Saturday, October 25, 2014

Who really needs to hear about our dissatisfaction with sound quality in contemporary pop/country/hip-hop/rock recordings?



-The Labels

All three groups of people need to realize that the people who buy CDs, records, and digital downloads have the final word on playback volume.  Secondly, modern digital media players, on computers and in our pockets, have software or apps available to automatically level the volume between, say, a comparatively dynamic 1970s pop or country classic and, a modern top-40 song which is mastered super loud & compressed from the get-go.  And finally, the radio:  Broadcasting stations, since at least the 1980s, have possessed processing chains capable of making a soft clarinet solo sound as loud as the loudest electric guitar in existence.  Everything, from the music played, to the person reading the news or weather, to the sound of commercials, is all conveniently squashed and boosted up to the same average level.  Nothing, not even the most dynamic album ever produced, not even the DJ pounding the console with a sledge hammer, is getting through that sucker, LOL, let alone some super loud cluster f*** like the latest Imagine Dragons album or, lest we forget, Metallica’s 2008 “Death Magnetic”.

So the very race to release the loudest record ever is fundamentally POINTLESS, mister big artist, miss producer, mister big label exec, et al et al…

This does not mean that I am totally against compression or limiting as a means of enhancing the mixing and mastering stages of production,  but I do draw the line where those processes are used solely to make something LOUDER.

Certainly, and in the short-term, louder does sound ‘better’ – for physiological reasons I’m not going to hash out in depth on this blog, but suffice it to say human hearing favors the upper-mid-range(the ‘intelligibility region’) of our audible band(20Hz-20kHz).  We are especially insensitive to mid- and lower-bass sounds, and slightly less sensitive to the airy treble range.  That is just how we are made.

So if louder is better, where should that loudness come from?  My contention is that it should come from the last link in the recording – production – mastering – delivery – playback chain: the amplifier and volume control!  So if whatever you are listening on isn’t loud enough for your tastes, go out and buy more power!  Not easy if your primary listening platform is a smartphone, mp3 player, or the speakers in a laptop computer.  But if you have a 25watt per speaker stereo at home, go out and upgrade to a 50-100 watt per side amp or receiver.  Even the most dynamic material won’t tax something that powerful, so you’ll have plenty of reserve wattage to cleanly and accurately reproduce everything from the pianist turning the page of their sheet music,  to the actual cannons recorded for Telarc’s edition of the 1812 Overture.

So finally, if you buy a CD or download an album and are disappointed with the sound, do a little research.  It’s all somewhere, on the net!  Find out who the artist’s manager  or producer is.  Find out what label they are on.  Start writing letters or e-mails.  Make phone calls, but above all, be tactical and polite with expressing your concerns.

The Censorship I’m facing on audio listener and engineering forums

Within the past three years I have registered and become a member of music listner forums(Steve Hoffman Forums) and professional audio forums(GearSlutz).  As such I have likely rubbed shoulders with engineers and managers who are responsible for the production and delivery of much of the music we hear on the radio or buy online or at stores.

Ever since bringing up what I considered to be the negative effects of so-called remasters on sites such as GearSlutz and Steve Hoffman’s, I’ve been hounded by the moderators of those sites, had my posts deleted, and have received suspensions and other infractions.  In the case of the largely listener-populated Hoffman forums, less educated music fans are going to question “how could the original possibly be better than the "remaster” in fidelity terms?

To be fair, the aim of my anti-loudness campaign was originally misguided, on the Gearslutz side: at the engineers(recording/mixing/mastering) themselves!  Once I stood corrected there, and realized that these people were just performing a service as requested, things kind of cooled down.

But now, even in threads devoted to loudness, or regulation of same, and remasters vs original, my contributions are being removed as “off topic”!  And most recently, just today, I was issued a warning from the Gearslutz Administrators about not posting things such as the link to this blog!  Well, now you know what kind of organization they are: Not necessarily "pro-loudness", but definitely, denialist.

Why this censorship against discussion of trends directly affecting the music industry?  Plain & simple: It’s a service business with money and reputations at stake.  The engineers on those forums(some of which serve as moderators , etc.) cannot afford to speak out against the very processes they must engage in, even though they don’t like having to, to turn out records that satisfy their clients(the artists, their producers, and the record labels).  And as far as the listeners go, on sites like the Hoffman Music forums, I chalk it up largely to just being misinformed.  I hope this blog helps those people out. J

It is important to realize that a site like GearSlutz is not solely the denizen of engineers and other “techy” types – aspiring and established musicians will also lurk there to read, as well as register there to participate in the discourse.  And engineers know this.  So, even if they do agree with what I’m saying, registering that agreement in such a venue could be toxic to their reputation with artists on there who might even be clients of those same engineers!

Often they say things like, “Musical tastes change”, or “What sounds good to you may not sound good to others”, in response to my statements about how music from a specific genre sounded better 20-30 years ago than current examples recently put out by artists.  I know that they are just saying that to keep up appearances, but they’d be free to really speak their minds if they came over here!

Such “censorship of the truth” as I militantly call it, is part of the very reason for this blog.

Friday, October 24, 2014

Remastering - And Its Effects

Firstly, let us define what a Remaster is – a new master made from an existing master.

Secondly, let us define what the process of remastering should include, and what it should not.

Remastering can include creating a higher-resolution digital master(24, 32 VS 16bit, 96kHz or higher sampling rate vs 44.1 for CD).  Processing, such as noise removal, speed correction, and minor corrective equalization can also be performed.  Left-to-right stereo channel imbalances or such flaws in the original master tapes can also be tackled.  The overall level of the mix can be brought up, within digital full scale, as long as dynamics processing is not used in that process.

What remastering should not do is drastically alter the listener’s perception of the song/album when they play it.  And unfortunately, the artists and producers of such albums, along with record labels, are aware of digital’s superior dynamic range and ability to handle higher, hotter levels than analog(vinyl LP, cassette, etc.), and their edict becomes “LOUDER at the expense of all other qualitative attributes!!”  This is the effect of the loudness war, which arguably began around the mid-1990s, with the launch of such albums as "What's The Story(Morning Glory)" by British rock group Oasis.  It also explains how remastering and the loudness war became intertwined:  As mid-1990s to early 2000s releases began being mastered more and more dynamically-compressed and made louderand louder, at the behest of artists and labels afraid of their records being rejected, older legacy(pre-1990s classics) were being left behind - volume-wise.
Labels learned about this, probably from consumers who complained that certain CDs in their changers were louder or softer than others.  They seized on this as a golden marketing opportunity, and reissued, from the late 1990s until present, hundreds of classic rock, old-school rap, country, and pop legacy material from the '60s through the late '80s, under the auspices of being "digitally remastered" for "superior sound!".  All that was being done to them was to turn them up.  Of course, a lot of these older albums possessed dynamic range superior to what was being released by the new Millennium, so the only way to get their average level up was to hard-limit anywhere from 2-6dB of the peaks on those older albums, in addition to varying amounts of dynamic-compression, and then apply corresponding makeup-gain.
Gone from these legacy works were the original dynamic excitement present on the original CD releases or on the vinyl LP records from the '70s.

It is important to realize that dynamic-compression and limiting do not by themselves make a mix louder.  If anything, they will be slightly softer after such processing is applied.  Something else must be done to make them louder, and that is, for the engineer to apply makeup gain(boost!) to take advantage of the headroom made available by dynamically squashing the louder parts.

Once this is done, there’s no getting back that original punchy, dynamic mix – at least not from the consumer side.

And no matter where the consumer/listener sets their volume, it will be the same squashed, wimpy-loud sound.

And this type of thing is routinely wrapped in shiny, enhanced packaging with the words “Digitally Remastered” or “Ultimate Remasters” on the exterior label, and of course consumers are going to take these words for granted, expecting something better, “new & improved”!

Here are just a few visual representations of the damage done to some legacy albums by what is sold by the record labels to music fans as “Remastered”.  Just remember, the higher the spikes in these waveforms, the louder the sound.  In this particular digital audio software, the light blue waveforms equate the average volume levels, and the dark blue represents peaks(transients, percussion, etc.):

In the above cases, all that pretty much was done was to turn them up – at the expense of the dynamics that  lent life to these classics in the first place.  Note how much thicker(LOUDER) the average levels are on the “remastered” waveforms, compared to that of the originals.  Any benefits of “High resolution source” are effectively canceled out by the unnecessary dynamics processing and ‘loudifying’ done to this legacy material over the past decade or so.

To listen to examples of the effects of "remastering gone wrong", please refer back to the sonic demonstrations(Spanish Fly) in the latter half of the section of this blog, entitled Some Fundamentals About Sound.

Some Fundamentals about Sound

Sound travels in the form of waves - pure sine waves, square waves, complex sines, etc.

In Demo B - Exhibit A
we see a simple 440Hz sine wave at 80% of digital full scale.  Below it in that same image is a limited version of that same 440Hz sine - notice the peaks(tops and bottoms) of that sine have been removed, flat-topping the wave.

Please play Demo A   to hear the sine wave represented at the top.

Please play Demo B    to hear the sine wave represented at the bottom.

Hear a difference?  I'm sure you did.  Limiting(or clipping) any sound wave, however simple or complex, adds additional harmonics and changes the sound of the wave!  Now imagine that effect as it applies to real music.  Musicians and artists need to think about this when they demand their recorded mixes be made "louder" by the mix and mastering engineers hired to handle their project.

Next, let's take a look at the effects of "loudifying"(as I call it!) on complex waveforms, such as actual music.

This is an excerpt from Van Halen's Spanish Fly - a guitar solo - Demo F Exhibit E:

On top in that image is an excerpt from the original track on the original CD release.  On the bottom is my recreation of a typical "remaster".   Note that all that has really been done to it is some compression, hard-limiting, and make-up gain to bring what's left up to almost digital full scale.

It should be noted that dynamic range compression, and it's more potent cousin, limiting, do not by themselves make a piece of audio louder.  What they do do is make the louder/loudest portions softer, reducing their amplitude and proximity to full scale.  A final step - makeup gain, must be applied to bring "what's left" of the waveform back up to almost full scale.

This image, Exhibit G, Demo A(as heard above):

 should clarify what most of what is sold to the public as "Digitally Remastered!!" has really had done to it.  Within Exhibit G, you have on top, the original waveform(or your song!), in the middle, limiting and/or compression reduces the amplitude of the selected loudest portion, and on bottom, the remaining waveform, the quieter portion, has gain applied to bring it back up to full scale - LOUDER.

Not only is this "remaster" louder, but it sounds different - even if the effect is more subtle in real life than in my basic demos.

Let's listen to just a snippet of "Spanish Fly" - first, the original:

Secondly, the "remaster":

Now, initially, a lot of you will be impressed - don't try to deny it! - by how much louder the remastered snippet is than that of the original.  This is the case especially if you are viewing this blog on a small mobile device through earbuds.  But if you turn it down to a comfortable volume - or to match the volume of the original - you will notice a lot missing, plus some tonality that is not present in the original.

You might even mistake these additional harmonics as revealing elements previously unheard in the original version. All you are hearing is what I demonstrated, at the top of this section, in my simple 440Hz waveform demos and illustrations - stuff that shouldn't be there.

And remember: Making something louder is not remastering.  The only reason you might more readily hear background instrumentation, or other sounds(fingers on strings, the squeak of the kick drum pedal), is because something was sacrificed - very often the louder transients, hard limited or heavily compressed away, so that these quieter elements could be elevated to make use of the new headroom.  But there is a reason some elements are louder or softer than others in a song, why a chorus or refrain is usually LOUDER than the verses: it's called emotional context.  If everything is made equally loud, and pushed up to full scale, from the lead vocals to the percussion to the melody to the backup vocals, it's not natural, and can get fatiguing after awhile.

As a side note, I need to point out that digital audio, despite it's proven sonic advantages, utilizes a lot of the same terms to convey different meanings.  One such word is "compression".   It can refer either to data compression - which is what lossy codecs such as MP3 perform to make an audio file smaller to fit more of them on a digital player, or, to dynamic range compression(the topic of this blog), where the louder parts of audio are made quieter.  Please make a note of this so you are not confused!  :)

Monday, October 20, 2014

Welcome To A Safe Haven To Discuss Issues Related To Fidelity in Popular Music!

THIS BLOG exists to explore and discuss modern trends in the sound quality of the recorded music the majority of consumers listen to and buy - either in physical format at a store or via digital download service.

I created "Loudness, Remasters, & Musical Fidelity" out of the need to provide, for myself and like-minded individuals, a place to discuss such trends, after experiencing much bias against such discussion on industry-related private discussion forums as the Steve Hoffman Forums and Gearslutz(yes, that is the name of a pro-audio discussion forum!) and on Usenet-based open newsgroups.

Yes, I, personally, am strongly against the trends in modern recorded music: to make the finished album/product as loud as possible above all other consideration, and to "remaster" existing & legacy material(from late 20th century and backwards) to match current releases in perceived loudness when they are played back by consumers.

So if you feel like I do, and want to explore ways to let the music industry know we're TIRED of just "noise with a beat"!!, here's the place to have such discourse.

And again, WELCOME!!