrible.

    I haven’t bought the next box set in the series; I know now how these wonderful recordings have been ruined. And that’s regardless of whether heard through a decent hi-fi, or even mp3.

    It’s just a horrible flat, distorted sound, period.
    Very depressing.

    We can only hope that in maybe 20 years time we will get an ‘audiophile dynamic’ reissue.

    Happily, the few Beatles remixes we’ve had are still relatively warm and dynamic (by comparison).

    Not everyone has bought into the loudness religion.

    Reply

  6. Dave,

    thanks for stopping by and commenting.

    I have to fully agree with you on all points. It saddens me to no end how music once dynamic, lush and … yes … exciting has been turned into a virtually dead soup of generally irritating noise. I’m also a stereo guy (I don’t feel like wallpapering my place with speakers) and the sound of those Genesis remasters is.
    Just.
    Horrible!

    I often feel I’m too old and too peculiar when it comes to that stuff because, as a teacher, I’m confronted with people who largely can’t give a hoot (and are lacking the experience when it comes to enjoying well-recorded and mastered music).

    I do not believe that things will improve in the near or far future. Unfortunately, hi-res media seem to only attract the visual types (BlueRay), leaving us very, very few audiophiles in the dust.

    I do place all my hopes on (in?) a smaller group of people who will perhaps help further the demand for lossless formats online. I might be completely wrong, but “our” survival might very well lie there.

    Cheers!

    Reply

  7. We should do something.
    Make a protest, gather signatures, just something… It is hopefully a fad but it’ll sure break alot of records in the meanwhile.

    Reply

  8. b,

    I’m afraid we’re not talking about a fad here. With as much as I’ve read online and talked to people offline about this, this particular war is, unfortunately, going to stay around to nauseate us ad infinitum.

    The only thing to do really is to actively search for well-recorded material. There’s lots out there, in all genres, but with most people oblivious to the problem, it’s increasingly hard to find. Just check out reviews on any online shopping site and you’re going to find most reviewers praise the most terrible examples of these practices to high heaven. They just don’t know better.

    Reply

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