The mega cold is gone, but there’s a stupid residual cough that keeps hanging around. So instead of kicking off 2018 with a bang and carrying over the momentum I was able to generate in December, I’ve recorded almost nothing so far this year. Fun times. At least we got a bit more work done on Ron’s album, and almost all the basic tracks are in the can now, so that’s something.
In the meantime, I’ve been reacquainting myself with this handy database that measures the dynamic range of just about every commercially released album in existence. If you’re like me and you thought maybe the Loudness War wasn’t as bad as it used to be, it makes for some pretty sobering reading. Take a look at some of the things that have already been released this year and try not to weep.
You start to notice some interesting trends if you dig deep enough. Certain mastering engineers seem to have decided dynamic range is their enemy, or else they’ve become the first choice of any record label bigwig who decides loudness trumps musicality because the payday is more important to them than taking a stand, even if it means disrespecting and degrading the craft they worked so hard to master.
(Pun not intended, but I’ll take it.)
There’s one guy who stands out. I’m not going to name him, because I don’t want to denigrate anyone’s work, but this is someone who’s mastered albums for artists as disparate as Andrea Bocelli, Johnny Cash, Linkin Park, Oasis, Metallica, Shakira, Weezer, and too many more to list. He’s considered one of the best in the business. If you look at all the albums he’s mastered over a period of decades, it’s almost impossible to find even one that has anything approaching a healthy amount of dynamic range. He mastered the Red Hot Chili Peppers album Californication, for rice’s sake. People are still complaining about how rotten and distorted that one sounds nineteen years later, with good reason.
Kanye West’s My Beautiful Dark Twisted Fantasy, celebrated as one of the best albums ever made in the hip-hop genre, has an average dynamic range of five decibels. The quietest and loudest parts of several songs are separated by no more than two decibels, and there’s clipping all over the place. Fans of my Uncle Kanye will tell you that’s the way he wanted it to sound.
The most recent albums by Beck, Afghan Whigs, Mogwai, A Perfect Circle, and Death From Above 1979 all have an average dynamic range of four decibels. A lot of money went into making these albums. They all sound like absolute garbage on any half-decent system because of what was done at the mastering stage.
I don’t know if a lot of people’s ears have been desensitized by years of listening to music that’s been butchered at the mastering stage, and they’ve adapted and don’t find it fatiguing or painful to listen to anymore, or what the deal is. All I know is if I bought more than a handful of the albums that continue to fall prey to this sad fate, I’d be asking for my money back. Life’s too short to waste on music that’s been made almost unlistenable for no good reason.
It’s not limited to high profile commercial releases, either. There was a local album that came out some years back. The band got a “name” mastering engineer to work on it and paid him a lot of money. What he gave them back wasn’t much different than what they could have done themselves with a free computer program. One song was compressed so much, when it got to what was supposed to be the most intense, loudest part, instead of a huge rush of sound what you heard was an absurd amount of compressor pumping, with an impenetrable ceiling clamping down on the sound world.
You hear this exaggerated side-chain compression thing in EDM a lot. It works for club bangers, even if I think it sounds awful in that context too. This was a rock song without a synthesized sound in sight.
That’s…I don’t even know what that is.
But this is the world we live in. This is what we’ve decided is acceptable. Digital recording affords us an incredible amount of dynamic range to play with, and yet we reject it, ignore it, destroy it, or narrow it down to almost nothing so we can make something that will grab your attention because it’s so loud and harsh-sounding it threatens to cook your ears from the inside. And the way things are going, it doesn’t look like this “louder is better, even when it isn’t” mentality is going anywhere anytime soon.
It’s a sad affair, man. I’m gonna go watch a video of cats being goofballs or something so I don’t have to think about it anymore.