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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Loudness war?

The only people who refer to it as a "Loudness War" are beardy weirdy real ale drinking music puritans who would rather audio signal compression didn't exist AT ALL!... and for whom I couldn't give a toss about.

It's not that I disagree with their sentiments though, but I think there is a wider issue which isn't being addressed... and that is the emergence and domination of electronic based music forms over the past 2 decades, and the relative stagnation of more traditional "band" music (i.e. Rock, metal, punk, emo, whatever...)

Rock (n' Roll) enjoyed being the coolest sound around for near on 40 years, but now has to compete against RnB/Hip Hop, Electronica (encompassing DnB, dubstep, techno, etc.)... so what can it, as a genre, and it's proponents do?

Well, it's stuffed in terms of any kind of real innovation - bands are still typically 1 singer, 1 guitarist, 1 bassist and 1x drummer, with the techniques for playing the same as they always were. The amps and effect pedals have also changed very little over the years and so the sounds bands can make are similarly limited to the "same old, same old" sounds.

Heavy compression, in essence, is one of the few areas of the music production process that Rock can "do" to compete.... and if you want to know why electronic music is heavily compressed, see Clubs/DJs/the-necessity-to-have-some-kind-of-standardised-dynamic-level-for-the-benefit-of-mixing

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No.

I couldn't disagree more. On every point.

Look at the number of tracks being released by conventional independent bands playing 'real' instruments, and it dwarves the number being released 20 years ago. You are suffering from perception bias, or maybe just not keeping up with the enormously vibrant indie music scene. Live music is bigger than ever before in this country, and for every chart single released, there are a greater number of non-commercial acts putting stuff out.

Hip Hop has now been around for 30 years, so is hardly a new thing eclipsing other music.

'Electronica' (as you seem to label all electronic music) has been around longer... close to 40 years now. Unless you somehow want to exclude synth-based prog-rock bands of the 70s and the likes of Kraftwerk?

DJs most certainly do not need a shared compression standard in order to mix. [That's what separates a DJ from a bloke who plays records to people]. And indeed there is no shared compression standard between electronic acts. eg: Despite cited mutual inspiration, you couldn't get much further apart than a NIN and a Numan recording.

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Boffin

'Electronica'...

... as in, music composed specifically for reproduction by electronic waveform generators, has been around since the early 1950s and maybe earlier. Stockhausen, "Electronic Studies", 1954.

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No, "Electronica" (note the A on the end) is generally used to refer to contemporary electronic dance music. The works of Stockhausen and that of other proponents of musique concrète and elektronische Musik, would probably be best described as Electroacoustic music.

The term "electronic" music however (without the A suffix) would encompass them all.

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You've completely missed my point, and as such, have decided to nit-pick at the peripheries of my argument.

*slow applause*

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FAIL

Not just modern music, modern tv too

I''m reminded of trying to watch the (turned out to be atrocious) US version of Skins (that was actually filmed in Canada! go figure)

But kept on having to tweak the volume because they used automatic dynamic volume compression on the damn show; whenever someone stopped speaking for half a second the backround sounds would suddenly start becomming louder to the point where it sounded as loud as the talking did, until someone started talking again and the automatic dynamic volume would quickly react - making the average volume of the entire show near the clipping level.

Honestly, those sound tech numpties need a swift kick in the nuts for allowing this kind of crap to happen.

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Go

Not always a bad thing, I say

Then again, without over engineered loudness there wouldn't be a Yo-Yo Ma or a Julian Lloyd Webber. Or at least, they wouldn't be famous.

The fact is that in a live performance, the cello just doesn't shine as much as in a CD recording. Purist, of course, will disagree.

But anyways, back to Mettalica etal

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Agree

Yup. I too have noticed the disgusting amount of processing that goes on these days, both on CD's and radio. I have reel-to-reel recordings of old vinyl 45's and they sound great. Shove a so-called "re-mastered" version from a compilation CD into Audacity and it looks and sounds as flat as the proverbial pancake. As for radio......well, I don't listen much, as I find it painful. Some stations can be heard "pumping". Truly awful. Again, my old radio recordings outshine loads of new stuff. DAB in the UK is also one of the worst cons ever pulled on the great British listening public. Promises of near-CD quality but what do we get? Still the same old compression and processing and ever-decreasing bit rates that actually make it sound worse than FM. Use-adjustable compression was originally promised for DAB. Whatever happened to that? Current sound quality is at an all-time low in my opinion.

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FM

I can happily accept that FM radio is compressed to buggery, after all most of the time it's piped to crappy speakers and in cars where the background noise levels are high. I do wish CDs sounded better though.

That SOS article linked above is certainly worth a read - it shows that there is a similar misconception around the consequences of the loudness wars and that it's not as simple as you might expect.

Whatever the actual cause is (dynamic range, RMS curve ratio etc.) the result is that a lot of music is not suitable for sustained listening any more. Music industry, please fix it!

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Anonymous Coward

My 70s Quad system ...

No loudness switch, no tone controls (they are switched out) and valves ... played through electrostat speakers. I inherited it. Could never afford it. Sounds lush ... and I can still get valves no

trouble.

BUT! Every modern recording sounds garishly awful. The system is ruthless in pointing up the faults.

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Pint

Re: My 70s Quad system

My trusty old Quad 33 amp shows up plenty of shortcomings in modern recordings, which is why I mostly listen to vinyl played from a similarly aged Thorens deck.

If you want to enjoy music like in the good old days, get off your arse and go watch some-one doing it for real. Just hope whoever's on the mixing desk can cut the mustard!

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Anonymous Coward

Real Music

You guys are far too modern! Try going to the mechanical music museum and you can hear the music as it was originally played on the original instrument. Punched card systems have prior art!

I must admit, I still like my Tannoy speakers from the 70's. Digital Music(?) is for the inexperienced young.

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AVLS function in playback device- simple solution.

I want to second a point made in an above post. That is, publish music with high dynamic range, and allow those users who want it to use the built-in AVLS (Automatic Volume Limiting System) of their audio player. Seemingly every CD/Minidisc walkman seemed to have this feature back in the 90s.

I like high dynamic range in an ideal world ( good headphones or quiet room) but some situations do benefit from AVLS - prime example would be watching films without disturbing housemates / neighbours. Or hell, stopping the tv adverts from disturbing your sofa snooze.

[In fact, I would enjoy reading a separate Reg article about trends in dynamic range in movie audio... presumably due to shift from Analogue to Digital, as outlined in another comment above. Seems it's DVD players that really need an AVLS button. (Big quality speakers: Check. Remote house in rural Devon: er no)]

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Pint

A comment on the ultimate reference...

I went to a live symphony orchestra performance once. It was disgusting. Don't get me wrong, the sound quality was more or less perfect (by definition). What almost made me almost vomit was having to watch the entire brass section constantly emptying huge amounts of spittle out of their instruments onto the floor. They were all doing it, all through the entire performance. Gross!

Just saying...

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Anonymous Coward

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Would you rather they were blowing bubbles.

Personally, that's one of my favorite scenes from the end of Mr. Holland's Opus.

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Anonymous Coward

old vs new

Compare the difference in sound on old Iron Maiden CD's vs new Iron Maiden CD's...

So I spend $xx on CD and get poor quality or I obtain from the t'internet (legal downloads only of course)...and get poor MP3...If I'm paying for it I want quality dammit.

Yes I have good audio equipment

Yes I would prefer SACD or FLAC (if downloaded) but I can't always get them...

Yes price can be an issue - especially in NZ...where a SACD can cost well over $45

Yes Anon as I meant to be working...

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Compression knob?

Why don't more mp3/ogg players/car-radios feature a compression knob as well as a volume knob? When I listen to classical music on an aircraft or an audio-book on a train, I want to crush the dynamic range, to compete with the background noise but not be deafened. But I want to hear the same music with full range on my home HiFi.

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Anonymous Coward

It's an oild recording trick to...

... make any 'product' sound 'better' on consumer playback devices and has been going on for many, many years.

When people first listen to something, the brighter sound tends to be more attractive. Continued listening becomes uncomfortable, eventually. Ever tried auditioning a cheap set of speakers and then a quality pair, on the same amp in the same room? If not, go do it.

If you play a well mastered disc on the cheap speakers, it will sound less appealing than on the better ones. If you play a toppy and bright disc on the cheap speakers, it will sound pleasant at first, however, it will sound quite a lot less pleasing on the good ones.

Also, much modern 'music' is merely performance and has not much musicality. e.g. Coltrane vs Lil Wayne, etc.

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Facepalm

of matched impedance...

Volume, dynamic range, equalization and frequency response arguments have been around for as long as we have been recording.. ie. since the 1880s!

When "electrical" recording was invented in the 1920s, essentially by Western Electric working with the Victor Talking Machine Co. (which became part of RCA), many commentators and critics complained of the unnatural brightness of the new recordings.

Suddenly recordings had upper frequencies approaching 9khz ... unheard of in the acoustic era.. but these new recordings sounded dreadful on older gramophones/phonographs. Only newer gramophones with improved horns (look up orthophonic or folded horns) revealed the full beauty of the new electrical recording.

And with electrical recording came equalization which has been an essential part of the recording process ever since.

In the 1950s came the battle of equalizer... as the major record companies each adopted different equalization schemes ..ultimately settled by the adoption of the RIAA standard.

There really is nothing new...

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Anonymous Coward

Until The Light Takes Us

I've heard this argument over and over. The answer is sometimes you are right and sometimes you aren't, it really depends on your purpose and outcome.

Who even cares, why not use a pair of military pilot headphones to scream into instead of a microphone. Record the whole damn thing off a baby monitor, or cut the bandwidth to 5KHz via a phone call.

Whole people don't care about whatever other people say, so I wouldn't call that guilt. The metal industry isn't guilty of anything. If you want crisp drums pop on your cannons of 1812 LP album (if it don't have dust and scratches now), but don't bitch about the way things are done, when they are done that way on purpose. Just like in video where you can enhance the color or damage the video, so too can you enhance tracks or damage them.

"Until The Light Takes Us" To understand fully, Watch this video, Learn.

The other side of this coin is when the bands popping up today use whatever they have financially, and it determines their sound quality as well as style.

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Compression

Compression was first introduced for AM radio, because if the signal was more or less the same amplitude then the current drawn by the transmitter aoutput valves would be fairly constant, thus extending the life of these expensive parts.

Along came CD with a dynamic range of 94dB so what pray tell is the point of compressing the material to withing 0.5 db of maximum ? You are losing the benefit. Thankfully "serious" music i.e. classical or jazz, does not in the main suffer from this blight.

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Trollface

Maybe 'fashion' is the answer?

Maybe one way to try and move back to a semblance of decent recordings, compressed or not, is to make that the 'New' thing in music/recordings. Some sort of trendy badge that effective says 'Hey, I'm a class band/artist who cares about my audience and my music. Here is a recognised stamp of approval to show this.'

I see this was mentioned earlier, but if some of the industry legends, artists and producers alike, where to get behind this maybe there would be a chance. Especially now that compressed digital is becoming more and more popular. This would also open up the 'audiophile' market for decent computer speakers, headphones etc once this mass education starts hitting the unknowing.

Most people don't get this discussion. So make it trendy/fashionable/requirement. Sort of what Intel did with Intel Inside.

When the 'Recorded with AudioPortal(tm) excellence' stamps start to appear everywhere, as long as I get my 1p commission....:)

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MJI
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Car audio

I fitted some decent speakers and a mid range amp.

But I do not own much new music, but the car seems to manage a decent dynamic range

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Pint

Louder doesn't mean better!

I've said this years ago when I was about 15, fellas would drive around listening to banging music screwed up on their 400watt amps, sitting in their car the sound was all distorted and I couldn't tell which tune if any they were playing. At that age I built some low wattage amps that provided good all round sound, I avoided those cheap in-ear headphones and bought the really big ones that could cover all the audible frequencies, And fifteen years later I still have a similar set up. I have an old amp with variable volume, bass and treble controls, it even has a loud button, and people are amazed when they listen to music through the huge headphones at a normal volume, everything is there, I have to turn the bass to normal "the middle of the dial" and everything sounds fantastic.

A pint, because today is Thursday and tomorrow is Friday.

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Unhappy

Maybe 5-10 years time

You're right, the sound quality of modern recordings is nothing short of appalling. Muffled drums, awful compression artifacts, blatant clipping and digital distortion, and a flat wall of fatiguing and lifeless sound as a result. The problem is that people therefore become fatigued and hence bored of music much faster now, hence music has far less value as a result. And if it has less value, you're less likely to pay for it.

The fact is that the "loudness war" exists to supposedly boost sales, yet they've continued to fall as loudness has increased. Don't get me wrong, I'm not saying that it's a concious decision that people make, but if you "pirate" an album so see what it's like and it turns out that it sounds fantastic, aren't you more likely to support that artist by then buying the album? Certainly moreso than if you pirate an album and it turns out to just be a wall of muffled, distorted, ear-destroying mush?

Ultimately, the thing that will end the loudness war eventually is ReplayGain (or variants of it). Imagine a world in 5-10 years time when iTunes automatically volume levels your music, Windows Media Player also does it, as does Winamp, plus all your portable devices also volume level the music automatically. Volume becomes irrelevant as the louder you master the music, the more iTunes etc. will simply turn it down to compensate. Hence we move to a situation where volume becomes pointless - and you can master music to sound great whilst knowing that it won't sound quieter when listened to. That's what I'm waiting for!!

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Facepalm

And the reasons for the loudness wars are bunk

Check this piece, which looks at Jack White and his defence of it, and also why the record industry thinks it needs to crank the loudness (but doesn't actually, it's all just group think).

http://gearburn.com/2011/07/jack-white-you%E2%80%99re-a-musical-genius-but-youre-wrong/

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It's a good and well written article by an obviously knowledgeable author. Sadly, the comments reveal a different truth about the people who actually buy (?) music these days.

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MJI
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Scared of buying music now.

With all this compression what can I safely buy?

Do admit to liking DVD-A and SACD

At least I know understand why a lot of modern music sounds so bad.

What I do hate is music through bad speakers. Mobiles, computer monitors ect.

I have 5 nice quality speakers to use at home, the front stereo pair are floorstanders

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Coat

Re: Scared of buying music now

"the front stereo pair are floorstanders"

Does that make them 'Outstanding' then ?

(Coat - Looking for my MP3 player)

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I like dubstep I do

And every time I admit it a piece of my soul dies.

Quite frankly it's just noise. But the more noisey it is the more likely it is to make my penis erect.

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IT Angle

One door closes, another stubs your toe ...

Fortunately for every 'modern' compressed pop song there is an equal and opposite film broadcast with unfathomably wide range so that in order to hear the dialogue over the deafening sound of the oxygen molecules crashing noisily around my room the volume is turned loud enough to slam the door when something loud happens, like a slamming door, on the TV. This maybe realistic but trying to watch a rendition of the Pacific war without actually forcing my neighbours to join me in the trenches of a Japanese assault just so I can hear the faintly whispered dialogue is irritating me far more than a load of compressed pop songs that I don't listen to.

I watch films with subtitles on.

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Broadcast sound

"film broadcast with unfathomably wide range"

Either you have a special fat pipe pumping that wide range material into your TV or you are mistaken - TV broadcasts are just as range- and bandwidth- compressed as radio broadcasts.

But anyway, video soundtracks and music are two different things - they have different requirements and should be listened to on different equipment.

P.S. Dig around in your TV setup menues, I'm sure there are some dynamic-range compression options you can use to protect your neighbour from the sounds of US naval artillery barrage and Pratt & Whitney Double Wasps radials flying overhead...

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Devil

Those soloutions will never help.

I agree with the person who you are replying to and I have done those setups endlessly and it just makes matter worse so then when you finally think you got the movie sounding great and at a perfect level at a sound level lets call it sound level 15(digital LG TV) then movie stops for a tv commercial break and the TV commerical sound level is at 58 even though tv is set at level 15 and you must set volume at 1 or 2 until movie comes back.

I think the whole sound industry for both TV and radio are totally screwed to hell.

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Yep

Doesn't your Home Cinema have a night mode? It reduces the dynamic range so you can set the volume to something appropriate and still hear everything. Useful for watching at night, funnily enough :)

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Software can alleviate this

While you can't compensate for bad production, you can at least set all your tracks to the same range so going from a track made in the 80s (normalized to 87db) and a recent one (normalized to 100db) doesn't blow your eardrums.

iTunes does a poor job of this with SoundCheck, but there are others - google the ReplayGain algorithm or take a look at http://qtunes.org/qnormal (disclaimer: I made this)

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I've always been curious

as to whether, given the rate at which the ear seems to lose frequencies, music just keeps on getting less bright and exciting as you get older, meaning that the music that you really like will either be the ones that really walk you by the hand, or ones that you already have a mental 'image' of, and that your brain automatically aligns for you.

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MJI
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Not sure

Late 40s but still can hear 16kHz at least (Digital Audio Essentials frequency sweep).

I have found though modern recordings give me headaches!

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Just on 50. 12.5kHz is a struggle, as are a few other things...

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Why modern music sounds rubbish?

Why fast food tastes rubbish and gives you heart disease?

The reasons are similar, both are manufactured by industries reliant upon selling maximum volume of low quality, low added value, commoditised cheap product to disinterested consumers who don't know better.

The quality is pegged at the lowest common denominator. In the music's case - a hooded teenager listening to his iPod through iPod earphones on a Tube train or demonstrating it to his friends using his phone's loudspeaker.

The quality of music must inevitably match the quality of the audio - i.e. be as bland, forgettable and unsatisfactory as possible so as to encourage the said consumer to delete it quickly and move on to buying the next lot of the same commodity.

That is a conscious choice the industry has made and that will eventually be their undoing (that and not the "piracy" they so much like to wail about).

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Anonymous Coward

That would be true...

... if pop music was noticeably worse (production-wise) than indie stuff by 'real' bands.

But it's not. It's a pretty much across the board phenomenemomemeonen.

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Pint

I totally agree with this article! Makes me sick!

The techno babies like to max out the sound and that drowns the highs and lows

Then I am always fiddling with the trebble and bass in my car.

The loudness turned on in the CD itself means for less bass and I have turn down the trebble.

And yes the music at default is very very flat.

This flat music is what makes car driver go out and buy those $3,000 sound system to bring out the bass and trabble to try and attempt to fix the music.

These tone deaf people..... sorry to say ....... they need to be fired or sent to school to learn about sound.

Back in the 1980's when everyone was still carrying boom boxes on their shoulder would have a copy of a copy and the loudness would go past the peak thus killing that thump thump thud boom that everyone craves and they thought maybe their boom box sucks and that is not the case at all. I had a very nice boom box made by GE back in 1987 and with proper recording and sound settings my boom box among the hundreds others on campus was always the best sounding and the most loud/clear with the least distorition of them all.

Here is the best boom box ever made by GE. (its the larger radio at bottom)

http://i26.tinypic.com/fasrgj.jpg

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ZZ Top has been a prime example of this problem coming for a long time.

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cd formats

Once apon a time, there was a format bit in the cd sec that was something like 'compresion'.

it was intended for just this,

so a cd could play normaly, or with the compression turned on.

the thought was that compresion amounts controled by the studio engineer and written to the cd, would be better than one generated in the car cd player.

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Music wars for centuries

Ok, different war - but still based on what sells more... For a good while, "concert pitch" has been getting higher, in an attempt to make one instrument sound brighter/better than another... http://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Concert_pitch#Pitch_inflation

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Stop

Will the industry change?

I very much doubt it. In recent years the legal/copyright issues have increased as a way to maintain revenue now that - essentially - nobody can sing. Knocking the dynamic range back to reality is only half the battle. Then we need to kill AutoTune, find performers who can perform, and people who right songs from feelings and emotions as opposed to those visualising dollar signs...

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Distortion is not Loudness!

Compression by itself is not the problem because if properly done it doesn't add distortion. Almost all the new mixed recordings push the sound through hard limiters which apply flat sections to the tops and bottoms of waveforms. They don't always do it to all instrument tracks either, usually just the bass and possibly the drums. This causes distortion and listening fatigue.

In the old days of the LP the sound was always modified somewhat. You couldn't stick low frequency bass too far off the center or the needle would skip. There were also "S" filters to remove the high frequencies from speech which would also cause tracks to bump sideways into each other and cause skips.

When CDs and digital came around this all went away, but other problems hit. If you recorded a quite section several dB down you weren't using all 16 bits. For example, reducing the volume by 1/2 would only use 15 bits. Drop to 1/16 volume and you are at 12 bits which makes quiet classical passages sound not quite as good as they should. Thus, recordings were always pushed as close to 0 dB as possible and also compressed somewhat.

Another problem with CD reproduction has to do with the filtering going on to reduce digital artifacts in the output. The early filters didn't do a very good job and if you pushed the sound up near 0 dB then you could get output distortion with certain waveforms. More modern circuits have solved this problem somewhat. The 16-bit CD is not really as good as they make them out to be.

The real problem is the distortion present in most modern pop music. Push an amplifier beyond its limits and you get clipped waveforms and noise. At least you can fix it by lowering the volume. Modern recordings have this feature added by the sound engineers and there is nothing you can do about it except not purchase the product unless you like playing distortion on your expensive sound system you spent many $$$ on to avoid said distortion.

Oh, and in my opinion the Grateful Dead Wall of Sound was not so much about loudness but about low distortion quality sound. Most of the PA systems at concerts of the time were total crap and the Dead were simply taking the control into their own hands. Many sound systems were rented locally rather than coming with the band. I was quite impressed when I saw them back in the 70s. Quite nice seeing the topless fans dancing away to the quality sound!

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Other brightening methods...

Radio stations used to (some still do) routinely pitch up their turntables by 5%.

It sounds brighter without obviously speeding up the track AND allows an extra 3 minutes/hour of advertising.

For the most part, compression is used to compensate for shitty audio reproduction gear. BUT it has to be used with great care. Most radio station techs will tell you that unless the gear is locked away some bright spark DJ "expert" would fiddle with the aural exciters, etc to make it sound good in the (utterly tweaked acoustic environment) studio but absolutely appalling on anything other than tinny portable sound gear with natural 20% THD.

This kind of compression of course led to AM tuners being poor cousins even on good setups (Bad memories of 1980s-era NAD tuners with excellent FM characteristics and 2.5kHz bandwidth AM with 15% THD output being "acceptable") even though every station cranks out decent bandwidth if you listen with a good tuner.

As for music quality - it's simple. Vote with your wallet.

I don't buy material which has poor production values - the same as I gave up on going to most cinemas years ago because of dickhead managers who crank the processing so badly all you can hear is DISTORTED bass, and a midrange peak akin to fingernails on a blackboard

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@ Alan Brown

"every station cranks out decent bandwidth if you listen with a good tuner."

In the UK and Europe, AM transmissions have an audio bandwidth of 5kHz, which is going to sound horribly muffled even on a decent tuner.

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Perhaps The Only Hope

Maybe some groups could make two versions of their singles. One with compression to send to the radio stations to play on the air, and one without for people at home to listen to and enjoy the full musical experience of the song.

Ideally, this would give them the best of both worlds - they wouldn't get buried by the louder competition on the air, but people who buy the record and take it home would find it sounds better than those of the bands that don't do this.

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Beautiful people

There are some websites exclusively for beautiful people. I don't know how these websites operate.

I came across this website CrushBlvd (http://crushblvd.com). See for yourself.

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