Friday, February 05, 2010

Essay: The Loudness Wars and Prog

Your familiarity with the term 'Loudness Wars' will probably depend on how much you care about audio quality when listening to music. I don't think, however, that this is an obscure matter solely for obsessive audiophiles despite how particular and nit picky it may come off to the uninitiated. If you like listening to music, regardless of how much attention you pay to the finer details of sound quality, this affects you. Let me start by explaining what the Loudness War is.

This video has been used as the default educational film on the net for explaining the loudness wars:


That video was made in 2006. Since that time, things have only gotten worse. If you look at almost any modern release, the waveforms no longer have any shape to them at all. They tend to look more or less like this:This scary looking beast is from the much beloved modern Prog Rock supergroup Transatlantic's newest album released last year. As you can see, even an album where you have to sit down and listen to the whole 77 minute thing in one go is compressed to the max. If you enjoy listening to music on a set of decent speakers and headphones this can really cause some extreme hearing damage. I find it nearly impossible to sit through this album in one go, and if you have read my other posts here, you know how much patience and love I have for long continuous albums.

Now, many of you may think I'm crazy. You might say "But Paul, I listen to this album all the time and it sounds fine". Well, maybe. If you listen to it on cheap iPod earbuds or on a tiny stereo while making diner it might be ok. But if you really love listening to music like I do, and love to sit down on the couch in front of the stereo and focus on the music, you'll not only find it a painful tedious listen, but you might even catch some distortion or 'clipping'. You see, when digital audio is maximized in this manner, it tends to peak over the limit of loudness and cause distortion. It is one thing that any audio engineer is taught to stay away from. The record labels tend to ask mastering engineers to unlearn this basic principle.

Why are record companies doing this? Well, when the average music listener is judging music, they tend to automatically assume that louder sounds better. The last decade has seen the rise in average volume of CDs in what seems to be a competition: The Loudness Wars. These loud CDs may serve a purpose for those who like to listen to music in the background at low volumes, but if you want to focus on an album and crank it up, you're liable to loose your hearing. While I can see the 'louder is better' model having some merit for the distracted pop music listener, it really has NO purpose in the world of Progressive Rock.

Take the recent Genesis remasters for example. Genesis' music is clearly meant to be dynamic. There are parts of a song that are quiet and then a loud powerful part comes in. Take the section in the Musical Box where Peter sings: "And I want, and I feel, and I know, and I touch...". This part is clearly meant to be quieter than the powerful next line: YOUR WARMTH
Here's how that section looked on the original CD release of Nursery Cryme from the 80s:

It gets completely whisper quiet and then blasts through with a wall of loud. Notice how, despite it being loud, there is plenty of room before it reaches the top and never comes close to distorting.

Now here is the same section from the 2008 remix and remaster:
Not only are the quiet parts louder, but the loud thunder goes right to the top, turning Phil's once powerful drumming into a plastic-sounding distorted mess. The sad thing is this is one of the better sounding new releases. Just take a look at this example from Trick of the Tail:

Here's Squonk in the 80s:

Here's 2008's LOUD Squonk:The difference is night and day. You don't need to look at waveform images to discern this. If you have the two versions on CD do a comparison yourself. Use your volume control to match the levels and you will not believe how much better that old rusty unremastered 80s disc sounds.

Sure, I'm a bit of an audio nerd. The difference in between myself and the average audiophile is thousands and thousands of dollars. I don't have the money to buy fancy speakers and fancy cables and all that sorta stuff. I don't think that this is a matter of audiophillia. Even if you don't know anything about the art of sound recording and reproduction you're going to be able to hear this difference. It might be subconscious but you can surely hear it. I have a theory that the decline in music listening in the past decade is a direct result of the loudness wars. The CDs released in the past ten years, whether they be new albums or remastered classics, are all very tiring to listen to. Your ears are met with a deafening wall of sound. No wonder people get tired after one three-minute song.

This brings me to vinyl. There is no secret that I love the vinyl LP. Just check out my Thick as a Brick video. While most people claim that vinyl sounds better than CD, they really have no scientific explanation as to why this is so. The secret may lie in the format's limitations. Vinyl records have a much smaller dynamic range than CDs. The fact of the matter is you could not make a vinyl record as loud and distorted as a modern "loudness war" CD. It's physically impossible. This is why, even with brand new releases, the vinyl tends to sound much more alive than the CD counterpart. Vinyl records are more or less immune to the Loudness Wars.

While it's one thing to make a brand new album as loud and dry sounding as Transatlantic's The Whirlwind, taking classic Genesis albums and killing them like they did with the new remix/remasters should be considered a crime. In the 1970s, the role of a mastering engineer was to squeeze as much excellent sound as they could out of those limited vinyl grooves. Most original vinyl LPs sound terrific as a result of this. Today, the mastering engineer has been reduced to someone who makes music as constantly loud as possible while trying to keep the distortion as unnoticeable as possible. We live in very dark times my friends. Thankfully there are heroes like Steven Wilson. The King Crimson remasters that they have been releasing recently are so much better than the crap job done to the Genesis albums. Mr. Wilson understands the Loudness War and how negatively it affects the listener's ability to appreciate music. Good guy!

For more information, I highly recommended the Wikipedia article on this subject.

4 comments:

Brian Baker said...

Paul:

Great post, on an absolutely wonderful blog!!!

As lover of great Prog (Yes, ELP, UK, Genesis, Kansas, Triumvirat, Crimson, Starcastle, etc) I find your blog posts to be right on the money, 99.9% of the time. Keep up the good writing, this is the best prog blog I have found!

Sincerely,
Brian Baker

Paul Di Meglio said...

Thanks for the kind words.

I'll work on that 00.1%.

I'm glad you enjoy the blog.

Keep the Prog Alive!

Anonymous said...

Great write up. Too bad there aren't more folks who value and understand the role of dynamics in music and how the loudness war has been slowly killing dynamics in music for the last 15 years or so. It's to the point where I almost avoid listening to something if it was made after about 1994, and I avoid remasters like the plague. The problem is though, that most listeners seem apathetic about it and others even have grown so accustomed to the loud, compressed wall of sound that they think it actually sounds better. What do you do with someone like that? Sadly, I think the loudness war is hear to stay, but it's a war with no winners.

Ben Miranda said...

Good write up here.

I will say that my first exposure to Genesis WAS through the remasters of '08-'09, and since I'm a completionist, the Extra Tracks from each of the box sets are very prized by me.

I was wondering if the versions of these extra tracks (ie b-sides like Twilight Alehouse) that are on the Archive sets released in the mid-late 1990s have a better mastering.

I will also point out that the 2010 remaster of Supertramps Breakfast in America was HORRIBLY compressed. It actually gave me a headache and I just use cheap 8 dollar JVC headphones I got from Best Buy (actually really good brand I've found but that's off topic)