Thursday, November 18, 2010
Let's call a truce in the CD 'Loudness War' [BLOG POST]
Question: Hi Dig,
in your previous blog you talked about the audio expectations of younger metal fans. I was wondering if you've read Alan Wilder's open letter about audio and how it coincides with the decline of the music industry.
Does he talk some sense? From: firstname.lastname@example.org
Answer: Alan Wilder speaks a lot of sense in that article. The CD 'Loudness war' has been raging for over a decade, and is basically the fault of labels, producers and mastering engineers but mostly its the fault of the artists themselves who became seduced by the idea that maximising the loudness of their CD should be the primary concern, in order to compete with rival acts in their genre.
As home recording software became commonplace,it placed powerful audio EQ, compression and limiting tools into the hands of relatively inexperienced people. DIY musicians took on the role of audio engineer- and so during the late 90's and throughout the 00's digital compression of the audio at the mastering stage became a crude way to 'improve' the audio experience of the listener, by simply making the music sound louder, sacrificing any punch or dynamics the music may have had previously.
To the human ear, louder sounds grab the listeners attention quickly, and louder does sound better on first listen- so for many years this was ALL that mattered to the people involved in any project. I'm glad to report that is not the case anymore.
Heres a great video explaining the 'loudness war':
If loudness was all that mattered to fans then the audience at live metal concerts would surely congregate in front of the speaker stacks at the sides of the stage- plainly that doesn't happen because it would be ridiculous.
As more fans start to collect vinyl again, there has been a gradual realisation that newer CDs somehow aren't as satisfying to listen to as the same album on an old analogue LP. This is because at some stage in the 90s/00s the Cd was re-issued, compressed and re-mastered to give maximum volume. It seems the people that have been arguing for years that vinyl is sonically best, were actually right all along.
To be honest the loudness war is over mainly because people don't consume their music on CDs anymore-- sites like iTunes, YouTube and Spotify as well as the iPod in shuffle mode all come with automatic volume equalisation as standard - this is so that listeners receive tracks at a constant volume level and can enjoy the experience better. Nobody wants to get sued because of a blast of volume in the headphones from an overly loud track causing hearing damage. This pretty much negates the whole point of making the CD louder in the first place.
Earache succumbed to the loudness war itself with many of our Cds released during the late 90's being maximised to insane loudness levels- nowadays this is called 'brickwalling' meaning the waveform has no dynamics visible at all- its a sheer wall of sound. The albums this applied to were mostly of the Industrial/Gabba variety like say Ultraviolence and The Berzerker where the music was created digitally in the first place.
Shocker by Johnny Violent is mastered at a ear-shattering level of +5 dB when the recommended standard for Cd is -2 dB. I remember the artist actually asking the mastering engineer to make it so. Listening to the track now reveals the only shocking thing is the complete lack of dynamics-the gabba drums hit like cotton-wool and even incidental noises are as loud as the overall track, every sound is competing to become the 'lead instrument'. It's an audio nightmare.
Even major rock bands have even succumbed- when Metallica's Death Magnetic came out a whole host of fans complained about the audio clipping and being un-necessarily loud. This was evident when the Guitar Hero version came out, and the files used were the un-compressed originals. The Guitar hero version is more lively, punchy and dynamic and a better listening experience over time.
Nowadays Earache is totally in favour of campaigns like TURN ME UP which aim to bring back the dynamics into music. Earache goes as far as making two mastering sessions for each album now- one where the music is preserved so that it is highly dynamic and specifically made for the vinyl LP release, and another separate one with a tad of compression to make the CD edition.
As the Turn Me Up campaign says- if you want it louder, simply turn it up! Remember, the volume knob is in your hands! (ooer).