Up to 11: The problem with modern music

  • 24/03/2011

By Dan Satherley

"You call that music? Turn it down, it's just noise."

No matter how old you are, what decade of music you grew up with and love, there's an older generation who thinks it's rubbish.

To ears that grew up with the smooth sounds of Perry Como and Cliff Richard, the Beatles were an unholy racket. A decade and a half later, bands like the Sex Pistols and the Clash turned their amps up to 11, paving the way for even louder, noisier groups like Nirvana, the Pixies and the extreme 'digital hardcore' of Atari Teenage Riot.

But is there some truth to the often-heard parental whine that music isn't as good as it used to be? According to a growing number of record producers, engineers and even fans, yes, there is – it's too loud.

Ian Shepherd is a UK-based mastering engineer who's worked with acts like New Order, King Crimson, Deep Purple and Keane. He's also the mastermind behind today's Dynamic Range Day event, which aims to highlight the falling standards and rising volume of modern pop production.

Starting out at a cassette duplication company and working his way up, Shepherd has been the final link between the studio and the home stereo on many records over the last 15 years.

"With hindsight, I was born a mastering engineer," Shepherd tells 3 News. "I remember modifying cassettes at age 11 to get better sound with my dodgy tape deck, and 'remastering' bootlegs at college, copying between two ghettoblasters with three-band equalisers!"

He got online in the late 1990s, and started a blog in 2008. His first post, somewhat appropriately, was about the dying art of record production. 

You see, music has gotten louder over the past 20 years – a fact obvious to anyone that's ever tried listening to a modern record straight after an old one, and found themselves diving for the volume knob before they wake up the neighbours.

What isn't so well-known – or understood – is that extra volume has come at the expense of what's known as 'dynamic range' – the difference between the loud and quiet parts of a song. Essentially the song is playing at near maximum volume all the time, regardless of what's actually happening musically, so there's a lack of punch and dynamics in the music.

In extreme cases, levels are pushed so high, the music is literally distorted. It's known amongst fans and producers as the 'Loudness War', and Shepherd says it's time to lay down our arms.

"The war happened because people think louder is better," he explained to 3 News, "and it is, up to a point – but only until you run out of space."

Music on a digital format such as CD or mp3 has an absolute maximum level – attempt to go beyond that point, and all you get is harsh, digital distortion. Songs nowadays are often mixed to stay at this maximum level all the time.

"Imagine a pop or rock track with good, pounding drums – then think of the drums as a boxer," Shepherd explains.

"If he's too far away from the punchbag, his punches have no weight - that's 'too quiet'. If he can stand in the ideal position to land great, forceful punches, that's ideal – the sweet spot. But if you start to box him in too close to the punchbag, he doesn't have room to swing properly, so again the punches lose their force.

"That's what the Loudness War is doing – restricting the space the music has to move in, and reducing it's dynamic range, the potential for impact and power."

The war began in the mid 1990s, with many pointing to Oasis' Definitely Maybe and (What's The Story) Morning Glory? records as the first salvos. Blasting out of pub jukeboxes louder than anything else, tracks like 'Live Forever' and 'Some Might Say' became hits through sheer sonic force, according to the BBC.

They were tame, however, compared with what was to come.

"I think Californication by the Red Hot Chilli Peppers was the first album that really rang alarm bells with a lot of people," says Shepherd of the hit 1999 album.

"It was around the time that the new digital gear was becoming affordable outside of pro mastering studios, so we were worried about what would happen."

An album's dynamic range is measured in decibels – it's a simplification, but generally the higher the number, the more dynamic the music and the lower, the louder. Californication measures 4db, a level rare for its day and 3db higher than Oasis had managed, but increasingly common nowadays.

Shepherd says 8db is the top of the "loudness sweet spot" – anything louder is of noticeably lower audio quality.

3 News asked Shepherd if there was one record, above all else, that went over the top, and cranked it to the proverbial '11' – or in this case, beyond zero. 

"Well, the one that springs to mind is Death Magnetic by Metallica," he says. "It actually sparked masses of complaints from their fans – there were over 20,000 names on a petition asking for it to be remixed and remastered."

But isn't metal supposed to be loud?

"Absolutely," says Shepherd, "but the thing is without quiet, there can be no loud. When you squash the music into such a tiny space, everything sounds the same level – so after people have adjusted their volume, it actually sounds quieter. The Loudness War really is a confusing name."

Other popular records noted for being overly loud are Songs for the Deaf by Queens of the Stone Age, Farm by Dinosaur Jr and Steal this Album! by System of a Down.

But the all-time undisputed heavyweight champion is the Iggy Pop remix of the Stooges' Raw Power, which has the incredible dynamic range of a single decibel. In other words, the volume virtually never fluctuates across the length of the entire album.

So if 'louder' doesn't necessarily mean 'better', then what's driving the industry to make records this way?

"Engineers are being pressured by artists, labels, A&R people – but often by themselves, too," says Shepherd. "Lots of people have been taken in by the 'louder is better' idea, and are afraid they'll lose sales if their material isn't 'competitive', or that it will sound weak on the radio."

It's true that when comparing tracks side by side, we instinctively think the louder one sounds better – and in the fast-moving, cut-throat pop market, first impressions are key. But it's a feeling that quickly subsides.

"There's actually research that shows people don't like crushed, low-dynamic music," says Shepherd. "They find the sound fatiguing and prefer more dynamic mixes."

Nor does loud music do better in the market or on the radio.

"There's no connection between sales and loudness – some of the best-selling albums of all time have over twice the dynamic range of most things released these days.

"The radio squashes everything anyway – the final volume ends up the same, and the higher level of the stuff that goes in, the more distorted it sounds coming out."

Though technology has made the 'Loudness War' possible, Shepherd reckons technology will also be its downfall. He points to applications like ReplayGain and SoundCheck, which analyse songs in your music player (like iTunes or Winamp) and make sure they all play back at the same volume level, and Spotify, an audio-streaming service (yet to launch in New Zealand, but popular in the UK) which does a similar thing.

"The ridiculous thing is that after all this damage has been done to the music, people turn it down anyway, or it's done automatically by an mp3 player or the radio, so it was all completely pointless," he says.

"That's why I refer to the Loudness War as an urban legend, a myth – it's all based on an idea that's basically wrong."

He's not alone in his fight – but it's hard to find mastering engineers complaining about the 'Loudness War' on the record, as it's their clients' money that pays the bills.

A notable exception is Bob Ludwig, a genuine mastering superstar who counts Paul McCartney, Nirvana, David Bowie and the Rolling Stones amongst his clients.

When he was chosen to master Guns N' Roses' Chinese Democracy, he delivered the band three versions – one mixed with full dynamics, his personal favourite – and two others, each louder and more like most other modern rock music.

"Hoping that at least one of these would satisfy Axl [Rose, lead singer] and Caram Costanzo, the co-producers of the record, I was floored when I heard they decided to go with my full dynamics version and the loudness-for-loudness-sake versions be damned," Ludwig wrote on his website.

"I think the fan and press backlash against the recent heavily-compressed recordings finally set the context for someone to take a stand and return to putting music and dynamics above sheer level."

The lukewarm commercial reaction to Chinese Democracy notwithstanding, Shepherd believes in the last few years, there has been a rising tide of opposition to "loudness-for-loudness-sake".

"Laura Marling and Mumford & Sons both just won Brit Awards here in the UK – both are great-sounding, dynamic records. The last Massive Attack album sounds fantastic and is very dynamic – so is This Is Happening by LCD Soundsystem.

"But these are the exceptions, not the rule, I'm afraid."

Except, paradoxically, on vinyl. One of the advantages of CDs and other digital media over vinyl records is they can handle a much wider dynamic range without background noise and distortion. But vinyl's limitations – the lack of an 'absolute zero' top volume, for example – means albums issued in both digital and vinyl often sound better on the older, inferior format, a situation Shepherd finds "ridiculous".

"But that's the madness of the situation we're in," he says.

Which is why he decided to start Dynamic Range Day, taking to social media sites like Twitter and Facebook to spread the word. This year, he launched a website, dynamicrangeday.co.uk, to serve as a hub for the movement – which is picking up steam. Big-name audio software and equipment manufacturers such as SSL and Shure have backed the idea, and using the Twitter hashtag #drd11, so have countless musicians and music producers across the world – perhaps lured by the offer of prizes ranging from DVDs to high-end audio gear.

Young music fans brought up with My Chemical Romance, the Black Eyed Peas and Miley Cyrus might not even know what a decently-mastered album sounds like. 3 News asked Shepherd what his gold standard was.

"Wish You Were Here by Pink Floyd still sounds incredible, and I love everything about Abbey Road by The Beatles, especially the new re-masters.

"More recently, Sea Change by Beck sounds amazing, although it's a little louder than absolutely necessary. The albums I mentioned above all sound great, Untrue by Burial, the last Four Tet album - there's no such thing as perfection, though."

Still, there's hope some of worst offenders can be rehabilitated.

"I really hope that the tide is turning, and in a few years we'll see many more albums mastered at sane levels, and some of today's Loudness War casualties re-issued," says Shepherd.

That trend has already started – in New Zealand, of all places. Auckland band Goldenhorse enjoyed commercial success in the mid 2000s, their 2005 album Out of the Moon reaching double platinum status. But only 18 months after its release, it was remastered after complaints it was loud, harsh and lacking in bass (in order to make records as loud as possible, bass is often the first thing to go as it can take up a lot of room).

"I thought it could sound better," says Jeremy McPike, studio manager of York St studios, who told 3 News the team there "hate loud masters".

He pointed us to an article published in Tone magazine where he spoke about the record's remastering.

"A loud master adds impact and energy to a track and compression is an important tool used throughout the recording process," said McPike. "It's just that the Loudness Wars are taking it too far and compromising sound quality.

"Ask any mastering engineer which they prefer, something that's super-compressed or not compressed. But they keep their mouths shut about it if they want to keep working."

Shepherd now runs his own company, Mastering Media, so he's perhaps in a better position than most engineers to speak out. But one man can only do so much.

"The main thing I'd like people to take away is, pay attention to the music you're buying or listening to," he says. "If it sounds bad, complain. Email the record label or artist's site and tell them you don't like it, and why. At the same time, congratulate them if they do it well.

"Most people think the whole Loudness War issue is insane when I explain it to them. We need that message to get the people making these decisions on our behalf.

"Let's send a message – dynamic music sounds better. No more Loudness War!"

3 News

3news.co.nz reporter Dan Satherley also writes music reviews on his blog, Eight Track Mind - click here for the latest.

source: newshub archive