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Loudness war
June 9, 2008 4:45 AM   Subscribe

"With each passing year records have gotten louder and less dynamic...This all comes down to the moment a consumer hears a record, and the fear that if the record is more dynamic, the consumer won't know to just turn up the volume."
posted by jbickers (94 comments total) 27 users marked this as a favorite

 
This is a great idea; I hope it has some positive effect.
posted by ZenMasterThis at 4:50 AM on June 9, 2008


There was an essay about this in Rolling Stone I posted here a while back.
posted by chunking express at 4:57 AM on June 9, 2008


See also.

Charles Dye, who is one of the TMU! founders, is a really cool guy (even though he's responsible for a particular milestone in crushed mixes). He hosts a forum over at The Womb which, although technically about his series of instructional videos on mixing, is really about making better records in general.

Which is something that, if you really poke around the audio engineering community online, you'll find everyone is pushing for. Everybody understands the nature of the industry (cheaper! faster! louder!), of course, but even the most unapologetic Autotune, Beat Detective, sound replacement abusers would rather see higher-quality records. And, to that end, it's an amazingly supportive community. In places like the aforementioned Womb and ProSoundWeb's recording forums (which originally gave us Mixerman and his diaries), even guys with "bigger" names than Dye will hang around and offer tips because they're genuinely interested in everbody making the best records possible.

Which is really cool. (Incidentally, I've commented before about the state of the loudness war; my take is that while I'd like to see less-crushed records, there are a variety of reasons why, even though they sound worse on the radio, we probably won't, at least not in pop.)
posted by uncleozzy at 5:03 AM on June 9, 2008 [1 favorite]


Speaking as a dumb and lazy consumer, I think I speak for many when I say the issue is not that we don't know how the volume knobs works. It's that, too often, when we DO turn the volume up, the music suddenly gets loud again and we crash the car in the panic to turn it back down.
posted by DU at 5:04 AM on June 9, 2008 [4 favorites]


PS: Speaking McSpeakspeak
posted by DU at 5:05 AM on June 9, 2008


I applaud them for their efforts, but I believe the record industry is too evil, and more importantly, stupid to care.
posted by caddis at 5:11 AM on June 9, 2008 [1 favorite]


I will take this opportunity to day one of my favorite album titles is Louder Than God: the Best of Blue Cheer.
posted by marxchivist at 5:36 AM on June 9, 2008


day say

arrggh...coffee...where is it
posted by marxchivist at 5:37 AM on June 9, 2008


Maybe we can persuade them that once DU has got a CD he can listen to in his car, they can also put out a 'Full Dynamics' version like a Director's Cut or something.
posted by Phanx at 5:38 AM on June 9, 2008 [1 favorite]


NO WAY MUSIC IS BETTER LOUDER HAVE YOU HEARD ASHLEE'S NEW ALBUM IT TOTALLY ROCKS I LIKE RED BULL TOO YOU CAN SEE WHY BRITNEY LOVES IT SO MUCH IT TOTALLY GIVES YOU A BUZZ AUTOTUNE MAKES IT BETTER TOO IT'S REALLY ABOUT THE BEAT ANYWAY HEY I HEARD BOY BANDS MIGHT BE MAKING A COMBACK IT'S TOTALLY COOL WAY COOLER THAN EVEN DISCO THAT OLD MUSIC LIKE JANIS JOPIN THEY TALK ABOUT TALENT 'N STUFF BUT HAVE YOU SEEN HER HAIR I DON'T THINK SHE COULD GET ON THE COVER OF PEOPLE LIKE BRITNEY DOES
posted by Tube at 5:47 AM on June 9, 2008 [17 favorites]


Actually I had, well I still have but never use a Stereo system that will compress the audio for me. It's called "night movie mode" or something.

One thing is, with digital encoding it would be easy to put multiple tracks on a CD or MP3 file, such that a 'low-fi' compressed version would play on an iPod or in a crappy car sterio and a 'hi-fi' version with full dynamic range would play in higher-end equipment, and the user could select what version they wanted to hear on mid-range stuff.
posted by delmoi at 5:48 AM on June 9, 2008


Or maybe my player could detect the quiet and loud parts and adjust automatically. Maybe some kind of sideband encoding could help.

Also, there's another problem here (and it's another to which I am contributing): Crappy speakers. Audiophiles stop reading here, because you will puke. I use the crappy headphones that came in a computer box from Gateway Computer over 10 years ago.

Why? Because I have dozens of them. But why not use something better? Because going from "no music" to "music" for $0 is a cost effectiveness that matches the level of my love of music well, while going from "music" to "improved music" for $100 is not.
posted by DU at 5:48 AM on June 9, 2008


they can also put out a 'Full Dynamics' version like a Director's Cut or something.

If I had my way, every CD would come with smashed-to-pieces MP3s or AACs or something, with nice, clean tracks on the CD. (On preview, sort-of what delmoi said.)

Of course, it would cost a fortune to do it right; mastering a dynamic mix to be loud sounds awful. You've got to mix knowing it'll be crushed. Listen to Green Day's American Idiot. The final masters are just bone-crushingly loud, but still sound really good. Now listen to a "re-master" of any classic rock album. Crushing a dynamic record in mastering isn't the same as mixing for loudness.
posted by uncleozzy at 5:53 AM on June 9, 2008 [3 favorites]


So are they saying that music today is just noise?
posted by biffa at 5:55 AM on June 9, 2008 [1 favorite]


put multiple tracks on a CD or MP3 file... and the user could select what version they wanted to hear...

high above the ground in a corner office an RIAA executive reads this thread and thinks "we collect multiple fees for multiple tracks! this boy is on to something!"

after a moment of consideration, he leans forward and stabs the button which summons his secretary to take a memo...
posted by quonsar at 6:06 AM on June 9, 2008 [3 favorites]


Seems like this has gone hand in hand with the tendency of record producers since the 1970s and 1980s to record rather flat stereo channel mixes with no sense of acoustic space.
posted by tinkertown at 6:17 AM on June 9, 2008


Does my mp3 player do this automatically?
posted by jeffburdges at 6:26 AM on June 9, 2008


I tried to watch their Youtube video but could barely hear it.
posted by Bokononist at 6:32 AM on June 9, 2008


Listen to Green Day's American Idiot. The final masters are just bone-crushingly loud, but still sound really good.

You can actually hear the clipping on that album. It's awful.
posted by Leon at 6:36 AM on June 9, 2008


I wonder how much of this trend is related to the fact that many people's music-listening time is also their transit time and they're generally in an environment with a lot of background noise?
posted by Coaticass at 6:37 AM on June 9, 2008 [2 favorites]


I've observed many discussions on this topic over the years. It might suggest that audiences want less compression & more dynamics, but these discussions are among people who listen closely & understand the sonic concepts... their comprehension automatically makes them unrepresentative of the average listener.

As a composer, I find that casual listeners vastly prefer the squashed mixes when I ask them to compare (the versions were volume-matched to eliminate decibel bias).. Surprisingly enough, many audiophiles preferred the squash as well, provided I did not explain what was different about the two mixes.

As much as I'd like to pin this trend on tone-deaf executives, incorrectly assuming what their listeners want, most listeners seem to want it this way. The suggestions above for albums with alternate mixes of each song sounds like a good compromise.
posted by yorick at 6:38 AM on June 9, 2008 [6 favorites]


DU - I code all day at work, and years ago I sprang for AKG K270 headphones. They're light, durable. oh, and they sound really good too. Amortized over their expected lifetime, they will have cost me maybe $0.02 per hour of use. Did i mention that they sound really good?
posted by Artful Codger at 6:39 AM on June 9, 2008


Crushing a dynamic record in mastering isn't the same as mixing for loudness.

uncleozzy's point bears repeating. Proper gain-staging is not the same thing as squashing a stereo mix.

Also, it's not just the mainstream music industry. Everybody's records have gotten louder and less dynamic. Enon's "High Society," for instance, is probably one of the hottest records I've ever heard. Starlight Mints "The Dream that Stuff Was Made of" is another scorcher. When I go back and listen to The Pixies' "Doolittle" on CD I'm amazed by how quiet the mix is compared to more recent releases. The difference is really dramatic.

I applaud these guys for the effort. It would be nice if more popular music explored the benefits of digital audio's wider dynamic range, but it's not the fault of the record industry that it doesn't. Often, listeners just don't respond well to recordings with quieter sounding moments or that seem to be quieter overall. I think the type of music is a factor. For example, classical music demands a greater dynamic range than punk. But it's also partly what DU suggests--a lot of music consumers really just don't want the volume of their music to fluctuate wildly.

On review: Seconding what yorick said.
posted by saulgoodman at 6:45 AM on June 9, 2008 [1 favorite]


You can actually hear the clipping on that album. It's awful.

I completely agree. Great album that could be sooo much better.
posted by Hutch at 6:47 AM on June 9, 2008


(and by "great album", I mean the songwriting, not the production)
posted by Hutch at 6:56 AM on June 9, 2008


The Pixies' "Doolittle" on CD I'm amazed by how quiet the mix is compared to more recent releases. The difference is really dramatic.

And when it comes up on shuffle on my iPod, I have to crank the volume ALL THE WAY UP in order to even hear it. Then, if the next song is going to be something from an album produced in the last 10 years, I am bombarded with distortion until I can get to the volume control.
posted by spicynuts at 6:56 AM on June 9, 2008 [6 favorites]


Wow. I'd say American Idiot sounds great, in the genre (which is the important point; I don't think this album would sound as good with a less aggressive mix and master). If you want clipping, listen to the Chili Peppers' Californication. Unforgiveable.
posted by uncleozzy at 7:00 AM on June 9, 2008


I also want to clarify that the compression of which folks speak in terms of the loudness wars is not file compression (mp3, ogg, etc.), but an effect applied to the stereo (as if left/right) masters called compression, which makes the soft parts louder and the loud parts softer. By doing this, you can turn the volume of everything up and then set a brickwall limiter at -.1 or -.2 dB so that the recording doesn't distort people's stereos and is as loud as humanly possible all the time.

Radiohead is an example of a band whose records are extremely loud and compressed. I personally don't have a problem with it on their albums usually, but a lot of people feel like the records would sound better if they were allowed to be quieter. Here is one of the many discussions on the loudness wars on the TapeOp forum (one of the best forums for recording types), where it's been discussed so much that it's become something of an irritation to a lot of the frequent posters. This is from 2004, and the topic is "recent albums destroyed by over-limiting."
posted by nosila at 7:14 AM on June 9, 2008


I don't need my music to get louder for me to enjoy it more, but I sure don't want it too dynamic. I want to be listening to the music, not fiddling with the volume throughout the song, and if I'm going to be doing that anyway, what's the point in it being dynamic? Maybe it is just me (and granted, I only have this problem with classical music), but it's terribly frustrating and overshadows any artistic benefit of working with a wider range.
posted by aletheia at 7:15 AM on June 9, 2008


Dynamic music is only appreciated by people who are attending to the music. If you're doing something else and want music as accompaniment, dynamic is distracting.

Now think -- how many people just sit there with a glass of wine and listen to the music and do nothing else? As opposed to wear headphones and do other stuff?
posted by seanmpuckett at 7:25 AM on June 9, 2008 [3 favorites]


To be fair, TMU! isn't interested in classical-type dynamics on rock records. Think about Nevermind, Hysteria, or Appetite for Destruction. I'd say Siamese Dream is a great example of a dynamic, powerful rock album. Crank it up and listen to the guitars roar while the drums still manage to punch through. You don't get that if you squash your album to bits. But that record is plenty loud.
posted by uncleozzy at 7:28 AM on June 9, 2008


This is funny, and a bit sad, hearing people complaining about quiet parts of music. The quiet is as much a part of the music as the loud parts. Complaining about quiet parts in music is a bit like complaining about subtle colors in a painting. If the artist just used nothing but day-glo colors I could really better enjoy the painting.
posted by Thorzdad at 7:32 AM on June 9, 2008 [3 favorites]


I don't much care about compression on modern music, because I don't listen to that much of it.

I wish to hell that'd ban people from using it on TV commercials though. There's nothing worse than having to continually turn the volume knob up and down because it's too quiet during the actual TV programme, and unbearably loud during the commercials. TV helps, but not on those programmes that I've got to see the moment they air.

Fortunately, there aren't very many of those.
posted by PeterMcDermott at 7:42 AM on June 9, 2008 [2 favorites]


The quiet is as much a part of the music as the loud parts.

Thorzdad: I agree in principle, but not necessarily in practice: Does Minor Threat's "Out of Step" need a subtler treatment of dynamics? Not really. It all depends on the particular musical work.

If the artist just used nothing but day-glo colors I could really better enjoy the painting.

There are well-loved painters known for their use of un-blended, primary colors. Using only day-glo colors works just fine if that's what best suits the particular work, IMO.

If a recorded composition doesn't naturally exploit dynamics, why stress about it? Most pop music never varies up the tempo or meter either. Pop music is a simple, stupid genre, and that's by design. Epic rock sometimes plays around with dynamics ("Siamese Dream" is actually a good example; also some of the songs on what I consider to be that album's precursor, Jane's Addiction's "Ritual de lo Habitual"), as do other genres like classical and ambient, but pop just isn't meant to be all that musically sophisticated in some ways, really.
posted by saulgoodman at 7:49 AM on June 9, 2008 [1 favorite]


And when it comes up on shuffle on my iPod, I have to crank the volume ALL THE WAY UP in order to even hear it. Then, if the next song is going to be something from an album produced in the last 10 years, I am bombarded with distortion until I can get to the volume control.

Two words- volume normalization. Run your MP3s through MP3Gain. It doesn't change the music file in any way, it just adds instructions in the MP3 header to increase/decrease the overall volume on playback based on a decibel level you choose.

Most computer media players have a switch for on-the-fly normalization, as well.

It's not the best approach, but, hey, they're MP3s.
posted by Benny Andajetz at 7:54 AM on June 9, 2008 [3 favorites]


And when it comes up on shuffle on my iPod, I have to crank the volume ALL THE WAY UP in order to even hear it. Then, if the next song is going to be something from an album produced in the last 10 years, I am bombarded with distortion until I can get to the volume control.

Two words- volume normalization. Run your MP3s through MP3Gain. It doesn't change the music file in any way, it just adds instructions in the MP3 header to increase/decrease the overall volume on playback based on a decibel level you choose.

Most computer media players have a switch for on-the-fly normalization, as well.


And, actually, the iPod has that option built into it, as well, though I've never been quite convinced about how well it actually works. Anybody use it?

Interestingly, I've always been pretty impressed by Walla's production on the Death Cab records. They're certainly not above the volume wars or anything, but they do seem to maintain reasonable dynamics.
posted by kingbenny at 8:07 AM on June 9, 2008


Well, I think making all CDs as loud as they possibly can is a good thing.

And my volume knob goes to 11.
posted by Loudmax at 8:14 AM on June 9, 2008 [1 favorite]


And, actually, the iPod has that option built into it, as well, though I've never been quite convinced about how well it actually works. Anybody use it?

I've turned it on in iTunes when I was comparing a bunch of (unmastered) mixes of the same song. Some of them averaged -12dB RMS, others more like -18dB, and it did a reasonable job of making the comparison fair.

That said, the problem with the loudness war is that when you apply this technique to crushed music, it sounds pretty bad. Listen to Back in Black and, I don't know, the Foo Fighters' One By One back to back, volume-normalized, and tell me which one sounds bigger, fatter, and ballsier. Guaranteed it's AC/DC.
posted by uncleozzy at 8:19 AM on June 9, 2008


And, actually, the iPod has that option built into it, as well

Yeah, I use the iTunes feature when burning, but it doesn't do shit.
posted by spicynuts at 8:20 AM on June 9, 2008


What is it "records"?
posted by Mister_A at 8:25 AM on June 9, 2008


Yeah, I use the iTunes feature when burning, but it doesn't do shit.

Don't try to normalize when you rip or burn.

Rip and burn everything normally, and then run the files through MP3Gain. Big difference. Most rippers and burning programs will normalize based on peaks. MP3Gain uses an algorithm to normalize. It sounds much better ( although I think it adds a tiny bit of "flatness" to the sound).
posted by Benny Andajetz at 8:25 AM on June 9, 2008


caddis: "I applaud them for their efforts, but I believe the record industry is too evil, and more importantly, stupid to care."

Amen. As long as theres a demand for Peppermint Patty-haired, white belt & Vans wearing, Axe Body Spray smelling guitar & drum heroes, then the 14 to 18 year-old demographic will be calling all the shots where music is concerned.
posted by KevinSkomsvold at 8:45 AM on June 9, 2008


uncleozzy : tell me which one sounds bigger, fatter, and ballsier. Guaranteed it's AC/DC.

In a contest like this, it will always be AC/DC.

Foo Fighters vs AC/DC = AC/DC

M1A2 Abrams vs AC/DC = AC/DC

Space Shuttle taking off vs AC/DC = AC/DC

They may not have a lot of dynamic range, but when I rock, they salute me. And that's something I like in a band.
posted by quin at 8:55 AM on June 9, 2008 [8 favorites]


I'm totally sympathetic do both the desire for MORE dynamics and LESS dynamics -- it's all about the context. There are times I wish could put one of my compressors inline with my TV late at night so I can hear the show at full volume without the commercials waking up the kids in the other room.

There are also times when I want to sit and listen and want to feel like the band is right there in the room with me -- a whisper at whisper level and drums at an ear-bleeding 105dB. But this is certainly NOT the way I want to listen most of the time.

I've mentioned this before, but on my next album I will be releasing three versions -- each with probably slightly different mixing strategies and very different mastering strategies

1) The lightest touch on the mix and mastering with the widest range possible. Probably FLAC format for download. I'll probably call it the "HDR" version.

2) Middle-of-the-road mastering. Pushing it hard but doing my darnedest to avoid audible clipping (unlike Muse album Black Holes and Revelations which is a godawful mess of clipping). This will be the CD version. Call it the "Album" version.

3) Balls-to-the-wall mastering so you don't have to jump at the volume button to hear the quiet parts or cut the loud parts. Also probably FLAC but I'm sure people wouldn't mind MP3. I'd probably call this the "Radio" version.

All of the above would be appropriately tagged when possible so that people can put things into the right playlists if they have all versions.

There is a place for all 3 (and more) of these strategies. I just wish more bands would do what I'm planning to do.
posted by chimaera at 8:57 AM on June 9, 2008 [1 favorite]


[Disclosure: years of listening to things like tanks and shuttles taking off have ensured that my ability to appreciate the subtleties of dynamic sound ranges is lost to the winds of time. As such, loud is all I've got left.]
posted by quin at 8:57 AM on June 9, 2008


Not to denigrate the talents of producers who must succumb to suit-driven compression pressure and try to make the albums sound good nonetheless, at some point, I think processing power might be available even on portables to create a fairly intelligent "night-mode" (aka "I'm not paying very much attention" mode or "Please don't startle the baby" mode).

On the cover art of one of Kate Bush's early records (from the early 80's, I think) is an exhortation for the listener to crank it up. I love dynamic range - it's one of the reasons that I buy the oldest possible printing of a CD whenever I can lay hands on it, unless there's a compelling reason not to. Compression of most sorts (dynamic range, 128kbit MP3s, lousy MPEG-2 rates) drives me bonkers. I want to hear the music, not notice the technology.
posted by adipocere at 9:01 AM on June 9, 2008


I have a similar sort of problem when editing my photos. I used to push the exposure and the levels so that the photo had full dynamic range, from 0 to 255 brightness, and as much contrast as I could shove into the image without it looking garish. Then I realized one day all my photos were loud bright colours. So I took some pictures of some grey things, beige things, and learned that you don't always need to use the full dynamic range of a JPG.
posted by Nelson at 9:04 AM on June 9, 2008 [1 favorite]


I'm reminded of what Erma Bombeck said: Maturity is the knowledge that volume knob also goes to the left.
posted by jonp72 at 9:24 AM on June 9, 2008 [2 favorites]


I've been in agreement since first hearing about this that something should be done. However, I was hoping that since I listen to more independent label stuff, perhaps it doesn't affect me as much as with music on the major labels.

Just as I was thinking that, my music player switched tracks. From something off of London After Midnight's latest album, to something on their first album, and presto, it's quieter with more range. Apparently even a label such as Metropolis has fallen to the loudness war. :(
posted by evilangela at 9:54 AM on June 9, 2008


In a contest like this, it will always be AC/DC.

*cough* I think Motorhead would give them a run for their money. No one within a 100-square-mile radius would have ears left to judge, though.
posted by Dark Messiah at 10:00 AM on June 9, 2008


I feared that someone would bring up the immovable object that is Motorhead to the irresistible force of AC/DC, if only because to pit the two against one another would scorch the earth and destroy every building for miles around. But if we must:

Motorhead vs AC/DC = AC/DC : Motorhead only has one song that they do over and over, AC/DC has two.

posted by quin at 10:37 AM on June 9, 2008


I saw an AC/DC tribute band last summer who were fantastic. They rocked hard, played all the hits and plenty of deep cuts (if AC/DC even has deep cuts anymore), and the singer hit all the high spots with authority. Their secret, as it turns out, was doing rails in the bathroom between sets.

Man, were they loud, though.
posted by uncleozzy at 10:50 AM on June 9, 2008


I wish to hell that'd ban people from using it on TV commercials though.

Why do you watch commercials? That's what the 30 second advance button on the Tivo is for. I don't watch commercials any more.
posted by Xoc at 10:56 AM on June 9, 2008


There are a few exceptions to this unfortunate trend - see the Honor Roll of Dynamic Pop CDs

Also with all the high quality digital recorders and microphones around now, it's easily possible to find free (and legal) bootleg torrents of live performances with quite amazing sound quality.
posted by Lanark at 11:00 AM on June 9, 2008 [1 favorite]


I was just talking to somebody the other day about how, entirely outside of the fact that their music sucks, I think this phenomenon is responsible for why every track by the Killers that I've ever heard sounds like it was recorded on a My First Sony in a wind tunnel.

Listen to Back in Black and, I don't know, the Foo Fighters' One By One back to back, volume-normalized, and tell me which one sounds bigger, fatter, and ballsier. Guaranteed it's AC/DC.

That's not the mastering.
posted by shmegegge at 11:01 AM on June 9, 2008


That's not the mastering.

Sorry my favorite band sucks™. That's not the point though. The point is that the Foo Fighters mixes are squashed. You turn it up and it gets buzzy and annoying instead of punching you in the chest. And that is the tracking, and it is the mix, and it is the mastering.
posted by uncleozzy at 11:09 AM on June 9, 2008


Why do you watch commercials? That's what the 30 second advance button on the Tivo is for. I don't watch commercials any more.

There's still the ten seconds of balring noise that is the moment they switch the commercials and you're looking for the remote.
posted by Artw at 11:25 AM on June 9, 2008


Oh lord, balring noise.
posted by kingbenny at 11:31 AM on June 9, 2008


It's a typo of course: Should be balrog noise.

RRRAWWWGRRRMPPGHHHH - bloop.
posted by Artw at 11:33 AM on June 9, 2008


I was going to say, my balring is perfectly silent. If yours makes noise, you should have it looked at.
posted by uncleozzy at 11:39 AM on June 9, 2008


very cool lilttle demo. thanks for sharing. might be a generalization though. Heard one musicologist not how technology can drive style.. he said the bellowing vocal style of guys like Louis Armstong and jump blues guys was so that the vocals would get recorded better on the crappy wax cylinder recorders. whic int somethign to ponder.

Lennnon liked rock and roll styled mono anyway. Loudness vs. dynamics, ....uh I guess it depends whether Im in the mood for Revolution the 45rpm or Revolution the slow version. or Cheap Trick.. Sonic Youth sure sucks and of course it will eventually be ACDC
posted by celerystick at 11:48 AM on June 9, 2008


DU (unintentionally) brought up a good point, which is that a lot of people listen to music mostly in their car. Because of the ambient noise in a car (and variable crappiness of car stereos), it's vastly preferable to listen to a highly compressed mix. You also don't want to be surprised or caught of guard by dynamic contrasts in a car, because you're driving and you would prefer not to be distracted and crash and die (never mind that everyone talks/texts on their phone anyway).

This is why I hate listening to classical music in the car, and a big big reason why classical music is such a hard sell right now. It's interesting to note that a lot of contemporary concert music is more compression-friendly (minimalism for example).

Really, for these reasons and more, recorded music is not really the ideal medium for huge dynamic contrasts. As yorick pointed out, most recordings actually benefit from compression, as far as most listeners are concerned. Really, live music is what really benefits from dynamic contrasts, hearing the sound as it's created in a space, which is why you should go check out a Mahler symphony in person sometime, seriously you guys, it's awesome.
posted by speicus at 11:52 AM on June 9, 2008 [1 favorite]


First of all, let me heartily echo the sentiment that turning up 'real' (uncompressed) music sounds vastly, vastly better than turning up the crunched stuff. When you just need filler noise, who cares, but when you want to hear the music, go for the real thing. Related: On a sandwich I will eat either bologna or actual beef, but for some reason there's only one of those that I ever sit down and savor twelve-fourteen ounces of.

Nevertheless, there's stuff I've heard that just had too much dynamic range. And in a noisier environment, like a car or the radio, compression becomes desirable because full range will lose you part of the music.

Well, OK, the radio stations have figured something out here: The compression belongs in line at the station, not on the discs/tapes. Wish more car stereos had that figured out. In fact, I wish car stereos had a microphone to check the ambient noise levels, and would then adjust both volume and compression to keep the highs unclipped and the lows some distance above the noise according to the position of the volume knob. Oh, and I'd like a pony.

I can confirm that Apple's volume normalization is pretty useless. I keep it on anyway, but anytime I shuffle onto something recorded in the last five years I have to spin the volume like a ship's tiller. I'll have to check out MP3Gain.

chimaera: What do you mix differently for the different listening environments?
posted by eritain at 11:58 AM on June 9, 2008 [1 favorite]


Because of the ambient noise in a car (and variable crappiness of car stereos), it's vastly preferable to listen to a highly compressed mix.

Yes. And most radio stations these days compress the living shit out of everything. Then artists will say they want their song to sound like the ones on the radio, so they go ahead and aim for that sound at the studio level which compounds the problem further.

It's much like the current Autotune craze where even singers who don't necessarily need the effect are draped in its robotic sheen anyway so they can have a hit single like Akon or T-Pain or whoever.
posted by First Post at 12:06 PM on June 9, 2008


It's much like the current Autotune craze where even singers who don't necessarily need the effect are draped in its robotic sheen anyway so they can have a hit single like Akon or T-Pain or whoever.

Yeah and that, frankly, bothers the crap out of me, because who ever said vocals have to be pitch-perfect in order to sound good? The rough edges are what make vocals sound human and create a personal connection between the song and the listener, IMO. But then, there you go: It all has to do with the way we consume music now. Many listeners don't really seem to want much of a personal connection to the music--it's just filler for them to occupy the space left over in their attention when they focus on other tasks or activities, like driving or repetitive work. Or it's a social lubricant. Or it's a beat to dance to. That's all good, but me, I like music that I can connect to personally and emotionally. Not music that sounds like it was made by robots for robots.
posted by saulgoodman at 12:20 PM on June 9, 2008 [1 favorite]


Well, wait--with the exception of Kraftwerk, that is.
posted by saulgoodman at 12:25 PM on June 9, 2008 [2 favorites]


And most radio stations these days compress the living shit out of everything.

Radio stations have done this forever. Really squashed tracks sound even worse through these signal chains, and it's a shame that nobody cares. Which is why, song quality aside, the classic rock station sounds better than the modern rock station.

the current Autotune craze

If you want to be disgusted by slightly more subtle robot voices, turn on the country station. It's shocking, actually. Because these people can, probably, sing, and sing well, but the current fashion is for this totally flat, pitch-perfect vocal line.
posted by uncleozzy at 12:29 PM on June 9, 2008 [3 favorites]


eeww ... Country with Autotune is a hooker with lots botox and silcone.
posted by celerystick at 12:48 PM on June 9, 2008


> I wish car stereos had a microphone to check the ambient noise levels

Nissan equipped the 350Z with a built-in microphone to control the Bose stereo's EQ and volume in the first model year for sale in the US (the 2003 was introduced in mid-2002). The mic-controlled stereo sounded so terrible that half the owners threatened to sue Nissan while the other half physically tore out the mic, replacing it with a terminating resistor.

The 2004 model year included a new option on the stereo -- you could disable the mic with a button press. So be careful what you wish for.
posted by sdodd at 12:52 PM on June 9, 2008


If you want to be disgusted by slightly more subtle robot voices, turn on the country station. It's shocking, actually.

and it exaggerates the nasality and the accent, which isn't a good thing - country's gotten so phony i can't stand listening to it
posted by pyramid termite at 1:03 PM on June 9, 2008


"Radio stations have done this forever. ..."
posted by uncleozzy at 3:29 PM on June 9

Where "forever" means "about 35 years." That Orban article you linked is solid gold, for those interested in the current state of radio signal processing.

I put one of the first Orban Optimod FM systems in use in the U.S. on air in 1974, on a little 3000 watt Class B 90 miles south of Nashville. Prior to that, there wasn't a signal limiter in the building, and the transmitter was splattering all over the band [my partners and I had just bought the station a month earlier, knowing it had some problems]. If you think processed radio audio sounds bad, you should hear a station overmodulating, like ours did, when one of our adolescent DJs got enthusiastic about a new track.

The $7,000 we spent on that Optimod probably saved our investment. Not only did it get the FCC off our back, but it sweetened our sound enough to reclaim local listeners, and that got us back into advertising contracts with the local supermarket, auto parts store, dairy, and various other businesses. And it also got us paid preachers on Sunday morning, which was decent revenue in those days, in middle Tennessee.

Ever since then, when ever I've been asked what the voice of God might sound like, I say, "It sounds as good as Orban makes it."
posted by paulsc at 1:47 PM on June 9, 2008 [7 favorites]


The last CD I remember listening to and get the full-on dynamic rock facial was Masters of Reality (the band, not the Black Sabbath album). The two opening cuts rock harder than anything I've heard since then - including all the numetal stuff I've heard. It was produced by Rick Rubin. When I listen to it, it feels like I'm in the same room as the drummer and guitar player. I can't think of a "rock" CD since then that startled me as much.
posted by KevinSkomsvold at 2:20 PM on June 9, 2008


chimaera: What do you mix differently for the different listening environments?

I'm not 100% sure what your question is but I'll take a stab at it. In a song if I were intending for a track to eventually be mastered with a very light touch and very little (or no) compression, I'm more likely to decrease the compression on certain tracks in the mix, or change how much efx (like reverb) I'll put on it.

Specifically, things which have a very low built-in dynamic range (highly distorted guitar), I'd be more likely to put a little more reverb or delay on it, since the reverb won't be "magnified" by driving the input gain on a compressor or limiter.

For vocals, bass, and drums (things with a fairly high built-in dynamic range), if I really wanted an "HDR" mix, I might remove the compression altogether, except perhaps a little bit on the bass to give it some more sustain.

I don't normally record with compression on anything, even vocals. This is more a practical decision that has some aesthetic downsides, like more noise in the quiet parts of the vocals, but it gives me a lot of leeway on changing dynamics during mixing. On vocals I just use the built-in preamp in my mixer (a Yamaha), as I've never heard a difference in preamps until you get to the pricey Avalon gear.

So aside from how much or how little compression I put on high-dynamic-range tracks I also would change the "spatial" effects based on how much I expect to drive the input stage on mastering.
posted by chimaera at 2:24 PM on June 9, 2008 [1 favorite]


Just to geek-out on the classical music thing. This isn't exactly a new problem. Renaissance and Baroque music has less dynamic range and a tighter rhythmic complexity compared to Mozart or Beethoven. Modern instruments hadn't been invented yet, the modern concert hall hadn't been invented yet, and the organ, harpsichord, recorder, bagpipes, hurdy gurdy, and early viols didn't have that much dynamic range. (Bach, in my opinion, sounds much better on a period instrument that offers crisper notes.)

Another period of compression happened in the early years of audio amplification and recording. The process didn't have that much dynamic range, and the first popular recording stars came from vaudeville, Broadway, honky tonks, and churches. So early performers like Al Jolson, Sophie Tucker, Memphis Minnie, and Cab Calloway developed their vocal styles by the need to fill a room on lungpower alone. Amplification and better recording enabled more nuanced performances.

So, what comes around, goes around. I've just accepted that there are some CDs I just can't listen to in the car, and prefer to listen in my relatively quiet workplace over the tapping of keys.
posted by KirkJobSluder at 2:34 PM on June 9, 2008


I agree with Coaticass about the transit time thing .. when I got my noise-cancelling headphones, suddenly I could listen to something other than death metal riding the Metro to work in the morning. Maybe if they became ubiquitous, and cars got really quiet, recordings would change.
posted by RobotVoodooPower at 4:41 PM on June 9, 2008


When my former band was making an album, the guy who did the mastering - a fairly known guy who's done stuff for Wilco and Of Montreal - had this crappy little boombox from the early 90's in his studio. And for each track he mastered, he insisted on playing it on the boombox. We thought this was strange, especially with all the incredibly sophisticated gear he had, but he explained. Like it or not, the majority of your listeners will probably be using piece of shit computer speakers or the equivalent. You and I may be audiophiles who insist on using great headphones or speakers, but we can't assume it's the same for everyone. We want it to sound good for everyone who hears your album. I'm paraphrasing like crazy, but he said it in a way that sounded wise and reasonable.
posted by naju at 5:31 PM on June 9, 2008 [1 favorite]


Maybe if they became ubiquitous, and cars got really quiet, recordings would change.

Yet another way hybrids can contribute to making the world a better place.
posted by saulgoodman at 5:31 PM on June 9, 2008


(He played it on the boombox AFTER he did the mastering, I should add. He didn't work with the boombox as his sole reference point, of course.)
posted by naju at 5:35 PM on June 9, 2008


Yeah and that, frankly, bothers the crap out of me, because who ever said vocals have to be pitch-perfect in order to sound good? The rough edges are what make vocals sound human and create a personal connection between the song and the listener, IMO.

This is a good point too. Being perfectly in tune all the time is actually bad musicianship (and also impossible because of the variety of tuning systems in music, but that's another story). Autotune effectively closes off a whole expressive realm. Some of the most memorable vocalists in pop music (Morrissey, Thom Yorke) actually sing audibly out of tune a lot of the time.

Dynamics, pitch... next I expect to hear autorhythm plugins that glue everything to the beat.

That said, I don't really mind autotune if it's used as an effect, it's more the obligatory ubiquity of it that makes it intolerable.
posted by speicus at 5:36 PM on June 9, 2008


And for each track he mastered, he insisted on playing it on the boombox.

I'm no super-technician who's ever mastered Of Montreal or anything, but I basically do the same thing. In fact, I try to listen to my final final mixes/masters in every possible system configuration I can, and under as many different circumstances as I can (e.g., now that I'm off the wagon again, how does it sound after having a couple drinks? how does it sound from the other room when I'm in the shower, etc.)... You never know what's going to help you hear that one crucial aspect of the sound that makes all the difference in the world in the final mix.
posted by saulgoodman at 5:40 PM on June 9, 2008


I hear you, speicus.
posted by saulgoodman at 5:41 PM on June 9, 2008


People still use boomboxes, naju. When I do my "full service" mixing/mastering for bands, my 20-40 hours of work on each disc includes things like checking on the car stereo in traffic, my kids' boombox, etc. Often something will sound awesome on my reference monitors and sound like crap on the boombox, so I have to go back and make changes.
posted by chimaera at 5:46 PM on June 9, 2008


Interesting, I was wondering if it was common practice. So is this just a red herring that has nothing to do with the compression wars?
posted by naju at 5:50 PM on June 9, 2008


And for each track he mastered, he insisted on playing it on the boombox. We thought this was strange, especially with all the incredibly sophisticated gear he had, but he explained. Like it or not, the majority of your listeners will probably be using piece of shit computer speakers or the equivalent.

Bob Dylan used to do the same thing.

The Buck Owens "Bakersfield sound" was achieved in similar fashion as well, by mastering specifically for AM radio.
posted by First Post at 8:05 PM on June 9, 2008


Also, here's Kanye dealing with something along those lines. Basically he hears his song "Stronger" on a big club system and is dissatisfied with the way the kick drum is sounding, so Timbaland steps in to punch it up for him (sidechaining an 808 mostly). This one is strictly for the music nerds, heh.
posted by First Post at 8:11 PM on June 9, 2008


the current Autotune craze where even singers who don't necessarily need the effect are draped in its robotic sheen anyway so they can have a hit single like Akon or T-Pain or whoever

I bet you really hated it when dylan went electric.
posted by Tlogmer at 9:54 PM on June 9, 2008


Autotune has its place as an effect, yes indeedy. Anyone remember Cher's Believe? You may not like the song but you can't argue that they were trying to make her in tune - they were going for a very specific sound.

When I listen to Mogwai's first album, and specifically the track Like Herod, I quiver in fear and anticipation during the quiet section just before the world is annihilated. Baam Baam Baaaaaaaaaaaaaaa! Bam Bam Baaaaaaaaaaaaaaaaa! Bam bam Baaaaaaaaaaaaaa! Bam Bam Baaaaaaaaaaaaaaa!

I'm in a garage band, and we record stuff for Myspace. That's all about loud loud loud. Were we going to record properly for a proper release, I'd want to do it like Chimaera says. And also release it with a creative commons licence. I like the idea of turnmeup.org - thanks jbickers!

My bandmates think I'm an idiot.
posted by Cantdosleepy at 5:47 AM on June 10, 2008


Autotune has its place as an effect, yes indeedy. Anyone remember Cher's Believe? You may not like the song but you can't argue that they were trying to make her in tune - they were going for a very specific sound.

Cantdosleepy: Yeah, I remember that song as a turning point, in fact. The point when I started turning off the radio.

/snark

(Aesthetically, I just really don't like autotuner, even as an effect. It sounds gaudy and like something we'll all regret having gone along with in the future--kind of like sparkly animated GIFs or how sax solos were so ubiquitous in the 80s, whether they contributed anything to the song or not. But I know that's just my hangup.)
posted by saulgoodman at 6:26 AM on June 10, 2008


Guaranteed it's AC/DC.

That's not the mastering.


It's really not the mastering. AC/DC's music is constantly dynamic. Actually, they're the perfect example of how this is not a matter of compression as much as of composition: It seems very few bands and producers are able to resist the urge to saturate the mix with washes of sound. Consequently, nothing has much "punch" anymore. Thank you very much, Phil Spector.

Anyway.

"Increased dynamic range" is a throwback to the days of the living room hi-fi, when some imaginary bachelor would sit around and listen to classical and jazz through some sort of danish-modern record-playing credenza. The term was used in the early days of compact discs to sell the wondrous new technology to audiophiles who actually might give a shit. But it's only in that highly artificial environment (i.e. sitting around doing nothing but listening to music) that dynamic range is a good thing. Since music became portable, with car stereos and Walkmen and whathaveyou, the "quiet parts" have been forced to compete with the noise of the outside world--and they can't.
posted by Sys Rq at 1:04 PM on June 10, 2008


I bet you really hated it when dylan went electric.

i bet you really loved it when phil collins went gated reverb

i bet you really loved it when the kinks invented raga rock on "see my friends"

and then there's cher with "i believe"

all innovations that were worthwhile when the innovators did them - all things that were done to death by their imitators - including dylan's

eventually, people get sick of a gimmick and find another - or, god forbid, actually do music without gimmicks - autotune's as much a terrible cliche as linn drums were in the 80s - and today's production and mastering style is another cliche that's going to sound dreadfully dated by 2020 - they can't get it any louder now, so they've only got one direction to go
posted by pyramid termite at 2:38 PM on June 10, 2008


Most things eventually sound dated -- that doesn't mean that they sucked to begin with. And what's your guideline for distinguishing non-gimmicks from gimmicks? Mine is that non-gimmicks say something new and interesting and connect with real emotion. For that reason, I fucking love the autotuned voice-as-guitar-solo on daft punks harder better faster stronger.
posted by Tlogmer at 12:40 AM on June 11, 2008


Er. I just realized that I agree with everything you said.
posted by Tlogmer at 6:01 AM on June 11, 2008


For that reason, I fucking love the autotuned voice-as-guitar-solo on daft punks harder better faster stronger.

That's not autotune, it's a vocoder.
posted by First Post at 6:43 AM on June 11, 2008


To confess: I might be guilty of this. I use Levelator on the lectures I post, & I use auto-gain by default on most of my recordings. I might re-do the audio recording of surf I have in order to preserve quiet & loud parts.
posted by Pronoiac at 1:42 PM on June 13, 2008


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