January 30, 2007

What? Can’t hear you.

Feeling technical?
Some fascinating reading this morning on the audio science of music, if you will:

Everything Louder Than Everything Else
Have the loudness wars reached their final battle?
By Joe Gross, Austin360.com

“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 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.

Read the full article here


  • Great article…thanks for the heads up!


    Doctor Mooney — January 30, 2007 @ 12:18 pm

  • Google “Rip Rowan” and “Over the limit.” You’ll find an article — it’s cached though — about much the same thing. Essential reading for Rush fans who hated the last album and couldn’t explain why (it discusses more than just Rush, but production in general).

    [I am acutely aware of how uncool it is to speak of Rush on a blog of such credibility. I do so with great caution. And as a reminder: Tom Sawyer's mind is not for rent.]

    kingseyeland — January 31, 2007 @ 12:08 am

  • Funny, I was just reading up on this yesterday.

    While most audiophiles (myself included) frown on compressing studio recordings to “remaster” them, I must admit I’ve used the technique for mastering digital recordings I’ve made of live performances. The reason? Whereas (all things being equal) analogue recordings tend to maintain a constant loudness, newer digital recordings don’t, so the quiet bits are really quiet and, IMHO, sometimes require a bit of help to be heard. Just the same, I tend to keep the compression pretty light so a range is still present in the amplitude of the recording.

    cherbonsy — January 31, 2007 @ 2:55 pm

  • I’ve read that article before. The thing with Dylan’s quote is that he dismisses every album made in the last 10 – 15 years. That includes his own, and several must-own records including Heartbreaker and Grace… I feel he might be exaggerating but his point is interesting. Maybe he’s playing Devil’s advocate?

    The thing is, I’ve grown up with compression on my cds so I don’t know anything different. I don’t get physically exhausted when I listen to the notorious ‘badly produced’ discs of the past few years, plus I tend to listen through headphones a lot so pick up all of the little noises in the background. Basically, I can’t really comment on the difference because I don’t know what it was like before the change, but if I ever did (and that’s a big, speculative ‘did’) record something then I’d make sure that it didn’t clip and that the volume was kept at a reasonable level. You don’t need a cd to be loud as soon as you put it in, there’s no fun in cranking up the volume otherwise!

    leavingfootprintsinthesand — February 1, 2007 @ 5:20 am

  • Interesting article. Thanks for the link!

    Marc Morrison — February 3, 2007 @ 5:26 pm

  • I am coming to this a solid month late. The term ‘compression’ is being used to convey both good and bad things.

    Music by Toto from 1981, for example, sounds like it was recorded yesterday because of compression. That’s a very good thing. Listen to other songs from that period and then listen to “Africa” and the quality difference is tremendous.

    The real problem is the digital format itself. The article makes the nonsensical statement that CDs carry a musical waveform better because the range is greater – the opposite is true. The digital steps that analog music is converted from create a loss of clarity. High levels of compression magnify the issue just like swinging a golf club incorrectly 30 times is worse than swinging it once.

    Compression, even unreal levels of compression, are your friend if the waveform is being reproduced accurately. So compression is not the issue, digital music is.

    We need to come up with something better than a standard invented by some guy in the 1950s that was never intended to be superior to analog sound. Then we can compress all we want and ‘loud’ won’t equal bad any more.

    Chief Scientist — February 28, 2007 @ 3:46 pm

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Bio Pic Name: Heather Browne
Location: Colorado, originally by way of California
Giving context to the torrent since 2005.

"I love the relationship that anyone has with music: because there's something in us that is beyond the reach of words, something that eludes and defies our best attempts to spit it out. It's the best part of us, probably, the richest and strangest part..."
—Nick Hornby, Songbook
"Music has always been a matter of energy to me, a question of Fuel. Sentimental people call it Inspiration, but what they really mean is Fuel."
—Hunter S. Thompson

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