|When did things start getting so loud?
Traffic, neighbours, television commercials, Will Ferrell movies the world has become an amplified place and subtlety is a dirty word. Even the CDs were listening to are louder than those produced a decade ago.
It isnt just the music thats getting louder, either. How its being processed has changed, too. Pop ballads are competing with hip hop and rock singles in a volume war that is pushing the boundaries of sound quality and good taste.
Musicians and their labels feel the need to boost the volume levels of their recordings in an attempt to stand out in an already saturated market. Nobody wants to have the quietest (i.e. weakest) song on the radio, Internet or CD changer.
Labels insist that the public wants its music to sound the way it does on the radio, which uses compressors to boost volume as a way to create cohesion between the louder and quieter songs on the playlist. Marketers cite that the way people are listening to music is changing opting for the convenience of MP3s over sound quality.
PUMPING IT UP
This may be good for business, but terrible for the consumer, who is often forced to purchase subpar recordings and put up with distortion, popping and digital clipping from overly compressed CDs.
"Its become accepted now," says legendary sound engineer Bob Clearmountain. "The sound of compression, which is a pumping sound, has gotten really popular."
Clearmountain has mixed albums for Bruce Springsteen, INXS, Aimee Mann, Bryan Adams and the Rolling Stones and thinks the loudness trend began when artists and recording (A&R) reps started using CDs as a way to bring in rough mixes of their artists demos to meetings. The louder demos would be the ones that got noticed by executives, while the quieter ones were largely ignored. He says loud soon became the new industry standard and really took off during the mid-90s, which then translated into high record sales.
He also points out that radio stations overcompress their signals as a way to increase volume and reach the maximum amount of people living on the fringe of its signal. The producers end up catering to the medium, instead of the quality of the message.
"If (the radio signal) is quiet, the (consumer) wont even bother listening to it. Theyll just tune into a station thats coming in louder," he explains. "So whats happening is, producers are always telling the mastering engineers to make CDs as loud as possible. For some types of music its OK like alternative rock, it probably doesnt matter. In fact, it probably makes it sound better in a way. But part of the problem is that cheaper CD players cant actually handle that much level. The distortion isnt on the CD, its on the player. If you play it on a high-end system, itll be able to take it."
The loudness of a CD is determined during the mastering process. This is the final stage of sound production and can make or break how a record sounds. Its where an album is cleaned up, volume is adjusted and fades are added at the beginning and end of songs to give a more polished sound.
When the compact disc was first introduced in 1983, sound engineers were ecstatic about the possibilities of digital technology. The CD was praised for its clarity, absence of surface noise and wide dynamic range. Dynamic range is the difference between the highest (loudest) and lowest (quietest) signals that can be recorded and is measured in decibels (dB).
The only problem with this new digital format was that it had hard physical limits and sound engineers had to learn how far they could push a CD file.
"Im old enough that I actually cut records on vinyl," says famed music producer Bob Rock. "The whole art of cutting vinyl was volume versus distortion. Its why they used to put the single first, because those were the wider grooves for the most volume and the best sounding part of vinyl was the outside edge. As you went towards the centre of vinyl, the grooves had to be small and you would get top-end distortion, and lose bottom and lose volume, because the grooves had to be thinner. Thats why Van Halen only had eight songs on their albums theyd be short running because they wanted their album louder. That was always the big thing with vinyl everyone was trying to cheat it."
Rock has produced albums for many successful commercial artists such as Metallica, The Cult, Bon Jovi, Aerosmith, Mötley Crüe and Our Lady Peace. Although the bands he works with are often considered loud, Rock has very strong opinions about the louder-is-better mentality and feels that people are pushing it too far when it comes to production.
"All of a sudden, the CD came along and we had all this range without hiss," he explains. "We could have all the highs and lows and be consistent through a whole series of songs. Over the years, that developed into something that sounded pretty good at first."
THE DEATH OF DYNAMICS
The loudness of a CD depends on how the peaks of the music are handled by a mastering engineer. This is achieved by using compression. Compression is when you bring all the sounds on a track to the same level by reducing the highs and increasing the lows until the sound is evened out. A mastering engineer is essentially reducing the dynamic range, giving the impression that the quieter parts are louder.
Done correctly, the CD will play at a consistent volume all the way through and the tracks will have little or no distortion. However, taken too far, the sound waves will get clipped causing digital glitches.
"Originally, there was a lot of headroom on CDs (the space between the top of the audio peaks and what a file can hold), so everybody started edging up the digital domain," says Rock. "Everybody started using digital compressors and all these ways to get the level up there basically shaving off the top end. It distorts the input to CD players, car stereos it distorts everything the louder you get."
If the entire signal is at maximum level, a song loses its punch and sounds flat. You are marginalizing the music and wind up with a solid block of saturated sound.
"The last album I did with Metallica (St. Anger), the guys in the band said All these bands with (producer) Rick Rubin, theyre so much louder than we are. (I tried to explain) the trade-off, but (Metallica) was like, Yeah, but you know, lets try it anyway," Rock says with a sigh.
"So we (made the album louder) and I hated it. We went back and they went, OK, we get it we want it to sound good. And I think thats the real argument. Yes, you can have loud, but what is that really achieving other than loudness? You know what? I would say that there is a byproduct of this. A lot of people are irritated by new music because of it."
People respond emotionally to the dynamic changes in music, so when a song is overly compressed its like SOMEONE YELLING IN YOUR FACE OR WRITING ENTIRELY IN UPPERCASE LETTERS TO PROVE A POINT youre bound to want to leave the room or stop reading. When something is too loud, the brain thinks its listening to white noise. Since there are no emotional cues only impact the listener will eventually suffer from ear fatigue and tune out.
"When you do try to get that kind of level and youre doing digital limiting, which is digital compression, and youre using some kind of math equation to tell a box when to cut off the hottest point of a song in other words, youre processing that song," says indie producer John Vanderslice. "Youre pushing the loudest parts so you can make it louder. Youre shaving off mountaintops so you can rise up the ground. But when you shave off mountaintops, you lose what a mountaintop means. It becomes flat ground."
THE OLD SCHOOL APPROACH
Vanderslice is both a musician and well-respected record producer in the indie music scene. He is known for having an ear for detail and uncanny ability to capture an artists natural performance.
His San Francisco studio Tiny Telephone (which he co-owns with partner Scott Solter) has recorded such clients as Spoon, Death Cab For Cutie, Deerhoof, The Mountain Goats, Mates of State and Portastatic. Vanderslice and Rock may be on the opposite ends of the musical spectrum, but both share similar views on the loudness of CDs.
Vanderslice compares the way he works to the slow food movement using a traditional method to achieve a specific result. "In many ways, Ive taken that idea over to recording and production and Scott and I are a few of the last holdouts," he says with a laugh. "We still record on analog tape to the very end. We dont use any computers. For me its like processing food, unnecessarily altering the audio path of something that is organic and wholesome to begin with."
Because of his studios open door policy, Vanderslice works with both professionals and unknowns and has seen firsthand bands that use computers to edit their performance.
"So much of the time, its not done to any effect," he says. "There are notable exceptions like Radiohead and The Books there are really good bands that are making the most of the cut and paste and the limitless possibilities of digital manipulation. But mostly people are just cleaning up and tidying up their own stuff, which is the antithesis of rock n roll."
Vanderslice says that the problem with digital recording is that people havent quite figured out how to use it to the best of its ability. He admits that there are plenty of ways to do terrible analog recording, but insists that if a product sounds good to begin with, then it doesnt matter what you do to it in the final stages.
"If whats going into the equation sounds good, its the best approach of maintaining some kind of fidelity. From that point you can do whatever you want you can destroy it, dismember it, you can distort it to high heaven, it doesnt matter because it retains its integrity," he says.
WINNING THE WAR ON VOLUME
Vanderslice feels that people should respect the medium theyre working in, instead of being at war with their peers over volume. Rock agrees and says that the biggest mistake a young band can make when going into the recording studio is to get caught up in production rather than the quality of the song.
"The best thing to do is try to write the best song, arrange it simply and dont overdo it," Rock says. "Concentrate on the actual craft of it rather than your idea of what production is, because its very rare that a trend in sound will get you signed to a deal and lead to a future in the music business."
Clearmountain thinks that compression only really matters to the A&R guys and radio programmers but unfortunately it all comes down to the bottom line. Producers have to make compromises to keep working in the industry and musicians have to compete with other artists.
"If a person wants it louder, they can just turn up their stereo. Everybodys got a volume control, so there is no point to doing it," Clearmountain says. "Thats what I tell the mastering guys. If youre doing a radio version, make it as loud as you can make it because its really just an advertisement for the album anyway. But the ones we sell in stores should only be the highest quality product that we can possibly make, with lots of dynamic range, because if not, its almost like were cheating the public."
Waveform graphs show the extent some bands will go to in order to achieve loudness
by Kirsten Kosloski
"Now that youre hip to it, its going to drive you nuts," says producer Bob Rock.
Its true once you become aware of how loud CDs are getting, its like a curse that will have you noticing every single crackle and pop.
A CDs digital format is restricted to 0 dB (decibels) or 100 per cent. If you exceed the peak audio limit, the top and bottom of the amplitude waves will get clipped.
If you picture sound as a wave, a song should have space between its highest peak and the information a CD can hold. This is called headroom. If you exceed a CDs headroom, you end up with a waveform that is distorted and audio that sounds flat.
Most songs recorded over the last few years are considerably louder than those produced in the mid-80s and early 90s. Here are some waveform graphs taken from four songs to visually show the difference. Each graph represents an entire song.
On the surface, Jay-Z and The Hives might not have a lot in common, but take a look at these graphs. Both tracks are highly compressed and have eliminated the CDs headroom. Both lack dynamics and, as a result, the music sounds like it is rushing towards you all at once.
Track One: Jay-Z "99 Problems" (2003)
Track Two: The Hives "Two-Timing Touch and Broken Bones" (2004)
The peaks have been shaved and the audio becomes a solid block of distorted sound. During this experiment both tracks had their meters pegged at the maximum level.
Track Three: The Melvins "Queen" (1994)
The Melvins are one of the loudest noise bands on the planet, but their track has a very wide dynamic range. Even though some of the peaks come close to hitting maximum headroom (0 dB), there are still noticeable valleys in the song and thats what gives the track so much punch.
Track Four: The Pixies "Broken Face" (1988)
This track stays well below the audios physical limits and has a subtle, textured sound. Although its a loud rock song, the instruments are distinguishable from one another and the track makes excellent use of headroom.