Wednesday, July 6, 2011

Comments on the Loudness War

Just this morning I stumbled across this page of yours. . .

I found it one of the better presentations on the subject that's available online.  I felt compelled to send you some of my own rambling thoughts on the subject.  So here goes. . .

One of your more intriguing suggestions was that record companies could release recordings in both standard and premium versions.  This has already begun to happen in a spotty, haphazard way, with vinyl LP records.  The LP release is invariably more expensive than the CD, but has the advantage in cover art, liner notes, physical presence, and -- sometimes -- audio quality.  There's irony, I think, in that CDs clearly have the capability to provide better sound than LPs.  However, it's the limitations of the LP format that entice the recording engineer to make the most of the capacity that is available.

For example:  A while back I got an audiophile LP release of Judas Priest Screaming for Vengeance.  This was turned into a gatefold album, 2-record set, on 180-gram virgin (colored!) vinyl.  It was apparently made into two LPs so that they could include two bonus tracks which had also appeared on later CD releases.  I digitized some tracks from these records and compared them with the same tracks from an original (1980s) CD release.  I found the CD had slightly more dynamic range than the LP, but the difference was minor.  The LP sounds good.  Who is buying this?  (Aside from me, I mean!)  It's definitely a premium package.  Anybody shopping for 180g vinyl presumably has some concern about sound quality.  They aren't looking for iPod fodder.

A counter example:  I got the LP release of Chroma Cannon by Prizzy Prizzy Please "Lights from Paradise" by the band Quest for Fire [see correction in comment below...].  The cover art was nice, and the heavy record with colored vinyl looked and felt appealing, right until the moment when I lowered the needle on it.  Sadly, it sounds like the recording engineers simply took the hyper-compressed CD master and fed it into a record cutter.  To fit the whole thing into the running time of a single LP, it was necessary to go with shallow grooves, thus lowering the overall signal levels.  The result was an auditory disaster; it sounds like mud.  I know this was intended as a premium product, but it was a failure -- unless it was intended as a collector's item for Prizzy Prizzy Please fans who may not even have a turntable?  Maybe they just want to hang that colored platter on their wall?  I really don't know.

Whenever we talk about audio quality, we have to fend off the specters of SACD and DVD-A.  (Technically those formats aren't dead, but they might as well be.)  Well. . .  I'm honest enough to admit that I can't hear any difference between a well produced CD and a DVD-A, with my moderately degraded ears and my mid-level stereo equipment.  To me SACD and DVD-A came across as scams to try and foist draconian DRM schemes onto consumers while getting them to re-purchase their music collections -- plus a "format war" thrown into the mix to make them even less appealing.

When it's used properly, the standard CD red book format is capable of superb performance.  In the late 1980s -- after recording engineers had learned their way around the red book, and after good digital editing and mastering tools were widely available, but before the loudness war took off -- even common pop-and-rock releases were coming out with excellent audio quality, routinely.  I don't think the CD format should be allowed to die, undercut by digital downloads and replaced at the high end by archaic LPs.  The CD does need a makeover, though.

Here's my prescription for a premium CD package:  First, ditch the jewel box!  They look and feel cheap, they break easily, and they limit the size of artwork and liner notes that can be included.  My suggestion is to take the standard plastic DVD movie case and widen it into a true square -- about the same size as a 45 RPM single.  This ought to make a good compromise between jewel box and LP size.

Second, impose some kind of requirement for dynamic range!  You hinted at something like this in your presentation, with a sort of sticker or logo that would indicate the dynamic range of the recording.  I don't think it even needs to be that sophisticated.  We could simply place a limit on the average power level - which has the advantage of simplicity and being very easy to set and measure, anybody can check it.  If anybody wanted to make a super-compressed recording with very little dynamic range (for some sort of perverse artistic reasons, perhaps), they'd still be able to do that -- but they wouldn't get any benefit from it.  It wouldn't sound louder, because they'd be required to lower the level across-the-board and keep it within the specified limit.

To me this would be better than trying to bring back LPs.  The production costs would be lower, and it would take advantage of the world's huge CD production capacity (as compared with the surviving LP pressing plants that are wearing out), and ultimately provide a better-sounding and more durable product.  It would just be a marketing problem.  We could call it, I dunno. . .   CD Plus?  CD Extra?

Incidentally, the JVC XRCD format (or quasi-format) could be regarded as a tentative jab in this direction.  The problem, from my viewpoint, is that XRCD has been aimed at the niche audiophile market with mostly classical and jazz releases.  Thus, XRCD is living in a space where the loudness war was never a problem.  XRCD is really the logical answer to the failures of SACD and DVD-A, but not to the loudness war.

I think rock music has been hit hardest by over-compression.  Particularly frustrating to me, some of my old favorite "classic rock" bands (Styx, Blue Oyster Cult, ZZ Top) have continued to put out new CD releases, and some of the music is actually quite good, but the compression has been brutal.  After being burned with a few of these ruined recordings, I became so disgusted that I decided not to buy any more CDs released after the year 2000.  That applies equally to iTunes Music Store, since (as far as I know) their music is generally sourced from the CDs.  (Although otherwise I quite like what Apple have done with ITMS.)

Right now I've got a pre-order in for the newest Yes album, Fly from Here.  I'm getting the LP version.  I think it's very cool, but also sort of perverse, that I can pre-order a new studio recording from Yes, on vinyl, in 2011.  Anyhow, I really am looking forward to this one, and I see it as sort of a test case.  Will it be good, or will it be a disaster like Chroma Cannon [Lights from Paradise]?  And assuming it's good, will it be an anomaly or a harbinger?  I've got my fingers crossed.

You might like this. . .

The graphic is particularly interesting.  I don't think the dashed line drawn through it is helpful, though.  The main message I take away is not the overall upward trend, but more importantly the long period of stability through the 1980s and 1990s, followed by the huge spike around 1999-2000 when compression suddenly became objectionable.  Also intriguing is the sudden drop at the very end.  I have to wonder if that's real or just an artifact of insufficient data?

There have been a few people rushing to declare an end to the loudness war.  The rationale seems to be that since iTunes and the iPod now have Sound Check (and other players have similar features), that heavy compression no longer makes sense, and therefore it will go away.  To which I have to respond:  Forgive my skepticism, but I'll believe it when I see it.  I don't think the loudness war ever made any sense to begin with.  It'll go down in history as a sort of mass delusion, like tulip bulb mania.  Mass delusions have to run their course, they can't be deflated with a mere pinprick of logic.

- Tony Belding, Hamilton Texas

1 comment:

  1. Big correction. . . I said Chroma Cannon was a sonic disaster, but I had it confused with a different album entirely! The one I was actually thinking about was "Lights from Paradise" by the band Quest for Fire. I am very sorry about that! (I got both of those at the same time, a while back, and somehow they were transposed in my mind despite being nothing alike.)