I've been trying to think why I don't do this much any more with the new music I buy. Am I just getting old (in my mid-40's now)? Do the new generation of singers and songwriters not appeal to my taste? Did the music industry "sell-out" with promoting one-hit wonders instead of cultivating those with substance who could "carry" full albums? Is it that I no longer have the time I used to have and instead prefer to do other things (lots of entertainment options these days)? Is it that I have too many albums on my music server now so it's just much easier to make a playlist of individual songs and neglect the album as a "body" of work? Is it that maybe musicians themselves don't bother creating thematically coherent albums anymore (hey, even artists like this guy says so - "Why Tiësto thinks the album is dead")?
I suppose there may be some truth in each of those points. But the fact remains that I am finding it harder to get excited about many of the new artists and albums I buy these days. While I've enjoyed classical and jazz about the same, comparatively, my staple listening has always been to pop and rock music. Sadly, I'm finding that the amount of time I spend on each album diminishing. Typically, I may listen to a new album 2 or 3 times now and then letting it sit instead of much more repeated plays for new acquisitions in years past.
It is with this context that I was drawn to the April 2018 issue of Stereophile's front cover declaration that "Moby Fights The Loudness Wars". Starting on page 105, Moby declares that "Subjectively, I don't listen to anything that has been mastered in the last 10 years" with reference in the next paragraph to the egregious amounts of excessive gain and limiting used in music production over the recent years.
Yup. He's preaching to the choir among audiophiles I think.
As one who has enjoyed the hobby of high fidelity audio reproduction over the years, poor mastering has really been an issue that literally hinders my ability to enjoy new music. I have written many times about the issue of poorly mastered music (like here, here, here, and here for just a handful) along with surprise when I find remasters bucking the trend and a suggestion for high-resolution releases.
While it might seem like overkill to keep talking about this, I do believe that if there is one thing that we as audiophiles can advocate for, confront, unite in, argue for, it really is to change this current situation. At this point in history, I do not believe that any new digital streamer, DAC, fancy amplifier, better speaker/headphone technology or new data format can add as much joy to the collective experience of pleasure for music lovers (and audiophiles) than an honest understanding that the disastrously mindless decision to pursue loudness has robbed mainstream music (you know, the stuff that sells!) of passion and soul. Of course with understanding, hopefully there will be a way to turn this around.
But let's go back to Moby and that article for a bit. I nod my head in agreement when he says "It's hard to find a single rock album of the past decade that was not recorded and mastered too loud." Furthermore, he's right that with extremely loud tracks and excess dynamic range compression: "Unfortunately, the first thing you lose when you start mixing and mastering incredibly loud is space. Any natural reverb, any other reverb - it's just gone."
All well and good. He then talks about vinyl not allowing for super loud mastering (a blessing rather than a limitation in this regard), and admits that for himself: "There's no need or desire to compromise. Why would I compromise? So I could get a few more downloads?"
As a fan of Moby's music, I excitedly went and grabbed a copy of his latest project recently released on CD - Everything Was Beautiful, and Nothing Hurt (2018) and played it through on my server system. There were some intriguing lyrics, for example his first single from the album is the song "Like A Motherless Child" in which Moby returns with his familiar distorted-sounding spoken lyrical style over melancholic synth strings and trippy drum loops. The first track "Mere Anarchy" likewise provided an enjoyably, moody, catchy tune to get the listener into the album. As a whole, this could be my favourite album of his in years.
But to be honest, when it came to a perceived difference in "space", nuances, being "surprised" by dynamic transients, in general the dynamic range, I wasn't sure what difference I was supposed to be hearing. He says that he tries to let his music be on the "quieter side".
So I whipped out the familiar foobar DR meter...
The album scores a DR average value of 6 only with a range between 5 and 7 depending on the song. For another look, here's the waveform display of the first track "Mere Anarchy":
I don't get it. When Moby thinks the loudness war "was" bad, and he references some great recordings of the past from The Clash and Led Zeppelin, what exactly does this mean? And why are we not seeing some improvement in his latest venture!?
Maybe after all these years, it's a matter of perspective. Like many other music lovers, I got interested in Moby's music back in 1999 with his breakthrough album Play, a great album which still holds up quite well these days but already had a good amount of compression applied with a DR9 score. Over the years, his albums basically hovered around that mark with 18 (2002) at DR9, Hotel (2005) DR9, Go compilation (2006) DR7, Innocents (2013) DR8, and in 2016 Moby & The Void Pacific Choir These Systems Are Failing dipping down to a very nasty DR3!
I suppose that compared to DR3, a level of DR6 is an improvement :-)... Is he saying that electronic music like this needs to be relatively strongly dynamically compressed - that this DR6 was just meant to be, even considered on the "quiet side"? But if this is the case, then why were Play, 18, Hotel and Innocents at least DR8-9 and clearly sound more dynamic?
If we are to declare that the "war is over", it would be nice to see evidence for a ceasefire!
Hopefully some day we can actually see that those words uttered by Moby literally "played" out. DR values are of course not the end all and be all of dynamic range measurements (EBU R128, LUFS measurements are better for perceived loudness), although as an easily accessible and freely available measurement tool for the general public, DR will give a reasonable picture of what's going on. Nonetheless, until we see many if not most new rock/pop albums at least achieve an average of DR10, there's really no point declaring the end of any hostilities against good dynamic range and the desire to maintain nuances in the recordings we buy. Surely, asking for an average DR10 level isn't too much to hope for as a start, is it!?
Remember that back in the day, albums from The Clash and Led Zeppelin (mentioned by Moby but let's not forget Queen, Pink Floyd, Super Tramp, AC/DC, Deep Purple, The Doors, Michael Jackson, Madonna...) in their early digital releases were routinely averaging around DR12 before the remasters started crushing the life out of the sound by the late 90's and early 2000's. These recordings sold well and many audiophiles still seek out some of these early pressings.
From what I can tell, the whole industry needs to "see the light". Artists, from song writers to singers to instrumentalists need to recognize that they are doing a gross disservice to themselves when their recordings barely demand a replay because of harshness, distortion, and are simply dysphonic sounding. So many times, after the first couple of songs, the act of listening becomes uncomfortable to the point that I think many will lose interest in the rest of the album. This kind of "loud" sound might be fine in a car or as background music, but when one is trying to concentrate and understand the lyrics, I believe distorted loudness unproductively "fights" against the listener's intent to achieve connection and depth. Sure, clever lyrics, hooks, and a catchy chorus might bring me back for repeat listening, but when so many albums sound so uninviting - even monotonous in the barrage of noise - it takes extra effort to "connect" with the artist (a desire that has been verbalized in advertising for high-resolution audio, Pono, and MQA over the years)!
I truly hope that the audio engineers can also take a stand on this as well. Yes, I know that the bosses pay the bills and ultimately one has to satisfy what the boss wants. But surely there must be some effect if all the guys and gals doing the recording, editing, mixing and mastering provide a united message, right? Who else to ask but the technical folks to understand and respect what is "best practice" and appreciate when sound quality is damaged beyond any hope of repair? Along the same lines, hopefully the technical folks are taught at school to appreciate the fine line between "enough" and "too much" processing, hopefully be able to advocate for a level that doesn't push sounds to the "dysphonic" side. Engendering these values need to happen from bottom-up (musicians demanding a recordings they can be proud of to stand the test of time, and technical guys/gals behind the scenes having pride in their work) as much as top-down (consumers and especially audiophiles demanding better sound, buying euphonic albums and sending a message to the production side). [I conceptualize the consumer as the top of this inverted pyramid with the production and musician folks at the bottom as the wellspring of inspiration.]
As for the producers and record labels, is it too much to hope they recognize that consumers are not dumb? When music sounds like crap, do you think the consumer is going to be buying this stuff? I know some looking at sales figures worry about piracy as the cause of dwindling sales - I do not doubt this. But has there been consideration for other factors contributing to why the sales numbers might also be terrible? As someone who actually still buys his CD's/digital downloads, I am seriously feeling disappointed by the quality and low production value. What kinds of consumers do the music industry want to cultivate? And how are they to retain music lovers to remain interested in new artists when the magnitude of recorded music already available out there is simply massive (I discussed this in a previous post)? These are tough questions that will require much thought, but I do believe that a final product that sounds good as the consumer grows in music appreciation and acquires better sounding equipment at least seems like a reasonable prerequisite. I don't think it's unreasonable to say that for many, the product is the sound just as much as the music even if they don't verbalize this or self-identify as "audiophiles". If the sound itself cannot foster a deeper understanding of the music, this is IMO losing the "intent" of the artist even if the artist might not be cognizant of this possibility.
In the face of so many poorly recorded/produced albums, practically, one thing I have been doing in the past few years has been to check the online DR Database before any "impulse buy" just to make sure the results aren't terrible (I'll also read album reviews through Metacritic).
I don't know about you, but certainly in the last decade, my purchases have dramatically gone down from something like 3 CDs a week to maybe 1 every 2 weeks. Many factors come into play as noted above but what cannot be downplayed IMO is that I have enough "old music" in my archives after years of collecting that I'm really not interested in poor sounding, dysphonic new music that more than likely will be forgotten in a few months. Even music I should love have been subpar in my opinion...
Here's an example of a recent disappointment... About a month ago, I was quite pleased to find that Steve Winwood released his 2CD Winwood Greatest Hits Live (2017). I had been acquainted with his work since a friend lent me a copy of Traffic and I followed him through his solo works through the 80's and 90's. Excitedly, I ordered the album on line and tore into the package when it arrived at my doorstep to prepare for playback. As I listened, I thought Winwood and his band did a great job with many tracks, I appreciated the variation added to the live versions, and for a guy who's almost 70, the passion was alive playing some old favourites like "John Barleycorn", "While You See A Chance", "Back In The High Life Again", or even "Roll With It". However, I was disappointed in the sound of this album. With a DR9 result, it wasn't terrible, but over a good sounding system, I could not help but be reminded that live albums need to demonstrate impact. I want to hear the "space" of the venue. Instruments, especially the percussion sounded unnaturally accentuated especially over headphones where snares and cymbals sounded harsh and grating when dynamic compression reduces contrasts and pushes all the instruments to the forefront, leaving little in the way of nuances to discover. There was limited "depth" to the recording to suggest that this came from a coherent band playing on an actual sound stage. We've all been to live concerts and we know what real cheering and audience participation sounds like. Instead of a "dynamic audience" as recorded on say Friday Night In San Francisco, the audience for the most part sounded muted, as if overlaid like an artificial "laughter track" in sitcoms.
As I said, the Winwood album is far from an example of the worst recording I have heard. But it is disconcerting when poor production infects the sound unnaturally. For me, it's hard to ignore the sonic aberrations when live albums, acoustic recordings, classical symphonies and scores (like soundtracks) are affected in this way. Thankfully classical recordings have been spared although soundtracks have been infected in recent years. Though not as extreme, the artificial manipulation does in many ways remind me of the "uncanny valley" people describe with humanoid robots trying to engage emotionally. Limited to audio, the feeling is less "creepy" of course but just the same, it can literally create a "dissonant" affect.
The bottom line...
1. I like what Moby is saying and hope other musicians get on board a "movement" to end the Loudness War. I hope the artists realize that poor quality recordings also speak poorly of their craftsmanship.
2. It's unfortunate that Moby's recent album remains quite dynamically compressed despite his comments! Better luck next time (unless DR6 is truly as good as it gets with this album - I doubt it of course).
3. For me personally, I have noticed a gradual reduction and disinterest in acquiring new albums these days. I'm still listening to music regularly as I had a decade back (maybe even more on weekends as my kids are more independent plus I have a small but decent audio system at work when I'm at the office late), but I'm just not buying as much. I do believe that the typical sound quality of modern releases is limiting my ability to enjoy many of the new artists' works.
4. Over the years, I have been habituated to check the DR Database before jumping to purchases of new music and remasters. For me, there is typically a correlation between these DR values and sound quality which as an audiophile is an important factor in being able to enjoy the music. The lyricism of Dylan and the musicianship of Hendrix can only go so far if the recording quality sounds dysphonic and annoying.
5. To throw some numbers out there, I wish that pop and rock albums at least achieved a DR10 value. I don't buy anything "high resolution" anymore without at least DR12 because IMO there's just no point essentially throwing money away. As a result of this "rule", I have not purchased any hi-res other than classical music in more than a year. If I rip an old SACD or DVD-A and find a compressed recording, I dither it down to 16-bits with iZotope RX to save space and reduce copying time through the network while sounding just the same.
6. For those unfamiliar with what I'm saying, make sure to read Mitch Barnett's excellent article from a few months back - Dynamic Range: No Quiet = No Loud. A message that needs to be echoed not just in the homes of music lovers but especially through the halls of recording studios and music companies.
Here's wishing that some day truly the "Loudness War" can be a thing of the past. After about 20 years, we have lost a generation of popular new music. Isn't it time to let go of this mad compulsion that IMO damages the craftsmanship of artists, makes the music uninviting, reduces replay value, and ultimately destroys sales by limiting the potential joy that music lovers can achieve? I do hope this is also a cause that the audiophile press and participants can rally behind with album reviews that assess production value and with articles to educate.
Remember, in the long run, this issue is very important for audiophiles! Unless we have high quality contemporary music to feed musical enjoyment, how else do high fidelity hardware companies sell and hopefully grow the hobby over generations? The hardware and software sides must align. Unless it does, audiophile "values" will be further marginalized. Growth depends on this.
As much as there are thousands of comments about MQA over the years, remember folks, MQA is simply an irritant compared to the topic of this post; an issue which I believe lies at least close to the heart of the malaise in the music industry. Compared to the movie/home video industry and their successes with better image quality, improved image dynamic range and immersive sound, the music industry has continued to follow the path of qualitative mediocrity in the popular genres.
Aloha from the beautiful island of Maui :-).
Enjoy the music everyone!