The Loudness War

If you only listen to music in your car or on public transport via headphones you are probably not aware of the way the modern CD has been ruining the sound of many classic albums and providing terrible reproduction of new records. The problem is that record companies today make albums as loud as possible. In the mastering process, which follows the mixing stage, a company may decide to brutally compress an album to make it uniformly loud across the whole range of songs. The result of this is that even the quiet songs are loud and the quiet bits of any of the songs are loud too. After all, you can’t hear the quiet bits in the pub or in your car otherwise can you?

Do you listen to Radio 1. I know it’s crap, but today give it a listen for five minutes. Do you notice how loud and punchy the sound is, with plenty of bite? That’s compression at work. But you might also notice how little dynamic range is in the music, there are no quiet moments in records on Radio 1. In making everything loud you lose so much of the subtlety in the original recording and this same process is going on with nearly every CD you buy today.

The result of this is destroying the modern album. This is not just an issue for audiophiles. Listen to the Red Hot Chilli Pepper’s Californiacation or U2’s How to Dismantle An Atomic Bomb for some of the worst examples of the effect of hot mastering on CDs. Everything is made very loud and the loudest sounds clip because they reach the top of the CDs range, it’s an unattractive sound. Californiacation was so bad even regular users complained to the record company, not just audio equipment nerds.

Sometimes the effect is very deliberate on the part of the band. Oasis deliberately created one of the loudest albums with What’s The Story Morning Glory. Phil Spector’s wall of sound technique was also a deliberate attempt to create hot records, the idea being that even the crappiest AM transistor radio could belt out a fair sound playing one of his records. The Beatles lobbied their record company to press their albums on thicker vinyl to allow them to record hotter.

But the problem is that if everything is loud there is no dynamism in the music. There’s no light and shade. Another problem is that some sounds disappear altogether. Transients and other sounds, such as drum sticks striking a cymbal are lost in the modern hot record and we’re left with poor distorted drums such as those we hear on Oasis records.

Rock seems to fair worse in the Loudness War, which really heated up in the late eighties with records such as Guns & Roses’ Appetite for Destruction which started pushing the envelope. Hip hop fairs quite well, the minimalistic approach to music in the genre and concentration on punchy sounds doesn’t suffer as much compared to a full band of musicians playing guitars, drums, bass, keyboards and vocals.

Interestingly the vinyl versions of many new albums don’t suffer so much from hot mastering but many of us don’t have a record deck anymore and the format is inconvenient. Anyway, it’s not the format that’s the problem. There’s nothing inherently wrong with the CD, it’s just the mastering process inflicted on many a good record by the publishing company. Bands will create a great mix of their record only to have its dynamics crushed into a small space by a brutal compression.

Annoyingly older records are being treated to this process when being remastered. If you buy a remastered version of Deep Purple’s In Rock, the thick sound of the original has been crushed and compressed into a small dynamic range. It even happens with pretty recent recordings. The original CD of Megadeth’s Youthenasia sounds pretty good, but the new remaster is terrible.

Nearly every CD you buy today sounds like this. Some great albums have been ruined by it. Iron Maiden’s Dance of Death features some fantastic songs, but the original mix of the record has been hampered by a truly awful mastering job. It’s good news then that the band has decided not to master the new album, A Matter of Life and Death, at all. Having heard the new single I can confirm it sounds fantastic. The quiet bits sound quiet, the loud bits are loud and you can hear so much more in the mix such as Nicko’s sticks hitting the drums.

Here is what A Matter of Life and Death’s producer, Kevin Shirley, has to say about the decision not to master the new Iron Maiden album.

“Got my copy of the new Iron Maiden album, well a reference disc, and took off early this morning in my car to check it out, top down on an uncrowded ocean highway, and I must say, I’m pretty happy we (well Steve, really) decided against using the mastering! I dig it! For all the little extra hi-fi nuances they add in mastering, the raw attack and bite of the original mixes is quite refreshing to hear! It is EXACTLY as I mixed them in the studio, EXACTLY what the guys in the band heard! In the mastering process, the mastering engineer sometimes takes it upon himself to be creative, say to add certain frequencies which boost vocals or the bass, which makes the balance between the kick and bass guitar change, and on many occasions I’ve got a mastered CD back, and then have been unhappy – but usually blame myself! Even when we mastered this album (which we didn’t use), it had a little analog compression added, which brings the guitars up a tiny bit, and knocks the transients off the snare drum, thus diluting the attack and impact of the snare. Now what you’ll hear on the Maiden album, is the way it sounded in the studio, and while it may not be as loud as some other CD’s, who gives a damn! Turn the volume up then…… My three fave tracks are Longest Day, For the Greater Good Of God and Lord Of Light – although that may well change tomorrow!”

Are there any other good examples of well mastered CDs? Roger Waters’ Amused to Death is a pretty good example of how to master an album. It has some very quiet passages that mean you have to turn the stereo up. But it’s certainly worthwhile to hear a great sounding record. Soundgarden’s Superunkown is also a good dynamic record with subtle mastering.

Hopefully the tide is turning against hot mastering. While over-the-top compression is likely to continue for packaged pop to make punchy if dull records, perhaps Iron Maiden’s move will be followed by other rock bands.