An S&R staff conversation on the “Loudness Wars,” low rez, headphones, streaming services and more: it’s all about fidelity.
Regardless of whether you think the content of modern music sucks, from a listening perspective the manufacture of modern music does suck. Mostly I think we don’t notice since we’ve mostly switched to fully digital music and generally of a size-compressed nature.
This may sound snobbish, but I can hear it. Even with low grade audiophile equipment I can tell the difference between different source files. But this NYT article goes a bit deeper and discusses the “loudness wars” that are still going on. Of course, it does depend on what musical styles you listen to but generally the recording of modern music is designed to increase how loud (not as in volume) music feels rather than any attempts to reveal the character of the music being recorded.
I find this particularly annoying because what draws me to high quality recordings, uncompressed files, and at least decent equipment is that I really like the sounds of transient attacks and similar sounds (think hearing the bounce of a drum stick on the ride cymbal after its initial attack).
I love that you prefer the high-dynamic hi rez audio.
Part of the problem is delivery and part of the problem is how it’s consumed. I’m often on the other side of the fence. Outside of my own music, I sometimes master other people’s music. The problem for the artists is delivery. They, like me and you, prefer the high-fidelity, high-dynamic sound of the music. I like to hear snare drums crack. I like to hear acoustic guitars cut through with bright crisp attacks. An electric bass with passive pickups can also be a surprisingly dynamic instrument. They prefer all of that too, but they always ask for the audio to be squashed because they don’t like to field complaints from fans who don’t think their music is loud enough and they don’t like being left off or skipped from playlists because their music is quieter than everything else out there.
But how do you get that music to your listener in a useful and unambiguous way? Bandcamp allows artists to upload hi-rez files and listeners can download them in several lossless formats but if you go that route, your non-audiophile listeners won’t be thrilled. For starters, Bandcamp automatically downsamples the music for mp3 downloads which has me wondering about what sort of anti-aliasing they do, if any, during the downsampling process. The same goes for reducing bit-rate. And all of that is even before the data compression of the mp3 format. Past that, most listeners like the squashed result of the loudness wars, unfortunately. When they listen to music via playlists or in their cars, they don’t like to have to sit there and constantly fiddle with the volume buttons to balance between loud and quiet songs.
You could release two versions of the album: one consumer version and one audiophile version, but I think a lot of general listeners would download the audiophile version, feeling like they’d prefer the higher quality version when all they really want is the louder version. That also causes extra expense for the artist to have to put up two versions on digital distribution, and if the artist is hoping for the extra promotion that comes from appearing on various music charts, having two versions of the album essentially splits their sales figures in half.
All of these problems are solvable, but I don’t think anyone is there yet.
I read an interview in Tape-Op the other week with legendary mix engineer Bob Clearmountain. He talked about how he makes 5.1 surround mixes for every album he mixes just for his own personal enjoyment. He’d like to see bands release those versions, but so far, no artist has done so. That seems criminal to me.
I know that the loudness wars began before MP3 but I believe that they do coincide with the rise of personal music players and cheap headphones.
Between compressing files for transmission/space and then playing them through mostly low-grade DACs and headphones the loudness wars make some sense to me. I may not agree with it, but it makes sense. It’s just part of the landscape the way it probably sucked more often than not to hear the great rock bands of the late 60’s and early 70’s playing live through horribly over driven PA systems not designed for how they were used.
I do think it may slowly be changing for the better as the cost of decent gear is being driven down by Chi-Fi equipment and good headphones/headphone amps seem to be gaining in popularity. Slowly, the streaming services are starting to up their resolution too … very slowly. I have a Tidal Hi-Fi account and frankly find it hard to listen to my iTunes library anywhere but in the car. I’m slowly working my way towards truly hi-Rez.
I switched about 6 months ago to a pair of Bose headphones to block out noise at work, and I can’t get enough of the way good quality files sound through them. It’s just music shivers all day long for me now.
Had already read this article. It’s perfectly explained. Confirmed my impressions as well.
It’s a pretty good article, but misses a few points. For starters, as much as I’m not a fan of the loudness wars, one positive side-effect is that it makes mp3s sound better. Mp3s struggle with dynamics, so less dynamic content will sound truer to the original when converted to mp3. Yeah, that’s not a great argument, but when your goal is to deliver the best possible result to the most likely consumer, a bit of pragmatism is inevitable. The article also ends with a shout out to Lady Gaga and Bradley Cooper, which is a little disingenuous. The song was from a film, where the dynamic range will be much greater in the film version, and Lady Gaga is an established artist who can demand more dynamic without risking her career (and who has enough clout to win that argument with her record label).
Good point, Lisa, about your headphones and I’m glad to hear you have that reaction to music. And really, headphones are where this all started. When the Beatles went into the studio to mix their second album, producer George Martin brought a pair of speakers into the control room. The band mocked him. “What do you need two speakers for, George?” “Ooooh, it’ll be twice as loud then, will it?” At the time, stereo playback was something only audiophiles cared about. The Beatles themselves never mixed an album in stereo until the White Album. The definitive versions of Revolver and Sgt. Pepper’s are the mono versions.
The stereo versions were handled by another engineer several weeks later, after the band and producer had left for other engagements. Oftentimes, the stereo versions would serve a dual purpose. The vocals and maybe one other prominent instrument would be panned hard left while the rest of the arrangement would be panned hard right. It was done this way so that engineers in other territories could mix new mono versions of the album by fading the two tracks/speakers together and mixing one louder or quieter, depending on the intended audience.
In the ’60s and ’70s, headphones were generally closed-back design, which was essentially the noise-cancelling technology of the time. You listened to music on headphones because you wanted to hear every detail and because you wanted to block out the world outside. Stereo mixing was a way to be able to focus on individual elements of the music. It wasn’t until the advent of the Walkman that open-backed or simply foam-covered headphones became the norm. I wonder if Sony developed them on purpose, figuring users could be walking in traffic, where canceling out noise could be dangerous.
Most of us live in very noisy environments. For a lot of people, music isn’t something to focus on, it’s something to help pass the time. Dancing to music at a club is a social experience. It’s as much about communing in a physical ritual with like-minded people as it is about the music. Headphones that block out the outside world changed that. Headphones became about sitting down or laying down, turning off the lights, and just focusing on the music. Headphones became a way to have a private experience with the artist. It’s meditative and escapist … almost like reading a book where the author transports you someplace far away.
Great Beatles story. Similar to how they tried to play gigs at baseball stadiums using a movie theater sound system. No wonder no one, including them could hear them playing.
Also great to hear that from Lisa! I periodically ask people if they can tell the difference between CD and MP3. One person has actually told me, “probably not anymore” which sums it up. The sound of an MP3 is the standard for most, but if you play somebody quality files on decent equipment, they almost always can hear the difference.
I use decent headphones at work, but chose open back because it A. Makes sure I keep the volume reasonable, B. Allows me to hear when someone wants my attention, but mostly because it keeps the air around the sound. More like tiny speakers played softly in the very near field than the enclosed sound of headphones.
That said, I may be a bit odd (generally and specifically). My shop is where I listen to music most and I’ve chosen full range speakers supported by a small subwoofer because 4” full range drivers in even in relatively well tuned cabinets can’t fill out the low frequencies. I like the simplicity and getting the midrange right, I.e. not having the crossovers right there. Since all things require trading off something that’s where I decided to make the trade. But I do find the set up sounds not great with low res files. Hence decent files and a decent external DAC to process them.
As an EE with some background in information theory, I have a somewhat different perspective to this whole audiophile thing than most people I know, and it’s a perspective that too many analog/vinyl lovers have failed to appreciate (I literally got hate mail once for it).
Basically, you can get equally good music from good quality analog equipment as you can from good quality digital equipment. But crappy equipment or loss of information anywhere along the instrument – recording equipment – storage medium – transmission medium – playback equipment – speaker chain will ruin good music. The best DAC in the world doesn’t do you any good if it’s transmitted to you at 64 kbps over a crappy Bluetooth link.
I’ve got a set of entry-level Grado headphones, and they’re the best headphones I’ve ever owned (to date). But I usually play music I stream from my phone through those headphones. There’s better dynamic range and the larger speakers in the Grados generate lower tones better than cheap POS earbuds (or even good earbuds, frankly – there are physical limits to what a small speaker can do), but the fact it’s streamed and played from a merely OK DAC in my phone limits how good the music can be.
Ever listen to the same song at 128 kbps vs. 192 kbps? With all things being equal, the sound is WAY better at 192 kbps. I used to rip all my CDs at 192 until I realized I didn’t have enough storage. This is back when people bought CDs and when enough disk space for several hundred CDs worth of music was expensive
I also use one of Grado’s entry level models. There’s a lot to like for a very moderate outlay. I ignore the analog/digital audiophile slap fight, but agree with Brian 100%. Outside of the car or the yard, I want my music traveling along wires rather than over air between source and speaker. And I pay a hefty streaming fee of like $25/month to Tidal to get my music delivered at 1,411 kbps. But I get my money’s worth (I’d guess that listen at least 40 hrs/week) and it’s a good way to determine what music I want to buy. I’m happy to purchase CDs or hi-res downloads but even the CD’s then get ripped. My house is too small to maintain a large collection of physical media and it’s already overflowing with books.
If we’re talking toys, I love my Beyer Dynamic DT 990’s. Like you, Lex, I prefer open-backed headphones. Closed-back headphones make me feel claustrophobic.
My big problems with analog are cost and consistency. If you’re a hi-fi geek, analog gets ridiculously expensive very quickly. If I wanted to have an analog system on par with my digital system, I’d have to lay out more than $10k for the reel-to-reel tape machine and then spend $70 or $80 per 20 minutes of tape. And then comes the consistency part – I’d have to keep maintaining that tape machine every couple of weeks and would have to send off the machine to a shop every year or two for bigger maintenance and the occasional repair (God help me if they don’t make the replacement parts anymore). If I wanted to buy pre-recorded music in that format, I just couldn’t. Acoustic Sounds has experimented with high quality reel-to-reel reissues but it looks like they’ve stopped because I’m sure there wasn’t much of a demand for it, but even still, those tapes wouldn’t have sounded quite as good as their hi-rez downloads (192 kHz/24-bit uncompressed wav/aiff). You need two-inch tape for that, and that just gets cost prohibitive for commercial releases.
But it is amazing to me that the typical smart phone now can have 2 or 3 different cameras on it for different picture modes and a bright, clear screen to see things, but there’s never any mention about the quality of the DACs for audio playback. But then again, it goes back to the typical user. For most people, high-quality audio isn’t a consideration when buying a phone. The users may even spend the vast majority of their time listening to mp3s on that phone, but it still won’t be a consideration for them when buying it.
At the risk of going back to the beginning of the thread, it isn’t just sonic quality and dynamic that makes the songs worse these days. The pop songs these days are also much simpler than they were 40 or 50 years ago. There are fewer chord changes, fewer parts, and the lyrics are often simpler. Lyrically, the songs are written to be more overt earworms than to just have a memorable hook or two. They’re done that way because people have such short attention spans that there needs to be a hook in the song every 15-30 seconds. They’re written in loops on sequencers and so the songs don’t really change in structure over time as much as parts join in and others drop out as the producer fades in and mutes various channels.
Past that though, playlists kill dynamics in another way. As the art of creating a coherent album rather than just a collection of songs came about in the ’60s, albums would take you on a trip. Some songs would be brash and in your face while others would be quiet and introspective. Albums had flow. My favorite in that regard was XTC’s “Skylarking”. But that doesn’t work now. If Spotify were to randomly grab one of those songs from an album, it would have to be compressed to the same loud level or it would get skipped. In that way, Spotify works as sonic Prozac, smoothing out the highs and lows and leaving you in an eternal state of ‘meh’.
RE: albums having flow
I remember when albums had flow (or, as I’m no music expert, when I perceived flow in albums). Dark Side of the Moon. Breakfast in America. Master of Puppets.
And then there’s concept albums and epic rock, where a single song was like a symphony. Rush’s 2112, Cygnus X-1/Hemispheres. American Idiot. The Wall. Thick as a Brick and Songs from the Wood and Broadsword and the Beast (hell, lots of Tull). Telemetry of a Fallen Angel (Cruxshadows, in case you’re not familiar). Celldweller.
I miss music like this. These days it seems that it’s only smaller artists or mega-artists going through an “experimental” phase who do true albums or concept albums any more.
It’s not fiscally responsible to make concept albums anymore. Only a Lady Gaga or Katy Perry could make it profitable. Everyone else needs to wrap up their albums in a month or two so they can get back out on the road and tour. The dark side of digital is that most people just stream things for free, one way or another. Artists used to tour to promote their records. Now their records are advertisements for their tours, and the tours are where they make their money.
I worked in radio for a bit, and albums that were not conceptual were often sequenced in a particular order so that someone giving it a quick play through would know which songs were meant to be pitched as singles. Usually the first couple came on strong but the meat would be 1 & 4, and then track seven (what would generally have been the beginning of the b-side) was where you wanted to look in the later part of the album along with.
Automated playlists annoy me. Granted, I make genre mood playlists of my own but that’s curation! I’ll give Tidal credit in that they have a playlist feature called “my mix” which is curated to some degree by genre and they’ve clearly datamined my account since the lists are sprinkled with songs/artists I’ve liked or added to my collection.
I still like listening to whole albums more than even my own playlists though. Part of that is that I’m a huge fan of live albums and those really need the album as recorded.
I downloaded Tidal, free trial, not the premium version; costs the same as Spotify. Upon comparing an album by one of my favorite artists on both, I found the quality on Tidal significantly higher. (I have the setting switched to “high quality” on Spotify.) Isn’t that odd? It’s the type of thing where somebody will tell me it’s my imagination. If Tidal’s catalog turns out to be as deep as Spotify’s, I will switch. Don’t know if I can spring for the premium account.
It’s been rare that I’ve looked for something and not found it on Tidal. The home page is very hip-hop centric (Jay Z started it) but with a bit of use it also gets pretty good at suggesting things too. I can’t compare it to Spotify now as I haven’t used it in years, but one of my favorite features if you’re on an artist page they provide a list of similar artists and influencers.
The royalties to artists are still shit, but Tidal does have the second highest (after Napster, oddly) artist payment structure. Don’t know what the standard streaming g definition is. Yea, the hi-fi membership is steep.
I’m crap for playlists in that I hear a song, and get jazzed about the one that should follow it and when it doesn’t, I inevitably end up flipping over to the album and listening to the whole thing.
Thanks for the info on Tidal, Lex. I am glad that it shows related artists and I have already begun to make the switch from Spotify, which I will soon cancel. The only drawback is that Spotify seems to be the only streaming service that seems to play album (or CD) after album of a particular artist. Near as I can tell Tidal and Deezer require you to manually begin a new album, or song. Or is there a way to get Tidal to play albums continuously?
I haven’t found a way to do that, Russ. And I’ve been a bit annoyed lately that when an album ends it goes to what it calls “track radio” and starts playing algorithm chosen songs. I know you can play an artist but I don’t think that’s set up to spin albums consecutively.
Right, Lex. I noticed how when an album ends it starts playing a song which is marginally tangential to the album I was listening to. Pretty annoying. Despite the drawbacks, it looks like I am making the switch. Thanks for turning me on to Tidal.
Just to throw a wrench into things, Quboz released in the US today. It’s previously EU only service that audiophiles have raved about … but that may be because I understand that its library is better on jazz and classical.
It’s set up on the tiered plan $10 getting you MP3 in 320, all the way up to $300/year for hi-res streaming with purchase discount. The real innovation hear is that music is also for sale through the platform, and that highest tier cost can apparently be made up over the next lowest if you are likely to purchase two albums/month. The ability purchase from the same place I stream is tempting.
(I realize that Apple actually innovated the streaming/purchase combo, but that would mean having to live with Apple’s decisions on how you can play music and coping with iTunes … the Spanish Inquisition of programs.)