Pump down the volume.


I’ve rambled a bit before about this thing called the Loudness War.

(Unintentional rhyme! Score!)

As far as I can work it out, at some point in the early or mid-1990s someone involved in the music industry — no one’s clear on who — thought it was time to start pushing the limits of how much overall volume CDs could handle. The idea caught fire, everyone started trying to outdo everyone else, and it all got a bit out of control by the time we were in the mid-2000s. Some vinyl singles were cut hot back in the 1960s so they would jump out of a jukebox and demand your attention. This was a whole new beast.

There are a lot of high profile albums that have been damaged, if not ruined, by mastering engineers pushing the levels far past any sane place. I defy anyone to listen to Metallica’s Death Magnetic, Iggy Pop’s 1997 remixed and remastered version of Raw Power, or the first version of Rush’s Vapor Trails without getting a headache, an earache, and a brain-ache, in that order. Regina Spektor’s Begin to Hope and Bruce Springsteen’s Magic are a little better but still pretty harsh and fatiguing to listen to on headphones for any length of time. I’ve even heard local albums that have been compressed to smithereens to get them as loud as everything else.

On the whole, it’s not quite as bad now as it used to be. The remastering of an album once meant little more than making it as loud as possible and beefing up the bass, whatever the cost to the integrity of the original recordings. Check out the awful Slowdive remasters from about a decade ago for just one example. There’s so much unnecessary compression added to the brilliant Pygmalion, the soft brushed drums on “Blue Skied an’ Clear” take on a dead, gated sound. I’m happy to say a number of recent remastering campaigns have gone in the opposite direction and opted for dynamics and richness over maximum volume. The “Legacy Edition” of Dennis Wilson’s Pacific Ocean Blue, the mono and stereo Beatles remasters (but not the remixed/remastered version of Sgt. Pepper’s Lonely Hearts Club Band George Martin’s son slammed to death), and the remastering of the classic albums by Sly and the Family Stone come to mind. You even get the odd new album that’s got a surprising amount of dynamic range to it.

But the sad truth is a lot of albums both in and out of the mainstream are still mastered far hotter than they need to be, and television and radio commercials continue to be over-compressed to make them six million times louder than everything that surrounds them.

Note to the people who first thought it was a good idea to do this second thing, and to those who keep the legacy alive: it doesn’t make anyone want to buy what you’re selling. It makes them mute the sound or change the channel/station until what they were watching/listening to comes back on.

It’s not attention-grabbing. It’s obnoxious.

One of the problems is how easy it can be to buy into the whole “louder is better” myth, either because your brain perceives sounds that are louder as having more energy, or because you get a little self-conscious about your own music maybe not being as loud as you’ve been conditioned to believe it should be.

It happened to me.

When I was first able to experiment with digital recording in 1999 after years of recording everything on cassette tape, I didn’t know a thing about gain staging. There’s a fair bit of clipping on the early CDs I recorded while I was trying to figure it all out.

By the middle of 2000 I had a much better handle on things. It seemed to me the most sensible approach was to do the best recording and mixing job I could with the equipment and skills I had at any given time, and then get out of the way and not do anything to mess with the results. I didn’t see the point in trying to make anything loud just for the sake of being loud. I could always turn the music up after the fact on a CD player or computer.

This means you get a lot of CDs over a period of half a dozen years that are pretty quiet, without any clipping at all, because they’re not even coming close to eating up all the available headroom. I did get a kick out of the way GROWING SIDEWAYS gained a little extra volume and booty when I paid someone to master it professionally, but I never would have signed off on it if it didn’t sound good. The music still has a pretty healthy dynamic range, with only a few moments where you can really hear some compression happening (the loudest section of “Oven Head” comes to mind), and there’s no clipping anywhere.

I thought it was going to be the beginning of a long and fruitful relationship with that mastering house. It wasn’t. The follow-up album was more or less left to master itself while we ate lunch. Really. Compression and limiting were used in such a strange way, the quieter passages in the middle of some songs disappeared. 

I don’t know how you even make that happen.

My efforts to get a master that didn’t sound like garbage were met with some pretty thick condescension from the guy who ran the studio. I got two “makeup” masters that weren’t much better than the initial train-wreck I paid for. In some ways they might have been worse. After that, I was told I’d have to cough up more money if I wanted any additional work done.

I chalked it up to an expensive learning experience and went back to handling the mastering myself, keeping things quiet and dynamic. That was the last time I paid someone else to master anything I recorded. Barring a winning lottery ticket or a future vinyl release — which isn’t likely to happen without a winning lottery ticket — it’ll probably stay that way.

(The mastering engineer did send me a final revision sometime later, out of nowhere, long after my relationship with the studio had been severed. It was his way of trying to apologize and make up for what happened. By then my self-mastered version of the album had been pressed and out in the world for a while. It was a nice gesture, I guess, though a belated refund would have been nice too.)

With the NOSTALGIA-TRIGGERING MECHANISM EP and THE BITTER SIDE OF SWEET, I learned almost by accident that I could push the volume a little without anything getting too hairy. Things got a little bit louder there. Then I retooled the studio and figured I might as well try pushing it even more, to see if I could get closer to the general volume of the new albums I was buying in record stores and online. They all seemed to hover around a built-in volume much higher than anything i was doing.

I don’t know why I started thinking in this direction. It wasn’t as if I thought more than three people would ever hear my music. But THE CHICKEN ANGEL WOMAN WITH A TRIANGLE was by far the loudest thing I’d ever done, and for the first time in eight years there was some noticeable clipping.

I guess I did it to see if I could. I told myself it wasn’t a big deal. I wasn’t using an insane amount of compression. I was just turning everything up so someone else wouldn’t have to. Some occasional digital distortion didn’t feel like it hurt the music, and I told myself it was okay if it was a little lo-fi.

Then a lot more than three people heard that album.

No one complained about it being mastered too hot. I kept pushing the volume with the next few albums. It took me three or four years to realize what I’d done and how destructive it was.

One day I asked myself: do I really want part of my imaginary musical legacy to be that some of my most widely-heard (and some would say best) albums are marred by pointless, annoying distortion I introduced after the mixing stage just because I started feeling weird about everyone needing to turn my CDs up a little louder than most of the other music in their collection?

No. I don’t want that at all.

Around the time of LOVE SONGS FOR NIHILISTS I started pulling back a little. But I would still sometimes trade in a bit of sound quality for some extra volume. “Animal Altruism” and “Bent Bird, Broken Wing” were allowed to clip for this reason, which is no good reason at all.

It wasn’t until a failed attempt at finishing THE ANGLE OF BEST DISTANCE in 2012 and the recording of Steven’s album INAMORATA in 2013 that I said to myself, “You know what, self…this is stupid. So what if everyone has to turn it up a little? I want this music to sound as good as I can get it. Period. I want people to be able to enjoy listening to the things I’ve recorded without their ears starting to yell at them halfway through. I don’t want to wince every time I hear something clip, and I don’t want to have to find a way to justify to myself why I allowed it to happen.”

I promised myself I wouldn’t dance that dance anymore. I’d get an album to the best general volume I could within reason, and then I’d leave it alone. If anything started to get even a little nasty, I wouldn’t bring the volume of everything around it up to compensate. I’d make everything quieter to kill the nastiness. I wouldn’t do anything to damage the work I did when i was recording and mixing the stuff. I’d just get out of the way, like I used to.

So that’s what I’ve been doing.

For years I’ve wanted to go back and remaster some of those albums that got hit the worst. When AFTERTHOUGHTS was finished and the city decided to mess with my ability to record during the most useful hours of the day by installing a new water mains no one asked for or needed, turning a job that should have taken a month into a clusterfuck that dragged on for more than half a year, I thought maybe it was a good time to stop thinking about it and start making it happen.

The idea was to tackle two or three albums and be done with it. Instead, I ended up remastering every song on THE CHICKEN ANGEL WOMAN WITH A TRIANGLE, AN ABSENCE OF SWAY, IF I HAD A QUARTER, CREATIVE NIGHTMARES, LOVE SONGS FOR NIHILISTS, MY HELLHOUND CROOKED HEARTMEDIUM-FI MUSIC FOR MENTALLY UNSTABLE YOUNG LOVERS, and GIFT FOR A SPIDER. Those last four weren’t pushed quite as hard as the first four, and it would have been easier to live with the way most of the songs sounded as they were, but once I got started it felt like it was worth it to go all the way. The deeper I went, the more it hit me how proud I still am of this music, and the stronger the need to preserve it in its best-sounding form became.

I posted MP3s of both the original and remastered versions of “Weak Bladder Blues” a while back as an illustration of what a difference a lighter touch can make. Here I’d like to offer a visual example, using the same song.

Here’s what the too-hot 2008 master looks like as a waveform.

With more than a few songs that have been released commercially in the last two decades, you’d see pretty much nothing but blue. This isn’t that horrific. It still has dynamics. But you can see all those peaks are clipping. They’re so loud, they have nowhere to go.

Here’s what the new, quieter master looks like.

Bit of a difference, right? Nothing is smacking its head on the ceiling anymore. And believe me, I know how it feels to crack your head like that. It’s not a whole lot of fun.

Several songs on the first MISFITS collection were pushed way too hard as well. I’m not sure I’ll ever get to those. After remastering 188 songs, I’ve had pretty much all the remastering I can handle for now. I have other things I need to work on. I think the second misfits collection is going to be more interesting than the first one was anyway.

IF I HAD A QUARTER needed the most medical attention out of anything. The original master had clipping in almost every song. Today I’m a little embarrassed I ever let that happen. Listening to it now in its kinder-to-the-ears form, the way it always should have sounded, I’m realizing I like the album more than I thought i did. It’s not as much of a haphazard mess as I thought it was when I was making it.

Along the way, I took the opportunity to remix a few songs I never quite felt I got right. Most of the changes I made were pretty minimal. And we’re talking about a whopping total of nine songs here:

  • “Please Remember to Forget Me” (got rid of the sound of the dust cover being slipped back onto the ribbon mic at the end so I could give the song a proper fade that didn’t feel rushed, and fixed the weird drum panning that was at odds with all the other songs on the album)
  • “Your Sweaty Golden Mouth” (the drums were a little too low and the vocals a little too overpowering, and that always bugged me but I was too lazy to fix it until now)
  • “Getting into Character” (more compression was used on the drums here than on almost every other song on the album, and I wanted to correct that)
  • “Once More, Without Feeling” (same thing)
  • “I Must Be Your Prey” (the vocal tracks fluctuated in volume to an insane degree and I should have done something about it the first time around)
  • “Cinders” (I wanted to get the mid-song dissonant bugle blasts at a volume that was a little less ridiculous and better-integrated into the music)
  • “How These Things Tend to Go” (same thing as “Getting into Character”, plus the harmonica at the end was a little too loud and strident)
  • “Zombies on Parade” (the vocals were a little too loud here, making for an off-balance mix; so was the scrap metal during the intro)
  • “Bent Bird, Broken Wing” (same story here, minus the scrap metal)

It was an interesting challenge. If I mixed these songs based on my current sensibilities, they would sound more than a little out of place on their respective albums. I had to try and find a balance between fixing some issues and keeping enough of the spirit of the original mixes that it wouldn’t sound like much had changed at all.

I think I was able to find the sweet spot.

I’ve been working with backup CDs that are getting up there in age. Some of them are almost a decade old now. For the most part they’ve held up just fine over the years. There were a few scares along the way, but I was always able to find a different source when one CD went funny on me, until deep in the homestretch, when it all got a little more complicated.

“Hostages” was backed up on two different CDs. Both of them were toast. Unable to remaster the song any conventional way, I had to use the “clip restore” tool in Audacity and hope for the best.

I know it’s technically impossible to “fix” clipping this way. You’re trying to replace information that’s been lost. But whatever sonic trickery was performed — by a free program, no less — I can’t find too much fault in it. The distorted peaks are gone. Maybe there’s a little less “air” in the sound of the song now compared to the others, but its a tradeoff I’m willing to accept.

“Kings” was only backed up on one CD in finished form, and it just happened to be one of those Verbatim CDs I stopped using a long time ago thanks to how glitchy and unreliable they became. That one was dead too. For some reason I thought to back up an unmixed version of the song, when that wasn’t something I did much at the time. That CD wasn’t dead. Talk about getting lucky.

I tried to reconstruct the original mix on LOVE SONGS FOR NIHILISTS to the best of my ability. I don’t think you can hear too many differences between the two. A few of the reverb swells early in the song are a little different in the new mix, because it’s almost impossible to dial that sort of thing in the same way twice. Otherwise it’s about the same as before.

All the other mixes were left alone.

I don’t really believe in revisionist mixing. Give a listen to Harry Maslin’s soul-destroying sound-replaced 2010 mix of David Bowie’s Station to Station if you want to hear just how wrong that whole thing can go. Seriously, what was the dude thinking trying to make a classic Bowie album from the 1970s sound like homogenous modern rock?

Could I do a better job today than I did back then? Sure. An album like CHICKEN ANGEL WOMAN would sound better if I remixed the whole thing with the benefit of nine years of hindsight and additional mixing experience. For a while I had a habit of pushing my voice up a lot higher in the mix than I needed to, and the panning of some elements could get kind of off-kilter. I was still getting used to the sounds coming out of the new mics and preamps i was working with. It took a while before I was as comfortable with those tools as I was with the ones I’d grown close to before.

It also took me an album or two to figure out the drums leaned pretty far to the left of the stereo field when I kept the two outputs of the stereo ribbon mic I was now using as an all-in-one drum-mic’ing solution at the same level on the mixing board and didn’t make any panning adjustments, given where the drums and the mic were placed in the room.

But better isn’t always right. These are the mixes I made at the time, for better or worse. A small handful of minor changes aside — changes I felt I would have been foolish not to make — I’m sticking with them.

There were a few changes that didn’t involve remixing anything:

  • “Water to Town” used to have a very abrupt fade-out so you wouldn’t hear me swearing at myself after hitting a wrong note. Now it plays all the way through to the end, dirty word and all. I think it feels more natural this way. Also, there’s always been a very audible click in the first verse. It was something my mouth did mid-phrase when I was singing “while the heat sleeps lightly on every rooftop”. I didn’t notice it until it was too late to go back and do a little split-second vocal replacement surgery. There was no way to fix it in the mix, so I just lived with it. I thought I’d give Audacity another try here, honing in on the offensive sound with the “click removal” tool. It did nothing. I gave Brian Davies’ ClickRepair program a shot, and that did the trick. No more click.
  • A little bit of random banter was restored to the beginning of “Abandoned House Burning Down”. The only reason I snipped it out in the first place was because I knew I was pushing the limits of what I could fit on one CD, and I thought a few extra seconds of space here and there might come in handy down the stretch.
  • I always wanted the last bit of the reverb tail on the organ at the end of “Revenge Is Sweet” to cut straight to the beginning of “New Ways of Saying Old Things” on AN ABSENCE OF SWAY, but I didn’t have a CD burning program that would let me make that happen at the time. Now there isn’t any dead space between those two songs and they’re heard as one unbroken thing, as intended.
  • “Bring Rain in Case of Fire” has a slightly longer fade at the end now, with a few extra seconds of backwards combo organ.
  • The slide guitar at the end of “Kamikaze Daybreak” used to be a fair bit louder than the rest of the song. It was kind of jarring. I brought the volume of that section down to integrate it a little better and make up for the oversight.
  • Likewise with the instrumental jig at the end of “Laugh Like a God of Death”.
  • “Oh, You Pretty Little Narcissist” now has a clean ending instead of an abrupt, somewhat unnatural-sounding fade.
  • “Flatten the Learning Curve” used to suffer from a split-second glitch in the middle of the song, thanks my mixer-specific CD burner being on its last legs. That CD burner has since been replaced two times over, and the glitch is gone.

Most fades at the end of songs have been made to match the original mixer moves as closely as possible. In a few cases a song fades out a little sooner or later than before. We’re getting into hair-splitting territory here, though. Even if you know these albums very well, you probably won’t notice much (if any) difference.

I did play with the spaces between songs in a few other places when I wasn’t expecting to. the end of “Skull Jugglers” never used to smash-cut to the beginning of “Jesus Don’t Know My Name”. As soon as I tried that, I thought, “Why didn’t I do this the first time?” Likewise with the end of “Molly, Go Home” cutting right to the start of “The Penultimate Kiss”. It felt right.

In most cases I took great care to match the exact length of pauses between tracks present on the original CDs. But when I saw a few opportunities to improve the rhythm of the listening experience a little or make it more interesting, I took them.

Track spacing is a whole art unto itself. No one seems to talk much about it in the context of making an album. I think it’s a lot more important than most people realize. A few seconds here and there can make a world of difference in the way the songs flow into and out of one another.

This all took a lot longer than I ever thought it would when I started the remastering process. I thought I’d be finished sometime in the spring at the latest. Here I am only wrapping up now, deep in the heart of summer. I think it was worth the effort, though, because now you get to hear the music the way it should have been presented in the first place.

As for me, I no longer need to brace myself every time I know things are about to distort in the middle of a song. Those moments of distortion that used to almost cause me physical pain no longer exist. They’re dead. Every one of them. And they’re never coming back to life.

Getting to hear some of these songs in unblemished form for the first time in years has been a revelation. And the surprises I’ve uncovered along the way have been a lot of fun to experience. Even though I wasn’t touching most of the mixes, I took a quick look at them anyway.

When it comes to music — especially my own — my brain is a serious hoarder. I don’t tend to forget many things. So it was surreal to hear countless alternate vocal and drum takes, guitar and piano parts that didn’t make it into final mixes, unused intros and outros, and even sketches that were never developed, stashed between songs like invisible little bookmarks. I have almost no memory of recording any of this stuff.

Even when you don’t count any of the between-song sketches, out of these 188 songs, at least 100 of them have recorded elements that weren’t used, ranging from subtle little things, to “holy crap, this would have changed the feeling of the whole song if i kept it in the mix” things.

I’ve got a plan for some of this “lost” material. I’ll tell you more once it gets past the brainstorming stage.

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