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back to article Why modern music sounds rubbish

A few year ago Bob Dylan echoed a complaint that many of you share with me from time to time: music sounds rubbish. Dylan hates recording these days, because the outcome is too loud and it's too bright. As he said: "You listen to these modern records, they're atrocious, they have sound all over them. There's no definition of …

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Mushroom

There was...

Years ago there was a TV documentary or something about/featuring this. A sound engineer was recalling a story about a record executive complaining that just finished Pearl Jam (for example) master tape wasn't as loud as the new Metallica (for example) album and could they mix it again to make everything louder.

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Trollface

Eh? is for Apple

There ought to be a sticker on iPods "Louder does not mean better".

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I know the problem

the dobly stopped them turning the amps up to 11

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Megaphone

iRoglyphics

// There ought to be a sticker on iPods "Louder does not mean better". //

Can you express that as an icon? (Preferably in, er, loud colors?)

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I've noticed it too

Now I cannot listen to music for long periods like I used to, it's too grating on the ears. I'm not sure though if it's just me getting old or recordings being massaged into square waves.

It'd be interesting to see what this loudness crap does with lossy encoding, since it must be generating some interesting additional noise with all the clipping.

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sorry to hear that

you are bothered by the extra harmonics in digitally recorded/mastered/stored music.

not really the industries fault though.

you have non standard ears.

even crappily sampled audio - say 20k samples/second would introduce harmonic distortion _starting_ at 60khz. hiven that even an asthmatic child (i.e. those with the greatest acuity, outside the fantasy world of the audiophile) would not be able to reliably detect anything above 22-25khz

so the real question is... are there many bats in your family tree?

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It's unlikely to be digital artefacts

Since they don't exist for all practial purposes - and I am not an audiophile or have expensive equipment. I don't believe any of my equipment is capable of producing much above 20KHz and I probably can't hear anything above about 16 anyway.

I can't believe that anyone can listen to the CD version of something like Death Magnetic, then the Guitar Hero version and tell me there is nothing wrong with the CD. It's mashed.

I love dubstep too, so it's not just loudness. It's something wrong with the mix.

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Paging Mr. Nyquist

Not sure how you did that calculation. With a 20kHz sample rate, you can't accurately reproduce anything above 10kHz due to aliasing. And given practical limits on filters, you probably have to limit the input to around 8kHz or so.

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The title is required, and must not be too loud

nice article in soundonsound about this http://www.soundonsound.com/sos/sep11/articles/loudness.htm

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Unhappy

Self fulfilling prophesy

The problem is that the genie is out of the bottle and no chart acts are likely to change. Because heavy compression means that your song sounds louder anyone who bucks that trend to give more dynamic range is by definition going to sound quieter on the radio than their contemporaries. Quieter means fewer sales. Not a chart band, but Iggy's Raw Power remaster that was released a few years ago was notorious for this - everything was clipped and unlistenable.

Can't see the attachment from work, so apologies if I'm repeating what's posted.

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... only to a point

"Not a chart band ... ... - everything was clipped and unlistenable."

The second clause may substantially explain the first. In the end, the public does not base music purchases on meter readings.

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Coat

Interesting

I found the **original** mix of Iggy's Raw power to be unlistenable also. Perhaps this problem with the original source?

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FAIL

I dount it: too many cloth ears...

The way "loudness" is achieved is also a lot to do with the use of compression: signal processing that reduces the difference between loudest and quietest bits of the music. Bearing in mind that the maximum is a fixed limit before distortion sets in it means that compressed music sounds louder because you have a higher average volume. I understand the same trick is used to make the adverts on TV sound louder than the programs.

Although compression does have its musical uses, it has a definite tendency to take all the life out of the music: especially with physically played instruments, whether acoustic or electric, where the control of the volume is an important part of the expression of the instrument. That's not saying that digital electronic instruments can't have the dynamics, just that its less prone to come with the territory.

Radio is usually compressed anyway BTW.

I dunno, kids these days etc etc etc...

A lovely illustration of this phenomenum is with graphic equalisers... I remember seeing one in a friends car many years ago with all the sliders turned up to maximum. What this does is to make the music louder, but with a rather uneven and slightly distorted sound. I tried to persuade him that he should return them all to neutral and just turn the volume up a bit, but what happens is that the user pushes up one slider, sounds a bit better 'cos its louder, pushes up another, and soon they are all back to max again...

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Holmes

I dunno, kids these days etc etc etc...

45 discs were also compressed and they ended up doing it on cassette tapes because the noise became audible during the quiet parts and because most cassettes were played on sh*t boom boxes...

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re: graphic equalizers

"A lovely illustration of this phenomenum is with graphic equalisers... I remember seeing one in a friends car many years ago with all the sliders turned up to maximum. What this does is to make the music louder, but with a rather uneven and slightly distorted sound. I tried to persuade him that he should return them all to neutral and just turn the volume up a bit, but what happens is that the user pushes up one slider, sounds a bit better 'cos its louder, pushes up another, and soon they are all back to max again..."

Sounds like your friend wasn't really clear on the concept regarding graphic EQ units; either that, or he just had a tin ear.

I've also wondered about the point of graphic EQs in car stereos, anyway. In a home setting where background noise can be controlled to a point, sure; but in a car, with all that uncontrollable background noise -- even in today's much-quieter cars? Not so much.

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Little to do with background noise

Several decades as an audio engineer have shown me that wherever a graphic EQ isn't behind a locked door, most or all of the controls will be maxed out, even in theaters and concert halls where background noise isn't an issue. Many times I've earned my fees by simply restoring the controls to their proper, usually minimal, levels -- and hiding the EQ behind a panel.

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Windows

Graphic Equalizers

I use the equalizers in my car because I'm more than a bit deaf. It shapes the music up like my hearing aids would. (Hearing aids in a car are no fun -- they amplify the road noise as well as the music.) I have the high frequencies all the way up, mid frequencies normal, low frequencies down a bit.

And who expects a concert experience in a car, anyway?

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@Dagg, Dolby NR

"most cassettes were played on sh*t boom boxes..."

That's why Dolby Noise Reduction was invented. Amp up the trebles while recording, then lower the trebles during playback, so the cassette's "shhhhhh" sound is lowered. Even if your cassette player didn't have Dolby support, you could get the same effect by lowering the treble setting. :)

Mine's the one with the Walkman...

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Anonymous Coward

BBC preserves dynamic range

The BBC has a long tradition of using more dynamic range than U.S. broadcasters. If you can listen in a quiet environment, it is a much better sound. If you can't, you lose the whispers. I envision a time when processors on portable devices will be fast enough to allow an on-the-fly compression adjustment. Producers will still have to be persuaded to leave the full dynamic range on the original material.

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Anonymous Coward

Equalizers good for old time radio

I listen to a lot of old radio serials and, for many, graphic equalization is a must to clean up hiss and even mute overly bass recordings.

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Megaphone

Peak Programme Meters

Decades ago the BBC developed 'peak programme meters' to use in studios so that engineers could adjust levels to preserve the transient peaks in the music.

US broadcasters used 'volume level' meters which respond to average sound levels.Even in the 70s audio enthusiasts complained of over compressed music. The problem is that most music is heard in noisy environments where music with a wide dynamic range is inaudible during quiet passages. A serious listener in a quiet environment (eg in the concert hall or in a quiet living room with a good hi-fi system) can enjoy the wide dynamic range.

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US radio and car radios

Y'ever hear any old rock'n'roll records from the early through mid/late '60s on a proper modern stereo, and notice how flat and "punchy" the bass sounds? I wondered about it for years until a friend of mine who mixed sound for clubs and concerts explained how the "car radio mix" works -- that is, that most rock'n'roll records made back then were listened to by teenagers in their cars, and so the records were mixed to sound good within the limited range of the speakers in car radios and small record players.

I drove a '68 Mustang during part of high school and all of college; the old 'Stang had the original factory-installed Philco AM/FM radio with its 7-inch oval speaker installed in the dash, pointing upwards so that the sound reflected off the windshield glass and disperesed around the interior. An unintended --- but pleasing -- by-product of this was that all that space under and behind the dash not taken up by instrumentation and the glove compartment acted as a kind of crude bass-reflex enclosure, making the mid-low and low end sound a little bit fatter. More "modern" recordings sounded a bit "boomy", but any records made before around 1967 or '68 sounded really nice -- while 24-bit remastered CD reissues of stuff like early Beatles or Paul Revere & The Raiders sounded really flat on my home component stereo system; and I'd find myself edging up the low/mid and low end on my EQ to try and squeeze a little more bass out of it.

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Boffin

Mp3 and compression

Isnt a lot of the current dynamically compressed music driven by the fact that most people listen to everything in lnitwit rate mp3 (or some other lossy format) which achieves file size compression partially Through dynamic compression?

Because producers know this, they're pre-compressing the tracks so the can at least controll how the mp3 will sound

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Simply put...

...no. Lossy audio compression formats do not use dynamic range compression.

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Confusing your compressions

Dynamic range compression and MP3 lossy compression have absolutely nothing to do with one another. They are completely and utterly different things. CDs and other earlier forms of recording have used dynamic range compression. In essence it simply means making quieter sections louder. It was done for good reasons - so that quiet passages could be heard in noisy environments and for radio broadcasting, and for bad reasons. The latter is essentially to make records sound "brighter" or, some might say, less easy to ignore.

MP3 lossy compression is a completely different thing - it basically loses less audible features. An MP3 file can exceed the dynamic range of a CD as it does not use linear encoding.

Anyway, this is hardly a new phenomenon. It's called the "loudness wars" and arose from music producers wanting more of an instant hit. As it happens, the dynamic range on almost all contemporary music is nothing compared to some symphonic pieces which truly only work in quiet rooms or on headphones.

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Pint

Too true

I myself dabble in the world of music production and always fascinated to see what makes a track 'listenable' and can only hope that one day we will move away from making our tracks "as loud as possible" and focus more on making the sound as "dynamic" as possible.

I feel that the wave of American Punk Rock has helped influence this whole idea of making music as loud as possible.

One of the early examples of the "Loudness Wars" is Red Hot Chilli Peppers - Californication, to the point that even the listener could notice that it was a poorly produced album.

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Unhappy

Guess I'm not an audiophile then

I quite like Californication.

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Megaphone

punk? not necessarily

The first wave of punk may have taken massive volume to a whole new level (so to speak), but let's not forget the pioneers in the field of loud-assed rock'n'roll: the major stars of the late '60s -- especially Led Zeppelin, Jimi Hendrix, the Grateful Dead (and their famous "Wall Of Sound" system* in the early '70s) , and last but not least, The Who.

Jesus H. Christ, The Muthafuckin' Who. As I recall, The Who were listed in the 1974 Guinness Book as the loudest band in the world, clocking something like 140db at front-row center. And, god damn, was it ever fucking awesome.

Still, I found the sheer fat mass of volume in the Sex Pistols' tracks -- especially "God Save The Queen" and "Pretty Vacant" -- to be strangely pleasant and cathartic, somehow.

Bullhorn icon, because... well, it's loud, but sounds really trashy.

.

*Grateful Dead "Wall Of Sound" setup, circa 1974:

http://savoies-pix.chez-alice.fr/personnel/gd/gd_wall_of_sound.jpg

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Flame

I can attest to that

I saw The Who (well, the surviving half) a few years back and it was LOUD. 140db sounds about right... I think the standard example is "jet engine at 10 feet distance".

I've been into classical/traditional music for the last decade but I would LOVE IT if I could enjoy rock/metal concerts without clarity-destroying earplugs. I used to play that stuff... rehearsals were a pain in the ass. Blame the drums. It was barely tolerable at first when our drummer had a basic 5-piece set... but he expanded to about 7 drums and 7 cymbals, so we had to keep turning up the guitars, then the drummer wanted to be louder, and by that time he had mics for demo recording, so all he had to do was turn up the PA. And the two band members who couldn't be bothered with earplugs, they developed high-freq hearing loss and thought everything sounded fine. Jesus Fucking H. Christ.

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Earplugs

I rarely leave the house without my Musician's earplugs - no distortion, only quieter, but then again I work as both a sound engineer and pyrotechnician so hearing protection is really important

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Anonymous Coward

What? Could you say that again?

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Coat

Optional? Finally?

>> I quite like Californication.

Without wishing to be insulting, I'll observe that "quite liking" any non-standard form of fornication probably qualifies you as a something-phile, but not an audiophile.

I was just leaving anyway...

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I've seen The Who, too...

What?

I said, "I've seen The Who, too."

WHAT?

Oh, never mind.

But, seriously... I was actually surprised to find out that it wasn't stage volume that murdered Townshend's hearing -- he used filters, as I recall -- but his use of headphones in the studio. About ten, fifteen years back, I read an interview with him where he describes what happened, and about how he was under a doctor's orders to limit his studio/headphone time to no more than three hours at a stretch to keep his tinnitus under control. I wasn't surprised, back in the mid '70s, to see Moon going with a set of full-cup headphones for his monitor mix on stage, likely to keep Townshend and Entwistle from crushing his head with volume.

During the last four or five years of their career, the Grateful Dead switched from fold-back stage monitors to filtered earpieces to get their monitor mixes to try and cut down their stage volume, which Jerry Garcia described as "like standing in the middle of a hurricane."

I was surprised to find the Stones not nearly as loud as I'd expected -- they were loud, for sure, playing to a football stadium -- but, bascially "average" live rock'n'roll volume. The Dead, the Who, and Slade were all louder.

Pink Floyd turned out to be one of the "quieter" bands I've heard, largely, I think, due to their playing style and the wide dynamic range of their material -- they'd smash my head open with "One Of These Days" and then totally mellow out with "Fat Old Sun". The last time I saw them, in '94, they were playing a lot of stuff from "Momentary Lapse" and "Division Bell", so they sounded a little more crash-bangy than usual.

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Happy

Over compression

It is interesting to hear other people start talking about over-compression, it is something I have been complaining about for years. The first place that I noticed it was in TV advertising. Even the advertising of their own programs that the BBC does. Interestingly, I noticed it for a very mundane reason. I'm a bit of an insomniac and whilst watching late night TV at a volume designed not to disturb my flat-mate, I would notice that when adverts came on the volume would noticeably jump. It would actually jump far enough for me to dive for the mute button.

With music I think things are a little different. I haven't tried this, but I'm pretty sure I can find multiple tracks from the 80s that are heavily compressed. I'm sure the backing tracks to the stock, aitken and waterman manufactured stuff was heavily compressed. I'm also sure there are other genres, maybe punk, that would also be heavily compressed. But in the 70s and 80s we had a genre that was the antithesis of compression - prog rock. My suspicion is that a lot of musicians who weren't doing prog were being influenced by it, and dynamics were therefore much more important.

The trend to more heavy compression probably comes about through various routes. Listening in cars could be one, the proliferation of cheap DACs which lack a decent dynamic range may be another. As would be listening to music on cheap walkmans (or worse still cheap walkmans with cheap speakers), or cheap ghetto blasters. The accessibility of cheap electronic compressors in the 2000s may have perpetuated the problem.

The solution, at least to me, is the solution to all the music industries woes. Live. If band's begin and end with the live experience, they can't be cheated by pirates, and they have to get a good live sound, which probably won't be compressed to hell and back.

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RE: Over compression

It definitely goes back to the 60s, there's an interview with 'Big Brother and the Holding Company' talking about mixing their first mainstream studio album; paraphrasing "every time the needle would go into the red, the engineers jumped. We wanted it in the red all the time, they wanted it in the green".

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Boffin

re: over comprssion

I certainly notice a real difference in audio quality between the 70's prog stuff (Yes, Genesis et. al) that seems to be much 'quieter' than the modern stuff from prople like Spocks Beard or Marillion. It also sounds much better at higher volumes (even in the car!).

I don't really listen to a whole lot of modern rock or pop for comparison though..

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Prog Rock all the way

I think this really goes down to the equipment that Genesis had, compared to the equipment Spocks Beard have.

And by the way, may I just say, you sir have a great taste in music :)

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Big Brother & The Holding Company...

...what?

I said, "Big Brother & The Holding Company".

WHAT?

I _said_ ...oh, never mind.

Seriously, though... keeping your levels in the red isn't necessarily a bad thing; it's when your levels start "pegging" that you have problems. As a hobby, I used to mix sound -- for PA and tapes -- for a friend's pickup band at their regular Saturday night basement jam parties. One of the guitarists was also a professional sound tech, and one valuable bit of advice he passed on was that if I wanted to mix and record it loud, the thing to do was have my levels "tickling the red" -- that is, to keep my levels in a space at the top end of the green, and occasionally nudging into the red, and that mixing totally in the red ran the risk of "pegging" and causing distortion.

This advice did me well in my years of bootleg taping from the audience at Grateful Dead shows, where I used either Sony D5 or D6 rigs, and the sound -- as usual for live performances -- was dynamic and constantly changing. Keeping it totally in the green produced a tape with slightly weak levels and a "distant" sound, totally in the red produced oversaturation and distortion, but taking care to "tickle the red" -- what I called the "Goldilocks Zone" -- gave me a tape that was just right.

Back to Big Brother & The Holding Company, though... "Cheap Thrills" is one of my favorite albums of all time -- not just for Joplin's singing and Sam Houston Andrew's ass-ripping guitar playing, but because it's so goddamn' bone-crushing loud -- and yet, so clean. It's loud as shit, but doesn't sound trashy or messy; it doesn't sound like "hamburger", as my sound-tech buddy put it.

Another example: In the summer of '75, just out of high school, I went to see Slade -- opening for Aerosmith -- at the old Capital Centre in the Washington, DC 'burbs (unlike 90% of the kids at that show, my friends and I were there primarily to see Slade), and I was amazed at not only the massive volume, but how each band sounded. Slade were actually perceptibly louder than Aerosmith, but they sounded far cleaner and caused no discomfort; every instrument was clearly discernible in the mix. Aerosmith, on the other hand, just sounded like a bunch of noise, and not in a good way; though not as loud as Slade, Aerosmith made my ears hurt. I spent most of the Aerosmith sets either standing towards the back of the hall or on the concourse, because that was the only place where my ears didn't hurt -- and also because, to be quite honest, musically, Slade ate Aerosmith's lunch that night.

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@launcap & mattyrasker

Glad to notice that people still listen to the right kind of music :-)

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FAIL

And sometimes they turn the loudness up to 11....

And cause the audio to "Clip" i.e digital distortion, The last Metallica album Death Magnetic being a notable example (Lars claimed it sounded Great!!), but there's no doubt lots more examples other people can point out.

I'm certainly no audiophile, but I'm all for turning up the volume myself over having it done for me to get sound lost sound quality back.

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Anonymous Coward

The mastering of Death Magnetic is horrible!

It's absurd that after buying the album, I have to resort to illegal downloading Guitar Hero rips, to get a non-distorted version.

http://www.musicradar.com/news/guitars/blog-death-magnetic-sounds-better-in-guitar-hero-173961

Show and tell: http://www.youtube.com/watch?fmt=18&gl=GB&hl=en-GB&v=DRyIACDCc1I

AC, because I haven't been able to come up with a cool handle yet ;-)

Post anonymously: Checked

Error message: You have not yet created a handle. Please supply one in the form below.

Wait, what?

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Megaphone

If it’s too loud, you’re too old!

Seriously though, I think the trend is already shifting. My main music of choice is technical metal, and the production values have gone through the roof over the last 10 or so years. Compare Gojira’s ‘The Way of All Flesh’ to Meshuggah’s ‘Destroy, Erase, Improve’ for a prime example of that. What I don’t quite get is where/when the sound is getting mushed. The CD of Slayer’s ‘Reign in Blood’ I bought in the early 90s seems to have way better production value that the copy I bought a couple of years ago (someone spilt wine on the inlay of my original, I’m not normally that anal but this is Slayer). That just makes no sense to me.

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It wasn't a copy (not really)

That is, it wasn't an exact copy, even though the digital nature of CDs makes this trivial.

"The CD of Slayer’s ‘Reign in Blood’ I bought in the early 90s seems to have way better production value that the copy I bought a couple of years ago"

That's because somewhere in between the first purchase and the second somebody "remastered" the album, i.e., ran it through compressors and limiters and reduced the dynamic range to nothing.

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Agreed!

While I'm not a huge fan of "modern" metal -- though I really dug Black Sabbath and Uriah Heep as a teenager -- I'm definitely of the "If It's Too Loud, You're Too Old" school.

The key here is quality (see my previous comment re: Slade vs. Aerosmith). Compare, say, the mix on Blue Cheer's "Vincebus Eruptum" vs. The Who's "Who's Next". Now, I think "Vincebus Eruptum" is a helluvan album, but the mix is totally hamburger, whereas on "Who's Next", they're loud enough to peel the paint off the walls, but every instrument can be heard clearly and cleanly, so that when I go to crank it up a notch or two for the big finish on "Won't Get Fooled Again", the sound doesn't turn to hamburger.

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No...

...modern music sounds rubbish simply because it is.

Full of (c)rap 'tastic lyrics and percussion samples (clap, finger snap, cymbal, rides etc. etc.) - listen to a Neyo, Tinnie, Derulo, Chipmunk or any of a dozen other would be's of the same style and you'll swear they simply twidled a knob and recorded the next track.

I'm sick of the fake caribbean or south london accents, drawly vocals and general crappiness of what this country is putting out. Even the pop bands have resorted to hiring in one of the (c)rap performers to add something to make their latest release appeal to the yoof culture of this country. Sad really.

At least the rest of Europe and the USA (mostly) doesn't seem to be overun with this stuff yet. Give me my Nightwish, Within Temptation, Kamelot, Lacuna Coil and the rest.

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Ru
Stop

Not quite

This trend also affects older music (that may or may not be crap) that is remastered and rereleased, only with less dynamic range.

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Anonymous Coward

Have you *heard* Europop lately?

I think you might be suffering from perception bias.

90% of US music falls into either the 'urban' 'country' category, or is badly produced Nu Metal / Punk that also suffers from poor production. The bands you cite are not mainstream, and as soon as you depart from the mainstream in this country you'll also find plenty of decent music.

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Anonymous Coward

Erm...

Genre has no bearing on it, generally. I don't listen to chart music either, but the likes of Within Temptation and Nightwish are just as guilty as chart acts in turning it up to 11 in the studio. Compare Nightwish's production values with a quality recording of some classical music and it's blatant.

If anything, metal acts are just as guilty as the purveyors of drum and bass.

Production values were poor in the 80s, and then everything was looking up for a while. Now; things have slumped again. Badly. I can't help but think that maybe the industry realises that most of the time people listen through headphones and computer speakers or in the car, so figure that good production isn't worth bothering with.

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Classical music instead

This doesn't effect classical music - just listen that that instead duh.

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Agreed, but

there is a not dissimilar effect. Digital recordings seem to feel they must demonstrate the *full* dynamic range available. So anything marked pp is played pppp; and ff becomes ffff. While this may sometimes sound terrific in the quiet of your own listening room, playing it in a noisy environment (such as a car) becomes a problem. You turn the volume up as you strain to catch the quiet passages, only to have your eardrums assailed by the louder bits.

I think ClassicFM apply compression to their broadcast signal, to reduce this problem.

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