Everything Louder Than Everything Else - Dynamic Range Mastering In 2011
, September 1st, 2011 18:48
Nick Southall examines the state of play in the loudness wars in 2011 with regards to Kanye West, PJ Harvey and These New Puritans. Main photo by the author
In 2006 I wrote an article for Stylus Magazine about dynamic range compression, a technique applied to music in order to make it louder, and thus, the desperate hope goes, more noticable. It got a lot of attention; as well as being seemingly the first consumer-led piece about dynamic range compression (engineers and techies have been moaning about it for years) it was just about the most-read thing Stylus ever published (beyond end-of-year lists). Numerous musicians, producers, and record company people got in touch with me to say ‘thank you’ for writing it, at least one band was explicitly influenced by it when recording their next album, and Robert Christgau, self-ordained dean of American rock critics, chose to include it when compiling the 2007 Da Capo Best Music Writing anthology.
Five years on though, if I’m honest, I feel like that original article was far too long, repetitive, and rambling, and so I’ve decided to “remaster” it, as it were, trim it, shorten it, update it for 2011, and try and hammer the message home again. Dynamic range compression hasn’t gone away, and while there are plenty of records out there that still sound great, so much of the musical product we have foisted upon is so sonically subpar that people who express surprise at the continuing collapse of the record industry perpetually amaze me. So here goes.
Several months on from its release, and there are plenty of things I find unpleasant about Kanye West’s much lauded My Beautiful Dark Twisted Fantasy: the overlong songs and overstuffed arrangements; Chris Rock’s not-offensive-enough-to-be-funny monologue about “re-upholstering” a woman’s sexual organs; the tedious, prog-like 4-minute vocoder “solo”. Not to mention Kanye’s perpetual, “Oh woe is me, I’m a poor rich man who does bad things” persona. But these all pale into insignificance next to the album’s most obnoxious feature: its horrific, distorted volume.
Because My Beautiful Dark Twisted Fantasy is loud. Really loud. If you open up an MP3 of one of its songs in an audio-editing program like Audacity, the waveform, a visual representation of the sound, looks like a brick. In fact, let me do it for you: this is 'Monster', the awesome, Nicki Minaj-starring peak of the album:
That blue space represents the sound you hear when you play the song – the vocals, beats, everything else; when it reaches the top and bottom of the grey bar it’s in that means it’s at maximum volume. The light grey space around the blue (you might have to squint; there’s not a lot of it to see) indicates points in the song where it’s not at maximum volume. As you can see, 'Monster' is at maximum volume for pretty much its entire length.
Once you’re at maximum volume, of course, there’s nowhere else for sound to go except “into the red”, which means distortion. With analogue distortion, this translates as a warm buzz that’s long been the sound of overdriven rock music. Digital distortion, unfortunately, is a very different sound; it’s usually described as “clipping” because the top of the waveform is literally flattened, as if someone had clipped the edges off with scissors.
What this brick-like waveform translates to when you actually play 'Monster' through a pair of speakers is a relentless assault where instruments and voices lack definition and start to blur together, where there’s no room for the music to breathe, no chance of a dramatic shift in volume as you surge into a chorus (remember The Pixies?), and where sound pushes into digital distortion when it tries to get any louder, because it simply has nowhere else to go.
Which may well have been Kanye’s intention, but when you consider that My Beautiful Dark Twisted Fantasy is well over an hour long, and maintains this loud, blurred approach for its entire length, it becomes difficult to listen to without your attention wandering. Possibly to the thought of where there might be some aspirin.
This extreme loudness isn’t at all uncommon; in fact it’s an epidemic, and has been for some time. Loudness is measured in decibels RMS; in 1987, Guns n’Roses’ debut album Appetite For Destruction was considered loud, and averaged -15dB RMS volume, meaning the average volume was 15 decibels below what’s referred to as “digital zero”, the absolute maximum loudness that can be achieved.
By 1994 the average loudness for a rock record was -12dB. Oasis’ (What’s the Story) Morning Glory in 1995 hit an extraordinary -8dB, meaning it seems more than twice as loud as Appetite for Destruction if they’re played with the volume dial in the same position. The 1997 remaster of The Stooges’ Raw Power reaches an unbelievable -4dB (meaning the sound barely ever dips below “digital zero”, and therefore the threat of digital clipping and distortion), making it supposedly the loudest rock record ever.
My Beautiful Dark Twisted Fantasy received a host of plaudits despite its harsh sound, a flurry of “album of the year” titles bestowed upon it by various publications. NME, though, chose a dramatically different sounding record as their favourite of 2010.
Hidden, the second album by These New Puritans, isn’t quiet by any means. In fact at points it is incredibly loud, as huge Japanese taiko drums and massive orchestral swells rub up against angry slashes of guitar and a modern dance aesthetic. But there isn’t a hint of distortion to be heard.
Graham Sutton, Hidden’s co-producer, and Jack Barnett, the singer/songwriter and other producer behind the band’s music, discussed how they wanted the album to sound at length before recording it.
“When I first talked to Graham about making Hidden,” explains Barnett, “we spoke about this kind of thing. Distortion is easy; it’s a bad habit, an excuse. Graham is maybe more of an extremist; I see recordings more as illusions. I wanted the album to be really clear and naturally recorded, but also to ‘pump’ a bit. That's where Dave Cooley [who has mixed the likes of Madvillain and Matthew Dear] came in, mixing it in LA.”
Graham Sutton expands: “We wanted a loud record that was free of distortion. Once distorted tracks are turned down to play at the same level as other, cleaner masters, they sound wimpy and mushy. We wanted as full a dynamic punch as we could muster, drums of all sizes being such an important part of the record. Once we were agreed on this aesthetic approach from the outset it was easy to maintain as we went through the whole process of making the record.”
“I don't believe in a ‘right way’ for a record to sound,” says Barnett, “or at least I don't want to know what it is in case I start following its patterns too much... it's just that this album had to be this way. Ironically, I was influenced a lot by US pop on it, which is probably the antichrist when it comes to dynamics.
“I liked the idea of this music being performed in a place, and sounding like it was being performed in a place. Some albums start sounding like the piece of software they were recorded with.”
For the sake of comparison, here’s the waveform for 'We Want War', Hidden’s centerpiece. 'We Want War' manages to achieve some serious volume without sacrificing exciting dynamic leaps or compromising with distortion; it’s these two factors that help Hidden feel so unique and powerful amongst much other modern music.
The easiest way to get a record to be as loud as possible is to slather it in dynamic range compression. Compression can be applied at any stage, from recording individual instruments to mixing them together and making the final master. It works by literally squishing the highs and lows of a signal together to make it more consistent and ‘punchy’, and it’s a pretty integral tool in the history of recorded music. Led Zeppelin’s drums, My Bloody Valentine’s guitars, Daft Punk’s pumping beat, and the art of sampling all rely on it, not to mention pretty much every singer ever.
It’s only when compression is overused, especially to increase the overall volume of an entire mix at the expense of dynamics and clarity (often called “hard-limiting”), that it can become a problem.
“I've always maintained that there's nothing intrinsically wrong with hard-limiting; it’s just an aesthetic effect to be used where appropriate,” explains Sutton. “The problem is that it’s now used heavy-handedly and without due thought across every spectrum of modern music.
“The pursuit of loudness has gone way beyond the problem of hard-limiting into degrees of distortion. The only current way to pump up a track to seem louder than the next guy’s commercial release is to distort it more than his, and to turn the bass down.”
So why would anyone want their record to sound louder than someone else’s, if in order to do so they also have to make it sound worse?
“It’s basic psychology,” says Sutton. “Play someone the exact same bit of music twice, but make one of the playbacks very slightly louder than the other, and the listener will always prefer the louder version. It’s one of the oldest tricks in the book in hi-fi shops in order to sell snake-oil cables and audiophile nonsense.”
An element of professional competitiveness between musicians and record companies hasn’t helped, Sutton goes on to explain. “Historically, there's always a been a competitive drive amongst producers/record companies to make their music louder than the next guys, from Motown versus Abbey Road, through to the loudness wars between radio stations, up until the digital present day. The digital tools to do this have become widespread and easy for anyone to abuse.
“Couple that with the climate of fear permeating the music industry at the moment, as it disintegrates before your eyes, and you reach a point where if you don't want your music squashed to kingdom come, you'd better have a bloody good reason!”
Recorded music has been getting louder for as long as we’ve been able to listen to it, but the CD age has seen the fight to be the loudest go crazy. If you listen to the CD of Rid Of Me by PJ Harvey from 1993, you have to turn the volume dial considerably further than you might be used to doing lately. The song '50ft Queenie' from Rid Of Me had a waveform like this:
In 2000, 'Good Fortune' from Stories From The City, Stories From The Sea, looked like this:
The difference is obvious, and dramatic. If you play them back-to-back without adjusting the volume, '50ft Queenie' seems tiny by comparison. But if you turn it up, the 1993 song gets exponentially more exciting and physically exhilarating. 'Good Fortune', on the other hand, just gets uncomfortable.
For her new album, Polly Jean has reached what might be an optimum point between the two approaches; Let England Shake isn’t quiet the way Rid Of Me is, but there’s plenty of space and growth, even in tracks without dramatic leaps from quiet to loud, like 'Written On The Forehead' (below). By avoiding over-compression, Let England Shake is also able to use texture and detail in order to enhance the atmosphere, narrative, and emotions of the album in sophisticated ways.
If you play music back via an iPod or iTunes you probably won't notice the difference in volume between '50ft Queenie' and 'Good Fortune' though, because hidden away in the preferences there’s a little tick box labeled “Sound Check”. Keeping this ticked automatically equalizes the volume of everything you play to keep it at a manageable average: if you don’t want to keep reaching for the volume control while shuffling through a playlist this is a pretty essential feature. It also means there’s absolutely no reason for Kanye’s latest album to be as loud as it actually is, because most people won't get chance to notice it being louder than, say, a 20-year-old Public Enemy album.
The same goes for radio, with stations like Radio 1 running signals through their own compressors en-route to broadcast in order to make their station the loudest, and thus most appealing, on the dial (especially in the noisy confines of a car or busy office). So even if you make your CD as hot as possible and compress it until it distorts, it will only ever sound as loud as everything else on the radio.
So what about the remastering of old records? In many cases all that happens is the loudness being brought up to a more contemporary level, with all the attendant distortion and lack of dynamics this can bring. Some remastering projects are more subtle and sympathetic though. The 2009 Beatles re-releases saw great care taken to preserve the music’s integrity, and the result improved punch and improved clarity, and a set of songs with waveforms that don’t look at all like bricks (this is 'Rain', from the Past Masters compilation):
Other remastering projects push things a little further, but still manage to avoid distortion and clipping. Below is 'Once In A Lifetime' from the 2006 remaster of Remain In Light by Talking Heads.
Of course, some artists have a very good reason to compress their records to the point of digital distortion and beyond: artistic statement. Sleigh Bells, for instance, push their guitar sound to the limit and beyond as a matter of principal, the resultant noise an essential part of their aesthetic. Likewise modern home-producers like Flying Lotus make extensive use of compression techniques in order to give their music that pumping, dancefloor feeling.
Conversely, a number of musicians besides These New Puritans are realising that, in a world where everyone else is loud all the time, they can make their own music stand out and seem radical by taking advantage of the dynamics other people forego. LCD Soundsystem’s last album opens with the insouciant hush of 'Dance Yrself Clean', lulling the listener in with pitter-pattering percussion and half-heard mumblings before dropping an enormous drumbeat into the mix, to shocking effect. Likewise 'Jamelia', the closing song on Caribou’s Swim album, starts with a simple, subtle beat before swelling to the edge of emotional, electronic chaos and back again, taking the listener on a rollercoaster journey.
Even more dramatic is Scott Walker’s spooky, avant-garde album from 2006, The Drift, the liner notes of which infamously proclaiming that it was recorded with no compression at all. Given that it features the sound of Walker punching a side of beef and impersonating Daffy Duck, The Drift was never going to be an ordinary record, but the exceptionally natural, open sound adds a disorienting realness to the music that makes listening to it, especially at volume, into a visceral, terrifying experience which is far more beautiful and twisted than anything on Kanye’s latest effort.
Even just six months into 2011 there are reams of new releases that are recorded beautifully, that use space and dynamics, that don’t consider the listener to be stupid and lacking attention, and which mean you don’t have to listen to substandard sonic product at all. As well as the PJ Harvey album there are Wild Beasts, Destroyer, Bill Callahan, Radiohead, Mountain Goats, Patrick Wolf, Nicolas Jaar, Iron and Wine, British Sea Power, King Creosote and Jon Hopkins, Elbow; all these records sound great on a physical level. Meanwhile, despite all the plaudits chucked its way before Christmas, I’ve not heard anyone mention the Kanye album, which cost a reputed $3m to record, in months. And I’ve been looking.
I’m not suggesting that everyone should try and make their records sound like Scott Walker’s, because that would be just as boring as the alternative. For me, the most exciting way to listen to records is through a big pair of speakers or some serious headphones, but if the music has had all the dynamics and detail squashed out of it and the edges rubbed off through digital distortion before I even get to turn the volume dial up, then a big chunk of that excitement is lost forever.
The music industry is floundering; we all know this. When even the people who profess to care about music don’t think it’s worth paying for, something is wrong, and it’s time we stopped moaning about methods of production and distribution, about internet retailers and downloads, and started looking at the quality of the product we’re being asked to buy, because a lot of it is crap. The film business is forever upgrading its qualitative experience in order to maintain custom, from VHS to DVD to HD to 3D in less than 15 years. The video games industry is perpetually upping visual and audio quality and constantly creating more and more intelligent products for a more and more discerning marketplace. So why is the music industry panicking about changing its game, instead of focusing on upping it?