There’s this dumb thing that’s been going on in the world of recorded sound for a while now called the Loudness War.
On some level, it goes back many years, to the days before digital recording existed, when vinyl records and singles were cut “hot” so they would have more energy and stand out when played on a jukebox. You can only make a record so loud before it won’t even play, though. So there’s always been a cut-off point. It’s one of the reasons a vinyl record will often have more headroom than the CD version of the same album.
For the first decade or so after CDs became a viable medium, most of them were pretty straight transfers from the vinyl record or the original master tapes, with little or no processing. But somewhere along the line, this “louder is better” mentality came back with a vengeance. People started looking for ways to push the limits of just how loud a CD could be made. Brick-wall limiting became a regular tool at the mastering stage. Dynamic range became less important.
You can grab any random CD from your collection that was mastered in the 1990s, and chances are it still sounds pretty good, and a good deal quieter than anything being produced right now. It’s over the past ten years and change that things really seem to have taken a nosedive, as this idea of “louder is better” has become so important within the music industry, the actual sound quality of a piece of music isn’t often given much consideration. As long as an album is as loud or louder than everything else, it doesn’t matter what damage is done to the music in getting it to that point.
Buying a new album is a bit of a crapshoot now when it comes to sound. Some mastering engineers are able to get things loud in a somewhat musical, invisible way. Others crush the life out of the music to the point that it becomes painful to listen to.
A few examples:
Bruce Springsteen’s Magic is a pretty good album. I wouldn’t put it up there with Bruce’s absolute best, but there are at least three or four songs I really like. It’s also an album I almost never listen to, because it was completely crushed at the mastering stage. It always makes me shake my head, thinking of the amount of time and money that goes into recording and mixing an album like this, only to have that work undone in the final hour because the record company says, “Make sure it’s REALLY loud.”
There’s the reissue/remaster of Raw Power by the Stooges. That one came out in 1997, before the Loudness War was anywhere near as bad as it is now. Here was an opportunity to beef up an album that was always criticized for its flawed rush job of a mix.
Iggy beefed it up alright. He beefed it up so much, it’s still louder than just about anything else on the planet fifteen years later.
I understand the logic behind this. It’s aggressive music. It was meant to sound confrontational. But the end result is so harsh and fatiguing, anyone with a working set of ears can only get through a few songs at a time. Some of the distortion created at the mastering stage is so bad, it feels like you’re being stabbed in the cochlea with a potato peeler when a guitar solo kicks in.
I think it’s a great album. And I haven’t been able to listen to it in years because of how horrible it sounds.
The 2010 vinyl remaster that was released for Record Store Day proves just how good it could have sounded if it was mastered with some amount of sanity. Compare this (1997 butchery) to this (2010 restoration). It’s not even a fair fight.
At the other end of the spectrum, there are some remastering campaigns that get it right. The recent Sly and the Family Stone remasters are so not-pushing-the-envelope-into-the-realm-of-stupidity in the volume department, it’s a little daring, and they sound fantastic. Even There’s a Riot Goin’ On, a notoriously murky, lo-fi album, now has real depth some actual low end, without losing any of the atmosphere that helps to make it so compelling.
And the reissue of Fun House by the Stooges demonstrates what can happen when a different mastering engineer tackles music by the same band. The music is loud, and it hits hard, but it also has dynamics. Nothing ever sounds harsh or compromised. You can’t hear any out-of-control clipping.
There are even some people putting out new music who care enough not to value maximum volume over the actual sound of their music. Scout Niblett’s latest album is so dynamic, it’s almost shocking when compared all of the compressed-to-death music we’re subjected to now. It gets really quiet. It gets really loud. There are peaks and valleys instead of just a flat line. The most recent Idaho album is rich and full and not fatiguing at all. The most recent Wilco album is competitively loud, but it also happens to sound really good.
The worst part of all of this? From what I’ve read, most mastering engineers don’t want to crush the life out of anyone’s music. They work hard at what they do. They want to take a good-sounding recording and make it great. But there are so many artists and labels telling them to make it louder at any cost, if they refused to fall in line they wouldn’t be able to make a living.
It’s a pretty sad state of affairs when you spend years learning a trade and refining your craft, and then you can’t do your best work because everyone is too half-deaf and narrow-minded to know what sounds good anymore, or else they just don’t care.
Even I’ve been guilty of falling prey to the absurdity of the Loudness War, to some extent. For years I didn’t care that my CDs needed to be turned up louder than just about any modern commercial release. Then around the time of CHICKEN ANGEL WOMAN I started to care. I realized I could push things and get the overall master volume a lot higher than I ever thought possible. While this introduced some clipping in places, I thought it kind of suited the material, and it was nice to have an album of my own that was loud enough to compete with just about anything else out there.
I stuck with this approach for a while. I think it was a worthwhile experiment in some ways. But if I could go back and do it again, I never would have bothered. IF I HAD A QUARTER in particular has some moments that get pretty ugly and distorted in order to keep the master volume high, and there was no real need for that.
Over the past two years or so, I’ve found myself starting to pull back a little, and my albums have gradually been getting quieter again. Something like MEDIUM-FI MUSIC FOR MENTALLY UNSTABLE YOUNG LOVERS needs to be turned up a bit louder than an album like IF I HAD A QUARTER. The sound quality is also light years ahead of QUARTER, and I don’t think anyone could make an argument in the other direction.
I care about sound quality. Maybe I needed to make a few albums that were a little too hot in order to hammer that point home for myself. Sure, I want my albums to have a healthy overall volume. They shouldn’t be so quiet you need to dime your stereo’s volume to hear them. But they don’t need to be as loud as everything else to sound good.
An instructive moment for me — and I wrote about this once before — was hearing one of my songs on a radio station that wasn’t CJAM. The radio is not like a jukebox, and here the mentality of making something as loud possible so it commands the listener’s attention becomes self-defeating.
Most radio stations use a limiter to keep everything at an even volume, since there tends to be some disparity in levels between the songs they’re playing. This means no matter how loud your song is mastered, it’s going to be the exact same volume as everything else when it’s played on the radio. And if it’s already been compressed and limited to hell, when it goes through another stage of limiting before hitting the airwaves it’s going to sound even more strangled and lifeless than it did before.
Your song may stand out, but it’ll be for all the wrong reasons.
With that in mind, I was listening to this radio station. Pretty much every song sounded the same when it came to the dynamics. Which is to say there weren’t any. As you would expect.
Then I heard one of my songs off of LOVE SONGS FOR NIHILISTS, which is right about where I started to pull things back a little. My song was just as loud as everything else, thanks to the station’s limiter, but it seemed to jump out of the speakers. It sounded alive when everything that came before it sounded dead.
A lot of the songs that were played before mine were recorded in professional studios. Here was something I recorded in an untreated room in my house. It sounded so much richer and more three-dimensional than any of those other songs, it was kind of stunning. My song stood out because it refused to be a participant in the loudness war.
Since then, I’ve put a lot less effort into making my music loud. I still try to get it to a pretty healthy level, but if anything starts to sound compromised I bring the volume down, and I think I’ve managed to find a more comfortable middle ground. The next album that comes out with my name on it will have the quietest overall volume of anything I’ve put out since the NOSTALGIA-TRIGGERING MECHANISM EP. I think it’ll be a much better-sounding and more dynamic album because of it.
See, there’s a great way to make music loud without compromising the sound quality at all. It’s something you use long after an album has been finished, when you’re listening to it in your car or on your stereo. It’s called a volume knob. It’s too bad so many people in the music industry seem to have forgotten all about this little mechanism. It truly is magical.