If it’s too loud, you’re too right

Stylus Magazine has published a superb feature about music, which answers the question: why does so much modern music sound crap? It’s all about loudness, apparently: not volume, but compression that’s designed to make tracks sound as loud as possible. That’s why Keane are twice as loud as Nirvana, which is wrong on so many different levels.

Levels have crept up over the last decade though, and alarmingly so. Nevermind is 6-8dB quieter than, say, Hopes & Fears by Keane—to contextualise this, those 6-8dB will make Nevermind sound approximately half as loud. On most modern CDs the music is squashed into the top 5 dB of a medium that has over 90 dB of range. It’s like the oft-quoted myth that humans use only 10% of their brain, only real—imagine what we could do if we realised potential. Think of the classic, exciting Pixies formula again—it doesn’t exist anymore, because those dynamic leaps have been ironed out. Keane should NOT be twice as loud as Nirvana.

26 thoughts on “If it’s too loud, you’re too right

  1. tm says:

    I rmembera musician guy I used to work with raging about this – strangley the keane album was the example he used as well. It’s obvious if you watch a graphic equaliser – the whole thing is solid up and down the whole length, at the top of the possible range.

    He primarily blamed engineers for doing this rather than the musicians – running it all through a compressor as part of the ‘post production’ processes.

  2. Stephen says:

    Well of course it’s the engineers: how could the musicians have any impact on the levels they are recorded at, and what happens to the music after it’s recorded? Although, at the level above “who actually performed the dirty deed”, one must question why the artists don’t care more about how they are engineered.

  3. Squander Two says:

    This is what advertising people have been doing to TV ads for years, hence the popular myth that the ads are broadcast louder. All peak and no trough.

    You really notice it when you listen to some classical music: you have to turn your stereo up to at least double the volume you use for pop.

    Squander Pilots’ album, I am proud to say, is far less compressed than most pop. However, many modern portable CD players (including mine) are designed with modern compression in mind, so our album sounds rather quiet on headphones with my player cranked up to maximum. Which is annoying.

    Stephen, musicians do care about their sound engineering but tend to know sod all about mastering, which is where the post-production compression occurs. Mastering is usually done by a separate engineer, and it is typically regarded as post-post-production and nothing to do with the music; in fact, it tends to be thought of us part of the record manufacturing process.

  4. Gary says:

    It really bugs me, I have to admit. One of the problems is that on the face of it, compression is good – look at a band’s faces in the studio when the engineer goes compression-happy and you’ll see huge grins, because EVERYTHING IS LOUDER THAN EVERYTHING ELSE. But it sucks if you listen on half-decent equipment at high volume. I think the article mentioned Girls Aloud, and that’s a good example: their stuff is horribly compressed, whereas Sugababes stuff isn’t (or at least, isn’t so dramatically compressed). Which is why the latter’s stuff sounds a million times better when you crank the volume up to silly levels.

  5. Gary says:

    > Mastering is usually done by a separate engineer,

    Does Bob Clearmountain still do every album in the world, ever?

  6. Richie Mode says:

    When I first started playing music i never knew anything about compression and although i’d watched the Beatles Anthology and such like when they spoke about it i was still oblivious to what it was. It wasn’t until i went to college and actually studied the in’s and out’s of mastering and engineering that i got an idea for what it was for and why it was used.

    I think this is a problem for many musicians. When I started playing in the band i’m in, it was only me (the drummer) and the lead guitarist that had the first idea about amps nevermind compression, so why should signed artists be any different? They just want their music to be as loud as possible. I would recommend that anyone who is embarking on recording with their band or by themself, that they buy an idiots guide to studio engineering or jump on this glorious infra-web and find out a little about what everything does. It will make you know your own sound.

  7. Squander Two says:

    You know, compression is probably the single best sound effect there is. It’s amazing stuff. But getting it right involves world-conquering amounts of subtlety. Marilyn Manson, Aerosmith, Leftfield, Girls Aloud… subtlety. There’s your problem, right there.

  8. Gary says:

    I don’t think Manson’s overly compressed, or at least “This is the new shit” sounds superb at silly volumes rather than mushy.

  9. Squander Two says:

    Oh, I didn’t mean to pick on his music. I just meant that, if you’re looking for a master of subtlety, you don’t start flicking through the NME.

  10. Gary says:

    Ah, I see. I know I’ve said this before, but Glasgow Audio used to show off their high-end kit with jazzy stuff. They used Oasis to scare customers – not because of the music, but because the recording was unlistenable on even half-decent equipment. It’s amazing how forgiving normal stereos are.

  11. Stephen says:

    Leftfield, or at least Leftism, has pretty good range. Cranked up loud in a big room, a track like Release the Pressure is quite awe-inspiring.

    Do you think there’s any scope for a kind of “Director’s Cut” version of music, where the artists get the master tapes, get their own engineer to re-master with as much dynamic range as possible, and make available for download or something? I’ve noticed that for example William 0rbit even lets you download some of his tracks in GarageBand or Ableton Live format; perhaps the Internet could be the artist’s revenge in more way than one?

  12. Gary says:

    The problem is that in 99.9% of cases, the record company owns the master tapes. Hence bands re-recording their big hits later on, because they can’t get the bloody tapes back :(

  13. Stephen says:

    Yes, of course. I guess that’s why artists like William have a lot more freedom: an Ableton file isn’t a tape. Also why his Sugababes track isn’t for download…

  14. Squander Two says:

    Leftfield, incidentally, are probably the only band to regard mastering as part of the production, not post-production, process. They work with the mastering engineer, actually changing and adding sounds while mastering.

    I still don’t regard them as masters of subtlety, though.

  15. Stephen says:

    Not that subtle, I suppose, no.

    Water from a Vine Leaf is amazing. But some of the stuff on the new album could be its equal. (I find I need to listen to William quite a few times before the full effect is developed. So I’m not sure yet.) And I also have high hopes for the next album, based on the preview tracks on the site.

    Actually I’m amazed at how often I can listen to William’s stuff and not get tired of it, unlike, say, Madonna’s last, which got tedious quite quickly.

  16. tm says:

    >I still don’t regard them as masters of subtlety, though.

    No, and rightly so. but it does mean that i can listen to release the presaure turned down low when I’m feeling mellow and drift along to it, then crank the volume up and have it practically blow the windows out when i’m not….

    You could argue of course that pretty much by defintion anything that qualifies as ‘pop’ will fail any measure of subtley. I don’t mean that in a negative sense, just a fact.

  17. Gary says:

    Sorry for the delay in that post appearing, Stephen. Overzealous spam filtering, which unfortunately is utterly necessary. Hopefully it’ll let your posts through again now…

  18. Squander Two says:

    > Madonna’s last, which got tedious quite quickly.

    Certainly did. The singles were superb on first listen, but got pretty wearing by only the sixth or seventh.

    I can still listen to Music and Ray Of Light, though.

  19. Stephen says:

    Yeah, Music holds up pretty well. And ROL was what got me interested in William in the first place. The single was just the most amazing thing I had heard in years. I had to find out who had given Madonna (Madonna!) this amazing sound.

  20. Squander Two says:

    Ah. I had a flatmate in 1994 who, when Summer arrived and the sun came out, started playing this incedible record at stupid volumes for days on end. The record was so good that none of us minded him doing it. That was Water From A Vine Leaf, and I believe that all of his erstwhile flatmates have been Orbit fans ever since.

    And yes, it was incredible that anyone managed to make Madonna sound so good. I remember getting the album and listening to it and being disappointed by one crappy track (I forget its name). Looked in the sleeve and discovered it was the only non-Orbit song.

  21. Stephen says:

    1994, eh? Guess that makes me a late bloomer. But I was living in SA until 2000…

    I bet the crappy track was “Sky Fits Heaven”. Can’t stand it myself; keep meaning to delete it off the iPod.

    Will look into Crustation, thanks!

  22. CaptainReality says:

    Modern pipular pop is compressed up the wazoo. Sounds utterly awful. The drums might as well be a rolled-up carpet and a stick.

    Hot Fuss by the Killers… my current vote for most unlistenable album due to mastering. Apparently the drummer uses cymbals… can’t really tell.

    I just listened to ‘Whatever’, a 1994 Oasis single. It’s so badly compressed you can actually hear the clipping amongst the mush… sort of a staccato clicking/crackling sound laid over the music; I guess in 94 they hadn’t worked out how to highly compress the sound without excessive clipping. This is a single where the drums are drowned out by strings, for God’s sake!

    I’m now listening to ‘Nevermind’ by Nirvana, which by comparison, is quite well mastered; doesn’t seem to clip, the drums are actually louder than everything else; the guitars are pretty loud, but that’s the point; they’d be loud live too.

    A few hours ago, I listened to ‘When Doves Cry’ by Prince. Well mastered indeed! Crystal clear and punchy.

    You may notice something… the older the recording, the better mastered it is! Crazy!

    It’s perverse that vinyl is now a higher quality format than CD, simply for the reason that if you compress the sound too much, a vinyl record becomes unplayable; the limitations of the format actually force the engineers to utilise dynamic range. On paper, vinyl sucks, but in reality, most stuff coming out these days sounds better on vinyl than CD. So much for ‘perfect sound forever’.

  23. Gary says:

    I listened to Whatever on some seriously high-end hi-fi kit a few years ago and it was physically painful (that’s not a slur on the song – I like it – but on the actual sound), whereas older rock stuff was mighty. I reckon Nevermind sounds great on most things; most Oasis sounds terrible on anything with a bit of volume. Rock and Roll Star is particularly bad, I reckon.

    On paper, vinyl sucks, but in reality, most stuff coming out these days sounds better on vinyl than CD. So much for ‘perfect sound forever’.

    Yeah, that makes sense to me. I think the culprit is radio and satellite TV (the sound quality of satellite TV is truly awful) – you get this horrible arms race of everyone trying to sound louder than everybody else.

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