Over Compression is a Sin

“Death Magnetic” (Metallica)

Compact discs and modern digital mastering techniques have been a sore spot with us for a while1, and the obnoxious density of sound has only gotten worse. I’m long since past the age of being part of Metallica’s demographic2, but perhaps they will listen to their fans. Do they really want to be like those annoying television commercials that blare you out of your seat when the show breaks? Similar principle: remove all silence from the audio spectrum, and the sound gets louder, and more annoying.

Death Magnetic”” is a flashpoint in a long-running music-industry fight. Over the years, rock and pop artists have increasingly sought to make their recordings sound louder to stand out on the radio, jukeboxes and, especially, iPods.

But audiophiles, recording professionals and some ordinary fans say the extra sonic wallop comes at a steep price. To make recorded music seem louder, engineers must reduce the “dynamic range,” minimizing the difference between the soft and loud parts and creating a tidal wave of aural blandness.

“When there’s no quiet, there can be no loud,” said Matt Mayfield, a Minnesota electronic-music teacher, in a YouTube video that sketched out the battle lines of the loudness war. A recording’s dynamic range can be measured by calculating the variation between its average sound level and its maximum, and can be visually expressed through wave forms. Louder recordings, with higher average sound levels, leave less room for such variation than quieter ones.

Some fans are complaining that “Death Magnetic” has a thin, brittle sound that’s the result of the band’s attempts in the studio to make it as loud as possible. “Sonically it is barely listenable,” reads one fan’s online critique. Thousands have signed an online petition urging the band to re-mix the album and release it again.

[From Even Heavy-Metal Fans Complain That Today’s Music Is Too Loud!!! – WSJ.com]

Ted Jensen, the album’s mastering engineer, got quoted as saying he wasn’t too proud of being associated with this release. What’s more telling, is there was another version released for a video game console, and it sounds much better ((allegedly: I haven’t listened to either version, though this dude listened to the studio verison)

Data Dump

The battle has roots in the era before compact discs. With vinyl records, “it was impossible to make loud past a certain point,” says Bob Ludwig, a veteran mastering engineer. But digital technology made it possible to squeeze all of the sound into a narrow, high-volume range. In addition, music now is often optimized for play on the relatively low-fidelity earbuds for iPods, reducing incentives to offer a broad dynamic range.

The loudness war began heating up around the time CDs gained popularity, in the early 1980s. Guns N’ Roses’ “Appetite for Destruction” upped the ante in 1987, as did Metallica’s 1991 “Black Album” and then the Red Hot Chili Peppers’ “Californication” in 1999.

Music released today typically has a dynamic range only a fourth to an eighth as wide as that of the 1990s. That means if you play a newly released CD right after one that’s 15 years old, leaving the volume knob untouched, the new one is likely to sound four to eight times as loud. Many who’ve followed the controversy say “Death Magnetic” has one of the narrowest dynamic ranges ever on an album.

Sound engineers say artists who insist on loudness paradoxically give people less to hear, because they end up wiping away nuances and details. Everything from a gently strummed guitar to a pounding snare drum is equally loud, leading to what some call “ear fatigue.” If the listener turns down the volume knob, the music loses even more of its punch.

  1. at least three blog posts that I remember writing, but am too lazy to look for at the moment []
  2. though I used to own their first three albums, and saw them perform two or three times in the 1980s []

3 thoughts on “Over Compression is a Sin

  1. phule says:

    I was sitting on the train tonight, reading the latest Rolling Stone (cover photo: Metallica) and a guy sat down next to me. He pulled out a printout of the WSJ article and mentioned the connection. Both of us were in agreement regarding the loudness issue.

    It’s a shame really… Like the MHz and MP wars of consumer electronics goods: in the end the consumer is screwed.

  2. Paul says:

    I guess this problem has started with commercials having their volume pumped up till the very limit, with the result of listeners lowering their volume.

    If you want people to hear (and hence buy) your album, you better make sure it’s loud!

    Metallica obviously goes for that approach. Selling their album is more important than producing something with quality.

    It’s funny to realise that Metallica is one of the bands that complains that we do not buy their albums, but illegally download them.

    I wonder how much they contributed to that themselves by delivering crap like this that really no-one should buy.

    The solution is simple:
    Both Radio and TV stations should NORMALISE the music, movies AND commercials before broadcasting.

    The result of this would be that the station would put the volume down by 5 to 10db before playing commercials and crap like this Metallica album.

    This would make happy listeners, but angry advertisers.

    Am afraid it will take a long time before advertisers realise that annoying listeners with high volume of your commercial is not a good way to sell your product.

    The bottom-line: commercial radio has had a very strong negative contribution to this phenomenon and hence sucks.

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