Sunday, 1 April 2018

MUSINGS: On Dysphonic Sounds, and Moby's "Fight" Against the Loudness War...

For this post, I thought I'd share some personal experiences and opinions. Back in the "old" days - more than 10 years ago now, there was a time when I used to routinely listen to new albums start to end. I enjoyed getting into the lyrics of new music, learned to sing along, and tried to imagine the message being composed by the song writer and parse the emotional prosody of the piece.

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 herehere, 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!


  1. After reading this post I started compiling a Spotify playlist of music I like with high DR values according to the Dynamic Range database. Here's the start - 54 hours so far -

    1. Wow, fantastic work SkiKirkwood!

      Good to have it on Spotify now and will certainly share to those who want to get familiar with the sound of more dynamic tracks.

  2. Hi Archimago

    This is another post that both heartens and at the same time saddens me.

    Apologies if I sound naive and ill informed during this comment, I am a person who has spent a fair amount putting together a system that can do Hi Res justice, but by no means high end, just as much as I could push myself to afford, and the components are from KEF, Electrocompaniet and Chord electronics, for reference.

    I, like you, am purchasing much less music these days, however I have come to the conclusion that little is in my taste and is just a sign of crossing the generation divide, insofar as to say that new music is interesting to younger people for a multitude of reasons and doesn't resonate with me.

    New music I have gotten in to comes from A Winged Victory For The Sullen, Half Moon Run, Royal Blood, Chvrches, Anna of The North, Njomza and London Grammar. If you haven't heard any of them worth giving a try on Spotify for free, unless you sub to a streaming service, you may find something worthwhile, I have seen Half Moon Run live and they were gob smackingly good.

    Of those I only play regularly each week, 3 of them. So I get where you are coming from. Just don't make 'em like they use to.:-)

    Of those mentioned only one of them has released any of their recordings in Hi Res above 24/48.

    The rise of social media, the plethora of TV channels, kids and other pursuits including gym and outdoor activity options, has eaten away at "listening" time for a great many. I am single and love music, so devote a fair amount of time to it.

    Sadly, the mainstream will not go for Hi Res in my lifetime, simply due to these factors, which are the barriers.

    Price, education about quality recording and playback, cost of entry (though this has come down considerably over the last 10 to 15 years), the rise of convenience, Apple and AAC, MP320, more people who are time poor who commute or workout to playlists rather than albums, lack of concentration or the desire to sit down and concentrate on listening, the mobile phone and the end of the nose attention/focus (what has my mate had for breakfast and has he/she posted a photo of it) and the cultural shift to socialising virtually and very cheaply/free.

    You are probably wondering what this has to do with DR.

    It seems to me that high quality is simply not interesting enough for business men to get the wider populace over to and not profitable in terms of total bucks made.

    As others have pointed out, music has been commoditized and ownership, which might help in improving things with users, has moved over to renting/streaming, with the convenience factor thrown in of accessing music through apps on phones that are stuck at the end of their focal point.

    The music industry itself has, single-handedly, made Hi Res almost incomprehensible to the masses, thrown far too many acronyms for formats out there, diluted the USP's with mine is better than theirs approach or as in the case of MQA and Sony and to a lesser extent Apple, try to make something exclusive and still too expensive and requiring people to buy into brands they are not familiar with or not to their liking.

    Also the profit and margin (blame shareholder mentality as well) monsters, have an effect on uptake. I understand that profit needs to be made to put food on tables and pay bills as well as creating capital for future developments for improvement, but, and this is the bit that always gets me the most, if you don't make the things that sell well, give access to the masses to the higher quality at a price they are currently shelling out for in the billion$ then progress will not occur.

    As this comment got very long I have had to split it in to 2 parts, so the remainder is a reply to this comment

    1. I think the other thing I have missed is the constant need for a brand to have a "PREMIUM" stance/service/tier to it. And I don't need to spell out what that is in aid of. The partnering marketing for Premium is "customer experience", I have to say that considering that the mass devices that can replay audio that are pumping out MP3 or lower quality is huge, but could easily do FLAC or WAV and yet the "customer experience" is low quality audio !!!, Apologies for the exclamations, got a bit intense writing that bit.

      So, my point is, no one, artists (Moby as you pointed out), industry (hardware and content) or media, is really getting together to move the whole music chain forward. This is because immediate return on investment must be achieved (less than 12 months) and it must be reached at the minimum of cost, so as to make maximum profit whilst appearing to give the " customer an experience".

      DR is as obvious a measure of the malaise I have painted above, however I had to stop myself and remember, I asked 5 people at work if they knew what a DAC is, none of them did. I then asked if they had heard of Hi Res, one of them had seen the badge but did not know what it meant. A tiny, tiny sample, but still all of those I spoke to could afford sensibly priced Hi Res capable equipment, but seemingly don't want to, or care to.

      As you mentioned during your post, there needs to be a group of people continuing to promote, cajole, castigate and educate as much as possible, if there is one aspect I would promote is that Hi Res can be played loud but will do less harm to your ears and you will likely not need to turn it up so much when you can hear it so clearly.

      So to end, where do I sign up to help this cause and what do you think would be the best approach? I feel my energy could do with channelling properly rather than just being an excited enthusiast.

      Looking forward to your further blogs on Hi Res, only wish some of my Favourite artists had more Hi Res remasters, as sadly pretty much all of the music from my era/taste was definitively not recorded in Hi Res, more's the shame, but remastered Hi Res is a joy. (Only Kraftwerk's re-recording of their catalogue is proof to me of the benefit of real Hi Res from studio to playback, their recent release is stunningly good, even though I have played their music to death and back. sic.)

      Thanks again and all the best

    2. Just to add that I had not read the entire post when I wrote my comments, and smiled as I read through how similar some of my points were to yours only not so eloquently elucidated.


    3. Hey Gordon!

      Good stuff, we're very much on the same page. Yeah, over the last few years I've familiarized myself with Chvrches, London Grammar, and Half Moon Run - will check out the other bands you mentioned when I get back home :-).

      You've hit on the myriad of factors affecting the industry... Though I'm not directly privy to what's happening inside the industry, I think as external observers looking around at press reports, chatting with folks in-the-know, and gauging our own levels of engagement, we have some idea about the issues.

      IMO the bottom line is that there is a general loss of apparent care to achieve "quality" productions... At least in the way I think audiophiles might define quality (distortion-free, more natural sounding, more dynamic) in the recordings. Presumably the sacrifice reflects some kind of financial gain (share holder satisfaction, quarterly reports). Maybe in the early 2000's, the "loud sound" was fresh and competed well. But I think it's game-over with those kinds of production nonsense.

      I like your statement about the generation divide affecting the amount of music I could be buying. That certainly could be true. However, something I have noticed for myself is that there is literally a "cliff dive" in the number of albums I still reach for to listen to today starting from about 1999 onward even though from 1999-2005 were great years for music enjoyment for me and my wife (before the kids came). Maybe it's some kind of nocebo effect with awareness of the general loss of dynamic range from that point onward...

  3. Thanks for the playlist @SkiKirkwood, I'm listening to it now

  4. So sad, the audio equipment keeps getting better and better while the recordings keeps getting worse and worse. So, instead of enjoying beautiful musical performance through our high quality audio equipment, it rather throws at our ears how bad is the recording and that disturbs our appreciation of the music being played. Poor microphone location, too much dynamic range compression, cheap speakers for the final mix, and so on...

    I am a DIY speaker builder and I learned that I must use old recordings to make the final voicing of my speakers. My latest project uses the SB Acoustics beryllium dome tweeters and let me tell you, they qualify very strongly to the adage "garbage in - garbage out"! With most of the recent albums I used for testing, I thought I was victim of the bad reputation of the "metallic sound" of metallic domes and that I would never never be able to tune them correctly. But, you won't be surprised if I tell you that with exactly the same crossover tuning, when using older recordings, the adage switched to "high quality in - quality high out" and the SB's then sounded extremely fine and natural, and no further tuning was required. To me, that says it all: the problem is not in my speakers, it's in the recording!

    I may be judging too severely, but I think that's it's only the baby boomers generation that enjoys so much music that they listen to it without doing anything else. Nowadays, it seems that music is mainly listened as background music while doing something else because silence is something many people are scared with...

    1. Hi Denis,

      Great stuff! Love hearing from a guy who does his own DIY gear!

      I agree. Personally, I am not one for "romantic" sounding speakers that "make everything sound good". I think there's no such thing because it only means that the speakers are adding some kind of coloration that the person likes rather than conveying the full fidelity of the recording itself. If the recording is garbage, then it should sound like garbage on good speakers - that is the price to pay for "high fidelity". The other side to that equation of course is that good recordings will simply sound amazing!

      If things go naturally in cycles - which I hope is the case here - then I think at some point the recording quality will get better again. It's time to educate the younger generation and encourage them to do something different from previous generations...

      My kids are 11 and 13 and they can easily hear the difference in DR :-).

  5. For well-recorded modern music, I recommend Steven Wilson. The DRs are high and the recording techniques are impeccable. Wilson is the master of hi-rez multichannel; all releases on bluray.
    SW has also remastered Jethro Tull, King Crimson, Yes, XTC and Tears For Fears.
    As a producer, front-man, vocalist, guitarist and writer, I believe him to be the best there ever was.
    Give him a tryout!

    1. Thanks for the note sk16,
      Yup, Steve Wilson's remasters have been great. I have the Yes Close To The Edge and I see that he has maintained a DR11 value on average with that album. If only more would follow suit...

    2. Long time lurker. sk16 thank you.. Steven Wilson definitely subscribes to an old school way of music making. Including the story telling on an album.

  6. Greetings Archimago,

    Long time reader, first time commenter.

    This is a very interesting and timely piece as last week the family was out of town (not Hawaii, which is fine since I didn't go along) so I dusted off my CD player and put in some CD's I hadn't listened to in quite some time. What instigated it was catching a Led Zepplin song on Pandora (I'll freely admit, I'm guilty as anybody wrt the Achilles Heal that is convenience) and wanting to listen to the song again. I put in the CD from their circa 1990's box set, queued up the track and was immediately struck by how much better the CD track sounded. It was the same amp & speakers, only the input had changed... CD player instead of cell phone. So having the house to myself for the week I worked through some of my favorite back-catalog. And what did I find myself drawn to and re-listening to, in fact, even after the family had returned... Simon and Garfunkel's Concert in Central Park. And what is its DR... 14. There's one outlier at 11, the rest has 3 tracks at DR 13; 11 tracks - DR14; and 4 tracks - DR15.

    Funny how that works, eh?

    1. Hello Allan! Thanks for the post...

      Yup, great example and exactly what I felt. Like a frog in a pot gradually heated to a boil, I think we forget just how good music can sound until an opportunity like what happened to you with the family away and you were able to put aside some distractions of life and re-experience what has been lost.

      I would not be surprised if this is the same mechanism that drives some to become passionate about LP collecting. Compared to a DR5 CD, I can anticipate that an LP stamped from a much less compressed master sounds a heck of a lot better (assuming it's clean and minimum snap/crackle/pop of course).

      Though not universally better, given the opportunity I'll for sure look around for first-pressing CDs if remasters are crushed to death!

  7. Hi Arch

    Another great write up. The three areas which make the greatest difference to sound quality in the playback chain are in no particular order, the speakers, the room acoustics and the quality of the recording. Your write up hits the nail on the head that it is silly focusing on the recording media, whether it is 16/44, hi res, 320mp3 or even vinyl rather than the actual quality of the recording and mastering.

    The few mastering engineers I have come across broadly fit in either of three groups. A small group who really do believe that the modern mastering trend of loudness, hard limiting and compression that is enabled by digital media is an improvement over what went before. A couple of them even stated that the dynamic and largely unfutzed mastering of 25 years ago makes music sound old fashioned. Then there is the larger group who do not like the loudness wars, hate mastering that way but do it because it is what the label or, more often than not, what the artists want. It is understandable as they want to work in the industry and need to earn a living while doing so. They include well known and respected engineers such as Robert Ludwig. Then there is a small group of mastering engineers that refuse to accept work that requires loudness war types of masterings, such Kevin Gray. They tend to work with niche productions rather than mass labels.

    Another mastering engineer who belongs in that large middle group that has a fair bit of respect is Ian Sheppard. He started the Dynamic Range Day movement and usually has a fair bit to say about the loudness wars. His podcasts and regular writings on all things masterings are quite interesting too.

    1. Thanks Prep,

      Nice to hear that the largest group is at least the middle one :-). Pragmatic knowing what's "good" but of course understanding that we all need to make a living...

      This actually brings up a question / concern... Maybe more needs to be done to convince the artists themselves when their recordings suck?!

      Not sure how that's even done. This was part of my dismay, disappointment, and disgust when Neil Young had the opportunity with Pono to not just "evangelize" about hi-res but to actually use the opportunity to promote awareness of problematic loudness. This was the heart of my Pono concern as expressed here:

      What a shame. The Industry keeps banging out schemes instead of looking at the heart of the problem! Truly the definition of insanity...

    2. Great article and discussion as always. One problem with getting the artists on board is that chances are their hearing is already damaged, even the younger ones. They probably need their recordings to be loud.
      The loudness war is a concern not only for the quality and enjoyment of the recordings but also for public health. There is no campaign to protect our hears, inform people about the danger of extreme dynamic compression which artificially raises the level at which music is played. We probably should start with musicians, music technicians and students in music and make compulsory for them to have their ears checked every year, that should provide us with interesting data to analyse, as well as funding more research to evaluate the impact on our health of current mastering techniques. To go back to the main discussion, I used to listen a lot to Garbage twenty years ago. Since having a child, I got used to listen to music a lot more using headphones (AKG 612 Pro). I just can't listen to Garbage anymore, maybe one song at a time is all right, but certainly not a whole album. I have seen that their LPs have a much better DR than the CDs, so I might just buy the LPs and record them. It is such a pity that it has to come to that. Fortunately, I listen to jazz and classical and contemporary music a lot, as far as I know these genres haven't been subjected to the loundness war to the same extent that pop, rock, RnB and rap have.

  8. Archimago, thanks for this piece.

    As far as I'm concerned:
    DR < 10 = despair

    I can totally relate to the feeling of anticipation in getting hold of a new CD only to be disappointed at its first play. The experience has me searching out 2nd hand CDs with production dates from the 90s. I've actually held off buying new music (even direct from artists) because I've got no confidence that I won't be blowing my money on compressed pseudo-music cum noise. That's where the Loundness Database helps but it has its limits.

    I've even gone to the lengths of sourcing the bluray of the Eagle's Hell Freezes Over performance and ripping the LPCM track because the matching CD rates a DR<10 (from memory). How does that work? Why take something that sounds great and then FiretrUCK it up? *shakes head*

    I also appreciate the pointer to the Moby article. Useful insight into the industry and how it works. Baffling how he talks with one view (that offers audiophile hope) and then acts in an apparently diametric opposite way.

    Very telling is this comment:
    "Of his 15 albums, which ones still sound best to their maker?

    'I don't think any of them are very good-sounding, to be honest with you, but it might be the albums Wait for Me [2009] or Destroyed [2011], because I mixed both of those in New York, on a Neve desk that had been taken from Abbey Road [Studios]. Ken Thomas, who mixed Sigur Rós and a bunch of things, helped me mix them. By many people's standard they are not great-sounding records because they're not that loud, and they have flaws and noise, but to me there's an organic quality that I really like.'"

    It's a sad indictment that he feels this way about his work. Geez, if I felt that way about my life's professional end result, I think I'd check out, go hermit and find a mountain to sit on or something.

    The comment about a Neve desk had me think of Dave Grohl's movie "Sound City".

    Does anyone know whether that piece of history is still seeing good (non-compressed) use? Probably not because the CD of the film's soundtrack comes in at about DR6. In the film, Grohl relates how Sound City lost business to DAW style studios (and by inference Loudness and Compression) but where it counts, doesn't show a shining path out of the problem.

    *shakes head again and sighs with despair*

    1. Well slyrider, I feel your pain :-(.

      Lots of great points there. Yeah, I'm perplexed by Moby - what he says in the article plus the admission of varying output quality... It's one thing when an artist is disappointed by his/her own artistic skill, but when the complaint is something so technical as in whether one decided to push the loudness too far or not, it seems kind of strange to say the least. Surely the studio has a volume knob, right???

      Oi, "Sound City". Indeed. WTF. A documentary about some great classic rock, legendary quality gear. And absolutely no respect for the quality of the sound itself in the final product. How sad and hypocritical.

      Well, it's Friday night. The despair will subside with a good stiff drink tonight :-).

    2. BTW: If you have multichannel, make sure to listen to Hell Freezes Over in surround. Even the DTS rip which I've converted to 5.1 FLAC sounds fantastic with DR14...

  9. Very good post. E.g. the Rolling Stones' remasters from 2009 are much much worse than their original version.
    I think that the studios have forgotten that their primary task is to deliver the band's/singer's performance to the listener. Not to create artificial "sound" (noise) that is unrelated to whatever we can hear in reality. I know there are genres like techno, electronic music etc. which have different rules. But for rock, country, classical, jazz, blues etc. we should simply record, mix, master reasonably and deliver ....

    1. Hey Honza,
      2009 Rolling Stones remasters IMO were a total disaster and was such a disappointment that I spent money on those.

      Recently, I was listening to some ripped 45rpm dance and electronica from the 80's and 90's. Those sound punchy and overall fantastic and typically run at DR11-14. I have absolutely no issue with purposeful distortion if it's "honestly" what the artist intended but the distortions that permeate throughout the album created by "loudness mastering" is fatiguing.

  10. Bravo Arch, Bravo! And thanks for linking to my article on Dynamic Range: No Quiet = No Loud

    Recording, mixing and mastering has become a lost art... Or put another way, the advent of Garage Band and all of the DAW variant's are so inexpensive, anyone can become a recording, mixing and mastering engineer, in one's living room or basement.

    Gone are the days of real studios, real equipment and trained professionals, or certainly drastically reduced. Gone are really good microphones (e.g. Neumann U87, AKG 414 to name a few), in favor of cheap USB mics. Also, very few training facilities exist these days for anyone to be schooled in the fine art of recording, mixing and mastering. Most won't even pick up a book in which there are hundreds to choose from on the subject area...

    Gone are the days of recording budgets from record companies, who can now pimp out artists for a fraction of the cost... who cares about quality... A buddy of mine from the past who is still in the business went from recording records with budgets in the excess of six figures down to 6 grand per album. He tries his best, but with such a limited budget, there is only so much one can do...

    As mentioned by one of the commenters, even if you are not a fan of Dave Grohl, the movie Sound City shows an excellent example of a once famous recording studio turned to dust, even if Dave did save the famous Neve console... No doubt most if not all of us here have heard mixes from that Studio (especially that drum sound!) that is simply no longer. What once was will never be again...

    I was really excited in the mid 80's, as a pro recording mixing engineer, as the first wave of digital came through our studios and after some trial and error, started coming up with some pretty good recordings/mixes where the dynamic range was used and people still cared about sound quality. It seems not so much anymore...

    Interesting graphic on Reddit about how sounds have gotten louder over time. Articles like yours, Reddit's and others seem to be helping getting the message out.

    I can only hope that record companies start cottoning on that there is more commerce to be had with real dynamic masters - heck I would pay a premium to replace my squashed to shite DR6 masters, which make up over 75% of the music in my library for anything above DR10. That's a real revenue opportunity right there for the record companies. Given the state of the art DSP, those multitrack 2" inch master tapes could be mixed down right to digital with little dynamic range compression. Now that would be Master Quality Authenticated worth paying for ;)

    1. Hi Mitch,
      Thanks for the note and your excellent article written with experience from the "old days" :-).

      Wow... Production cost from 6-figure/album to $6000 bucks. That's one hell of a markdown!

      So sad to see that over time, what has been lost is simply quality from those microphones to the care being expended. Perhaps symptomatic of the state of society, the pace of change, loss of recognition and reward for a job well done.

      Or... Maybe I'm just getting old :-).

    2. Wow, Mitch. Yeah, that is incredible.

      "Maybe I'm just getting old :-)"

      :-). Alas, definitely symptomatic of society. Invariably we see a (lamentably) brief window where the technology improvements are "shared" with end-consumers in the form of higher quality: old pro's making use of the new tools are able to do a lot more with the same. But then the suits get involved and the race to the bottom resumes with quality yielding to price: old pro's are displaced by mediocrities and noob's using the new tools to do barely serviceable jobs, albeit for a lot less money.

  11. Hi Archimago,

    I've read your blog for a while without commenting, but I felt I had to congratulate you for speaking out on this particular issue. I mostly listen to classical music, which I love, but there is lots of contemporary music from talented artists that I could also learn to love - if only it wasn't ruined, nine times out of ten, by dynamic compression.

    Maybe someone else has already pointed out, but there is a (depressing) link between this practice and the conditions under which listeners consume music. I think studio engineers assume that popular music will be listened through earbuds in traffic or on the subway, or will be background music to "create an ambience" at home. Under these conditions, dynamic range would be considered an irritating irrelevance. (I don't even bother trying to listen to classical music when I'm walking down the road, because one car is all it takes to completely drown out the quieter passages). I'm sure there are people who sit down and concentrate on music in silence, but the fact is that I don't know many of them and can't remember the last time that I've seen it happening.

    Like the many other commentators above, I hope that by exerting the small degree of commercial pressure that we have available to us, we can force a change. The sad thing is that by refusing to buy ruined music, the market becomes more and more segregated -- only those who really don't care about this stuff will be left buying popular music. So we have to combine that with positive efforts -- supporting independent labels that think differently, and making it clear to people why they should care. Keep up the work!

    1. Thanks for the note nonnimorretti,

      Yup. The mobile society with earbuds on subways and in buses crowd could indeed find high DR a problem. This is an important "chicken or egg" issue. I spoke about this general trend awhile back:

      I honestly miss the "Loudness" button and in that article I thought it would be great for reimplementation of the "Mobile Boost" function (item C) in software and hardware devices again.

      IMO, the recording as the name implies should really by an honest "record" of what the sound should be under good listening conditions. Manipulation like dynamic range compression can easily be implemented on the playback side, not in the studio giving us the final product!

      In fact, by doing this, hardware and software makers can start competing among themselves as "Who makes the best Mobile Boost function?" May the company that handles mobile playback that satisfies the quality demands of music lovers on-the-go differentiate itself from the crowd! Maybe advertise themselves as the company that will allow one to listen to classical music on-the-go.

      Doing this will free up and allow the recordings themselves to approach the "ideal" to which high quality audio engineers and discerning artists can work their magic in a way that music lovers who desire quality can also find great pleasure in.

      To really make a difference, I think it would be amazing to make a big splash. I would love to see a company like Apple for example grab hold of something like this and implement the "Mobile Boost" in iPhones, iPads, and easily accessible button on the screen when streaming Apple Music. A change like that with marketing to educate the public would truly be a step forward! A way for Apple to give back to the music industry as a leader in palpable sound quality more significant than lossless or "hi-res". They can even implement guidelines in their "Mastered for iTunes" program to actually mean something desirable for consumers. (I think this is possible given IMO the malaise with Apple these days and the lack of real innovation... At least this will be something good we can applaud Apple for IMO.) I know... I'm dreaming. But better to dream big and float what I think is a great idea just in case any Apple folks are out there reading this!

      Steve Jobs the audiophile I think would approve :-).

  12. If, instead of pushing shady 'deblurring' schemes, obsolete vinyl technology, and the like, the various players in high end today were to proselytize for record companies offering alternate, truly 'hi res' digital masterings of releases, exploiting digital's superior dynamic range capacity, I would take them seriously. But they don't.

    In my perfect world, each new album (or old remaster) could be offered in two versions, 'commercial' and 'audiophile'.

    Btw, this is what was *SUPPOSED TO HAPPEN* with the advent of DVD-A and SACD. But it didn't. HDtracks etc are also scams in this regard. 'HD', the label, was and remains NO guarantee of high resolution mastering.

    Indeed, going back further, CD itself was supposed to usher in the era of full-range, uncompromised representations of the master tapes, with no added compression, EQ or other tweaks required for vinyl delivery.

    Apart from a blip in the late 80s/early 90s (the era of 'remastered from the original tapes', unfortunately overshadowed by the contemporary development of digital compression tricks) that didn't happen either, except in the classical realm.

    It's been a long sad slog of catering to the lowest listener denominator ever since.

    (and no , I'm not talking about mp3; lossy compression is GIGO, it doesn't alter the dynamic range. Audiophiles spend too much energy tilting against such stupid windmills.)

    1. Yup Steven,

      Too much time wasted in meaningless hi-res like DVD-A, SACD, Blu-Ray, "HRA", Pono, MQA, etc... None of these things truly imply "quality" despite the promise of potential quality that could have been.

      Apple: see my suggestions above :-).

  13. That Reddit graphic doesn't make any sense. What is 0 dB for shellac or Lps?

    1. Dunno about 78rpm shellacs, but maybe for 33/45rpm vinyls, 0dB is triggered when the stylus flies off the platter on a classic Linn Sondek LP12 during loud transients? :-)

  14. Long-time lurker but first post. Really enjoy your articles!! A breath of fresh air in an otherwise stale sector. I wanted to say one thing about DR that a high DR in itself does not guarantee the recording will sound great and we should preface the argument with a qualifier. Something like "a high DR score does not equal great recording but crushing the dynamics of a good recording is unacceptable".

    There are a lot of factors that go into making a recording sound full, lush and spacious. I have a large number of +12 DR records that sound like they have been recorded inside a garage inside an old shoe box and a number of DR 6 recordings that sound "audiophile" grade comparatively.

    While crushing a great mix from DR12 to DR5 will have consequences, at least to my ears, that pales in comparison to recording environment and equipment. Given a properly recorded session at least you have the option when mastering. If the mix or recording is rubbish to start with, then even DR15 not save you. I'll take that great DR6 anyday of the week. I think its important to separate the trees from the forest when we are taking about the industry as a whole.

    Of course my take my be a bit different that the normal person listening to top 40 or non-niche genres. I listen to a lot of metal which is known for it's lo-fi production. Otherwise 100% agree about the dynamic compression.

    1. Yes, very true. DR is just one of many dimensions we must look at. It's just a good place to start I believe because it's a choice that can be made in the studio by those involved in a recording.

      Another fact to remember also is that we can artificially increase DR values as discussed previously:

      Of course doing that might improve some of the clipping on certain DACs but materially will not change the fact that the music has already been compromised...

  15. Somewhat off-topic for this particular article, but here's a hilarious refutation of your whole existence as a rational human being from a shill for the snake-oil merchants:

    1. Hey Phil,
      That's a big one!

      I've said a few things about this on Computer Audiophile already. Maybe I'll write a little more about the philosophical aspects of the dialectic between objective and subjective modes of sound quality assessment in the next while here :-).

    2. I wish I had not read that.

  16. Hi Archimago,
    thanks for pointing out the work of “The Lake Poets”: “Live from the Minster”.
    I downloaded both versions, and I started listening the ALAC (16/44.1) version. After 20 seconds I switched over the FLAC24 (24/96) version, and I jumped on my seat!
    The initial applauses revealed the size of the environment, the voice seemed to come also from the body, not only from the mouth, the guitar seemed a different one (I play guitar).
    Then I did “my” experiment: downgrading to 16/48.
    I did it with SOX with the following command: sox "input file" -b 16 "output file" rate 48000. Very rough, but it’s what I’m able to do, since I’m unable to understand all the thousands of parameters of SOX (perhaps you can propose a better command).
    What about this version? I’m unable to distinguish it from the 24/96 one. Psychological effect? Perhaps.
    So again, the fact the “CD Quality” is 16/44.1 is a mess! It’s always the problem of backward compatibility: when you want to keep at all price you lose a lot of possibilities of a new standard.
    Remember what happened when the standard for stereo microgroove was defined: the possibility of having “phase stereophony” was ruled out since it was incompatible with the monophonic equipment’s. So, at these times, only a few albums ( are recorded in the way even if the CD technology (and the actual one) could allow for that. Please correct me if I’m wrong.
    It’s amazing to listen at Roger Water’s “Amused to Death” and hear voices (and other things) coming one meter left and right of the loudspeakers.
    About your disappointment with Steve Winwood's "Winwood Greatest Hits Live (2017)": with a subscription to Qobuz ( you could have avoided all that.
    About your pictures of Maui: I was exactly on the same beach 20 years. I cried when I had to leave the island.

  17. Replies
    1. Hey Theodoro,

      That was the Kapalua Bay beach in that picture. Awesome place. Got a chance to swim with some turtles nearby in Napili Beach just a few minutes away also. Hope you get a chance to visit again :-).

      Thanks for the tips!

    2. At that time I had a technical briefing with Microsoft in Los Angeles. We had the chance of moving the date of the return flight, so, with a colleague (saying "what you what to do with money"), we went 2 weeks in Maui.
      Now, I guess, it's too far from Italy.
      I have a question: reading one of the comments in the above mentioned, I read that most of the artists record in 24/88.2, while I was convinced that now 24/192 was the standard.
      If this is true, then 16/44.1 is more appropriate than 16/28.
      Have you tried my "experiment"? Is my SOX command the most appropriate?

  18. I think battery life is a factor because with high DR recordings you have to play it louder, using more energy? The iPhone 6 you said was 1.4v out, but not loud enough for your higher resistance headphones. (Doesn't pop music play louder on it than jazz/classical, typically)?

  19. One of the many joys of listening primarily to independent artists or releases from independent labels is that the mastering tends to be appropriate. I very rarely groan in discomfort or have any complaints about the sound from albums I've bought in the past ten years. Forget the majors, support the indies :)

    If you look at the files from those CDs or downloads in a waveform display, they are also generally clipped and saturated, but it's clearly possible to master something that way and have it sound good. It just needs people who care listening in the mastering lab, and at the customer end (either artist or label) before nodding on the production masters.