Rolling Stone Loudness Wars

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by Josh Ray on January 02 '08

News is slow with the beast that is CES starting Monday, but here's a superb article from Rolling Stone about the never-ending loudness wars. In case you're not familiar with this bloody battle, recording engineers are cranking up the volume of every instrument, vocal and sound on an album so they can all be heard over iPods and car stereos. As for the hi-fi biz, well...

"...even most CD listeners have lost interest in high-end stereos as surround-sound home theater systems have become more popular, and superior-quality disc formats like DVD-Audio and SACD flopped. Bendeth and other producers worry that young listeners have grown so used to dynamically compressed music and the thin sound of MP3s that the battle has already been lost. "CDs sound better, but no one's buying them," he says. "The age of the audiophile is over."

The article is a must read with great quotes, sample waveforms and more. So is the battle, in fact, already lost? I don't believe so, for no other reason than a cheap Best Buy stereo will reveal the flaws of a dynamically neutered album. Then again, I could be wrong. If the music biz really wants to save themselves, start releasing special editions without dynamic compression -- with this much negative buzz, I bet average blokes would be interested in higher quality sound if they only knew it existed.

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This has been getting a lot of press and comments on boards like Audiogon. I think the trend away from the audiophile community is much older, starting three decades ago. Back in the 1970s, the record labels gave their artists much bigger recording budgets, some in the seven figures. It is hard to imagine that Aja had a $1 million budget and this is why many of the old records sound superior. Session players and studio environments were also more diverse sonic labs, more about building a sound that mirrored a particular room dynamic(i.e. Abbey Road, A & M, Motown, STAX, the Power Plant). When MTV came about, budgets shifted toward video. Studio technology went digital and many big rooms closed in favor of home studios. By the mid-1990s, most bands were making money touring and selling merchandise. This decade has seen the shift away from the album to the single or song. Most money is spend around a Producer (i.e. Timbaland) who can craft a popular sound, rather than studio time. Consumer electronics has simply mirrored these trends. As music has become more convenient, and played over numerous systems, sonics had to suffer. I personally like compression--I walk around with 160 gigs of music and there is no turning back. I remember when CDs replaced cassettes, 8 tracks and vinyl. No one could believe a disc could use so little space compared to the alternative.
To say that a record sounds good because it had (has) a $1 million budget is absurd if anything - the golden aera of stereo was done with shoe-string budgets if anything; moreover, I know of plenty great modern day recordings that have nothing to do with money. As to your last paragraph, you mention compression - you are mixing file compression (size) with dynamic compression, the reason for this article in first place. Cheers, Danny
Danny Relative to compression, both go hand and hand. As file compression becomes the dominant media, producers are reshaping sounds to meet the challenges of these digital formats. I did not want to infer that there are not great contemporary audiophile quality recordings. Radiohead comes to mind as a group who has produced a wonderful body of work. I very much like new artists like Arcade Fire, the Klaxons and the Shins. But many major artists in the 70s had significant budgets to do multiple takes and hire cracker-jack session players (some not credited). No record label today would give Bruce Springsteen 1 year and 100 plus takes to create "Born to Run." Listen to any of the classic recordings of Pink Floyd, Stevie Wonder, Led Zeppelin, the Eagles, Warren Zevon, Fleetwood Mac and Steely Dan from that period and the quality of work on the master tape production. You can immediately hear the attention to detail: drums are properly miked; vocals spot on; dynamic bass. Check out any of the work by producers like Glynn Johns (i.e. The Who, Faces, Eagles, The Clash, Midnight Oil) and it holds up quite well against today's music. My taste during that period was toward Punk, X to Fugazi, so I have been into a lot of great lo fi music created along the way on shoe-string budgets. With that said, I do respect the great studio production work during those years. And for my money, The Clash is hard to beat 25 years on for pure excitement.
I've been hearing about the death of high-end for, oh, about 20 years now. That's not to say the current generation gap doesn't need to be addressed -- it does. And the sharper manufacturers are doing so. For example, I have a hard time understanding why a manufacturer would unveil a DAC without a USB connection. Those that do -- like Bel Canto, for one -- will be the survivors, and hopefully, the leaders for bridging the aforementioned gap. Or in other words: The market will decide. And for hope, consider that the mid-fi audio world of Circuit City and Best Buy is supported by a mere handful of manufacturers, while there are thousands of high-end manufacturers. Of course, they are dwarfed in size and many are one-man, garage operations. But to put it bluntly, somebody is buying the shit (insert "stuff" if I'm being a bit too colorful). And not to brown-nose SonicFlare, but I think this type of fresh marketing is great. Yeah, I think it's a bit of a cliche to dedicate so much space to saying your stereo can get you laid, but at least it's funny -- and may just capture the attention of somebody surfing along. And what can the rest of us do? Well, we can complain and say the sky is falling. Or we can try to interest our friends and acquaintances as to the value of quality goods. I'm proud to say I've produced quite a few semi-audiophiles in my time; they're not as nuts as us folks who spend so much time oogling new goods, but they at least recognize there is indeed a difference. And when their brother-in-law wants a stereo, they'll often suggest they talk to me. I'm not an engineer or a technical expert, but I can point people in the right direction, as can anybody taking the time to visit SonicFlare. So my advice? If you care about the future of this industry -- and nobody says you have to -- then when the conversation turns to music, say something like, "Man, you should hear the depth of soundstage my stereo creates on that song." You'll be stunned as to how many people will not only say "Huh?" but would love to hear more of whatever the hell you're talking about. And if that means one more USB DAC gets sold, well then we're one USB DAC closer to fending off the extinction people have been talking about for decades. And yeah, I do think it's that simple.
USB DACs are great and important, no question, but that's beside the point. Record companies are forcing beautifully recorded and mixed albums through massive compression at the mastering stage in order to compete in this "loudness war" for no real discernible reason. The execs falsely believe that MP3s sound better without any dynamic range, and that idea has fueled this race to the bottom. A good example is the Chilli Peppers "Stadium Arcadium". Compare the CD and the LP. The CD was put though the standard corporate compression scheme, while the LP was mastered separately from the original mix by Steve Hoffman. It sounds like a different recording. Even the LP ripped to iTunes and played next to the CD is illuminating. Something bad is happening and it only partly has to do with MP3s. Bad decisions are being made at the top and music releases are suffering enormously.
This is one of the reasons I don't care about new CDs anymore - Because record labels don't care about the quality of their product either. These days,they seem more interested on suing 14-year olds and their families because of having a few dozen lousy MP3s on their computers. Now, I'm not a snobby audiophile (I can't afford to be one, for starters) but I definitely know when I am listening to a good, dynamic, true-to-life recording, and when I am not. And the same could be said about anyone else for who music is something important enough on his or her life to take at least half seriously. The best recorded sonic experiences I've recurrently had usually are from the golden age of analog (1950s-1960s), involving acoustic instruments. Not exactly because of the music per se -which is actually a matter of acquired taste-, but of the naturality which all the sonics flow, each instrument having its proportional share of air, presence and, probably most important, uncompressed dynamics. They're just a pleasure to the ear from beginning to end. Now tell me, aside from the audiophile reissues being put out by competitive guys like Steve Hoffman and Kevin Gray (I can vouch for what John Devore says here - I've been to their studio), where I can find recordings that sound as natural and dynamic as these old ones, done today? It's not that they don't exist, I can name you a few, but by definition, none of what makes it to the Billboard Hot 100. I don't mind sonic butchering when I'm working out to my iPod, but what if I want to crank out the big rig? It's there where all the demons of limiting and compression rise their ugly heads, and you realize you've been cheated and sold disposable sonic crap. You can always go from uncompressed to compressed if you wish, but never the other way around. But then again, record labels don't care about these petty things anymore. They haven't done so in a long time anyway - back to the mid-60s when they kicked the engineers from the manager seats at RCA and replaced them with bean counters instead. The only thing I can think of doing to save good sound from becoming a lost art is to try expose as much people as I can to the way recorded music should sound, compare it to what passes as music these days, and have them draw their own conclusions.