Wednesday, 31 December 2008

2008: A Year in Music [Part 3: Cutting room floor]

These are the albums that didn't make my top 5 albums of the year, which I will put in my next post. I didn't buy a lot of CDs from 2008 this year, so this will be a pretty short post.

R.E.M. - Accelerate

This was hailed by critics as a return to their rockier sound after a trilogy of more subdued affairs since the departure of drummer Bill Berry after New adventures in hi-fi. And for most of the time, it works pretty well as a solid and melodic rock album. It's great to see R.E.M. back in melodic form on nuggets like Man-sized wreath, Supernatural superserious and Until the day is done. And it's also good to see R.E.M. much more tight and focused on this album - at only 35 minutes, it's the shortest album of their 25-year career.

I have two gripes with this album. Firstly, despite its brief running time, it still contains a few songs which aren't particularly memorable to me. Opener Living well is the best revenge, despite providing a great statement of intent for the album, lacks a good melody. The title track doesn't excite me a lot either. And there's a few songs near the end (Horse to water and I'm gonna DJ) which don't particularly reward repeated listening for me.

My second gripe is more serious - this album is an unfortunate victim of the loudness war. It brickwalls on the first track and is turned up to 11 for pretty much the entire running time, except on a few ballads. I blame the influence of Jacknife Lee, who has worked on similarly loud albums by artists such as Bloc Party, Snow Patrol and U2.

I own all of R.E.M.'s albums, and if I find myself in the mood for listening to them I can't possibly see myself choosing Accelerate over Murmur or Automatic for the people, amongst other brilliant efforts. Call something a return to form as much as you like, but if you don't get an urge to listen to it, what's the point?

Elvis Costello - Momofuku

This album was recorded in a couple of weeks, and it sounds like it -- it's Elvis' rawest album since Blood & chocolate from 1986. On many of the songs, the rawness works really well -- the opening two tracks No hiding place and American gangster time are a great way to open the record, both classic Costello rockers. There's a few nice ballads to add a bit of variety -- the jazzy Harry worth, sentimental My three sons and melodic Flutter & wow.

It's a good album, but it lacks a little in cohesiveness, feeling more like a collection of songs than an album. The album was named after Momofuku Ando (the inventor of cup noodles) and, in a sense, the name is appropriate -- it's all a bit of a hodge-podge of genres and styles mixed up in a way similar to how meat and vegetables are thrown together in a stir-fry. A solid Costello effort, but for a latter-day album I'd choose The delivery man over this.

You Am I - Dilettantes

After the garage-rock rawness of Convicts, this was hailed as their return to the melodic form of their golden era (c. Hourly, daily). Sometimes I wonder whether critics really listen to the whole album when they do reviews. The album starts off really good -- the opening title track is a beautiful, melodic ballad that hints at their previous classics like Heavy heart. Disappearing has an interesting groove to it which makes it very listenable, and Beau geste (discussed in my last post) is a melodic little nugget and one of the best You Am I songs in years.

Unfortunately, I struggle to remember anything memorable about the rest of the album. The songs don't seem to have a direction, many of them lacking decent melodies; because of this they fail to maintain my interest. All of the songs tend to blend into one for me, and while I sometimes notice some decent songs amongst the mix while listening to it, I immediately forget about them after the album has finished playing. There's also (I know I'm getting boring here) a pretty severe lack of dynamic range on all of these songs, making the album aurally unpleasant to listen to at times.

I think we can safely say that the chance of You Am I ever releasing an album on par with any of their earlier classics is pretty close to nil. It's sad to see such a great band fall from such great heights. Luckily, we'll always have Hourly, daily and Hi-fi way to listen to, to remind us of how great they once were.

2008: A Year in Music [Part 2: Top 10 songs of the year]

We'll continue the 2008 countdown with a list of my top 10 songs of 2008. As with my lists from previous years, songs can only appear in this list if I own them legitimately on CD, and they were from an album that was released this year. Considering that I haven't purchased a huge amount of CDs from this year, some artists are included more than once.

10. You Am I - Beau geste [Link removed]

This was one of the few tracks from Dilettantes which lived up to the great reviews that were being bandied around various music publications. It starts with a few repeated guitar strums interspersed with what sounds like Tim Rogers sighing in relief, possibly after farting. That last bit was speculative, but I like my interpretation.

All said and done, this is one of the most melodic You Am I songs since the Deliverance album. And melody is something which has been sorely lacking in their recent output. Musically, the song has a nice groove to it; punctuated with moments of silence and reprises of the opening riff, it surprises with an atmospheric mid-section which adds a significant amount of interest to the body of the song. I haven't really interpreted (or even read) the lyrics, and the only bits I remember are repeats of the phrase You're the best.

It's a bit of a pity that the rest of the album, bar a few exceptions, didn't live up to the promise of this song.

9. Elbow - Starlings [Link removed]

Some piano tinkling for a few seconds, followed by the low frequency of a bass drum, and then the always pleasant sound of Guy Garvey's crooning. Just before we reach the minute mark, a blast of brass almost literally scares the shit out of the listener. A mere twenty seconds later, the listener is blasted again. Shortly after, we get the opening lyric of the album:

How dare the Premier ignore my invitations?

It's pretty clear at this point that Elbow are a little bit different from your average 2008 British indie band, and I mean that in the best possible way. There's obviously the quirky lyrical element, as illustrated above. But more importantly, there's the musical element.

I'm probably sounding a bit like a broken record with my discussions of loudness and dynamics, but this song is a perfect example of how a wide dynamic range can make music so much more exciting. This song builds up from minimalistic beginnings, building up over the course of its 5 minutes to an amazing climax that blows the listener away.

Elbow have always had a fairly quirky opening song on their albums, but none has lured me into the album as much as this eccentric little number.

8. Augie March - The slant [Link removed]

Their last album Moo, you bloody choir had a great song on it called Bottle baby. It was one of my favourite songs of 2006.

The slant is the Bottle baby of their new album. I'm not sure why it reminds me of that song, but I think it's in Glenn Richard's amazing vocals and how they stand out from the rest of the album by completely inhabiting the character of the song. The lyrics tell a story from the perspective of a petty thief who (accidentally?) murdered a 16-year-old boy and was sent to jail.

Musically, it's a fairly simple folk song in the tradition of Sunstroke house from Strange bird. It's one of the few songs from the new album that sounds like it could have been included on one of their first two albums, and this gives me hope that they haven't completely abandoned their more experimental sound in favourite of slick and sometimes powerful (see #3) indie pop numbers.

7. Brian Wilson - Southern California
[Link removed]

The closing track from the superb album That lucky old sun is quite similar to the rest of the album - it has the trademark Brian Wilson melody, and is very much seeped in nostalgia. What elevates it above many of the other songs on the album is the poignancy of the lyrics:

I had this dream
Singing with my brothers
In harmony
Supporting each other
Tailwinds, rear spin,
Down the Pacific coast
Surfing on the end
Heard those voices again

This is Brian Wilson looking back at his days in the early 60s, performing in the Beach Boys with his brothers Dennis and Carl Wilson, now both sadly deceased. Lyrically, it's simultaneously sad, touching and idealistic. And Brian shows why he is one of the greatest composers of the past 50 years by marrying the lyrics to a beautiful piano-based melody.

Just when you think you know where the song is heading, the whoa whoa whoa it's magical bit that kicks in just after the two minute mark adds a beautiful counter-point which is reprised later in the song. The last thirty seconds is made up of (yet another) reprise of the title track, bringing the album to a close. A gorgeous song.

6. Elvis Costello - American gangster time [Link removed]

It's interesting to note that for an artist who has reinvented himself successfully so many times over the course of his career, my favourite songs on his latest album Momofuku were those in which he emulated the raw rock 'n' roll sound of his classic early years.

Vocals notwithstanding (his voice has definitely changed over the past 30 years), this track could quite easily be mistaken for a This year's model outtake. The Imposters emulate the Attractions sound to perfection, which isn't particularly surprising considering that 3/4 of the Attractions are also Imposters.

Steve Nieve's stabbing organ chords, Elvis' lyrics, the rawness of the production (the album was recorded in only a couple of weeks), the fun it sounds like they're all having - it's all here on what is sure to be remembered as a classic Elvis tune from this era.

5. R.E.M. - Supernatural superserious [Link removed]

"Everybody here, comes from somewhere" sings Michael Stipe on the opening of this song, the first single released from Accelerate, and a classic R.E.M. song. This is a return to the sound of some of their anthems on the I.R.S. label in the early 80s, before they went major label on Green.

It's simply a fantastic pop song, nothing more and nothing less. There's some great trademark backing vocals from Mike Mills on the refrain "And you cried and you cried" which is about as close as this song gets to a chorus.

Unfortunately the compressed mix lets the song down a bit, but that's only a small gripe. R.E.M. haven't rocked this hard since New adventures in hi-fi.

4. Oasis - The shock of the lightning [Link removed]

Ever since Be here now, Oasis have followed a fairly standard pattern when it comes to releasing the debut single from their new album. They have released a song which is pretty much Oasis-by-numbers, ignoring some of the subtle new directions they have explored on each new album, giving the impression to the casual radio listener that they have remained pretty stagnant over the past decade. See Do you know what I mean?, Go let it out, The hindu times and Lyla for some textbook examples of this. This song, the debut single from Dig out your soul, follows this tradition.

The truth of the matter is that Oasis have only released 2 classic albums (Definitely maybe and Morning glory) and 1 classic compilation (The masterplan). With each album it's become pretty clear that while they still have some amazing moments on their post-MG albums, they also have a helluva lotta filler as well.

All said and done, this is a great song which ticks all the boxes about what a great Oasis song should be. Beatles-esque fade-in? Check. Easy to remember singalong chorus? Check ("Come in, come out tonight"). Obvious Beatles lyrical reference? Check ("A magical mystery").

It's a bleeding obvious Oasis song, but it happens to be one of the best ones they have released in many years. And it's one of their few songs from this decade which manages to capture the youthful exhuberance of Definitely maybe.

3. Augie March - Lupus [Link removed]

Watch be disappear is easily the most accessible Augie March album to date, their stab at commercial success if you will. While initial reviews made me a little concerned that they had sold out, after purchasing the album I soon found out that it wasn't so much a sellout as a refinement of their sound. While previous albums did little to hide its experimental sound, the new album was built around some amazing pop songs like this one.

It takes about 17 seconds for the guitar riff to make its first appearance in the song, and it soon becomes the foundation of one of the catchiest songs of their career. The structure of the song is fairly simple: 3 line verse, 2 line chorus, repetition of the introductory guitar figure. Throw in a few amazing chord changes in key parts of the song, and it quickly ascends into the heavens.

I'm not sure if this song will help them achieve the commercial success they deserve, but every time I listen to it, it makes me happy. What more can you ask of a song?

It was all I ever do...

2. Al Green - Lay it down
[Link removed]

I started getting into old-skool R&B and soul music in a big way in 2008. It's interesting to note than one of my favourite R&B albums was released this year by an old performer showing that he still had lots of new tricks up his sleeve.

This song, the opening and title track of the Reverend's new album, is an amazing slow burner of a song. At the age of 62, Al Green still shows that he has "it" - the verses are all his, simultaneously smooth and showing the grittiness of his age, while Anthony Hamilton backs him up on the gorgeous refrain.

This is a sensational track that would be considered a classic even if it had been released in the 60s or 70s, during the golden age of soul and R&B.

1. Brian Wilson - Midnight's another day [Link removed]

The first 20 seconds is made up of some beautiful piano playing which would be the highlight of a song by a lesser artist. In the case of this masterful song, it doesn't even hint at what's about to come next.

This is one of the finest songs that Brian Wilson has written; from a purely emotional perspective, it's up there with some of the finer moments on Pet sounds. My interpretation of the lyrics are Brian Wilson dealing with his well-publicised bout with mental illness, shrouding the song in sadness.

While his vocals have nowhere near the range they did in the late 60s, they suit the lyrical theme perfectly - here is a man who is one of the greatest songwriters and performers of the 20th century looking back at his struggles and finally coming to terms with his life.

Musically, the song builds and builds, and then builds further. It's an epic song, one which is simultaneously longing for the past and hopeful for the future.

With the unfortunate number of bands and artists who are over-hyped by money-hungry record companies, it's so refreshing to see one of the elder statesmen of pop music show that he still has what it takes to write a song as gorgeous as this, my favourite song of 2008.

Update: Song links removed.

Thursday, 25 December 2008

2008: A Year in Music [Part 1: Overview]

Well, it's that time of year again. Time for my analysis and summary of the year in music that was 2008. As usual, this will be divided into 6 posts which I will try to get out before the end of the year (otherwise they may bleed into early January). For the newer readers, the posts will be broken down like this:

Part 1: Overview
Part 2: Top 10 songs of the year
Part 3: Cutting room floor
Part 4:
Top 5 albums of the year
Part 5: Musical discoveries of the year
Part 6: Re-evaluation of 2007 list

Part 1: Overview

I have a feeling that the posts in the series are going to be a bit briefer than those of the previous years. Why? Well, partially down to laziness. It takes a long time to write most of the posts on this blog, and I'll admit that I'm lacking a bit of motivation on this front. After all, I'm on holidays from work at the moment and I should really be relaxing.

The second reason is that, if my recent points haven't hinted this enough, I'm become gradually disillusioned with a lot of modern music. While it was pretty exciting compiling my top 10 albums of 2005, I'd be fooling myself if I said that I was as excited to be writing about my favourite albums of 2008. Most of my listening habits have tended towards older music which can be appreciated on its own merits, rather than a lot of the overhyped stuff that is released thesedays. How many bands have we had in recent years who have been proclaimed as the future of rock? While I used to buy into this hype in previous years, my bullshit detector is too finely tuned thesedays.

With these comments in mind, part 5 of this series is going to be the post which I will have the most passion in writing. Because it is these musical discoveries from previous years (90s, 80s, 70s and 60s) which have shaped my musical listening habits of 2008. I look forward to discussing the albums which really excited me this year.

What did 2008 mean to me?

Less new music

As stated before, I have been buying much less new music. There are technical reasons for this, but I am also generally happy to wait until an album has been out for a bit to see if it's truly the classic which some reviewers make it out to be, or a flavour of the month which will be gathering dust within 6 months. Giving myself a year or so buffer is a good technique to shield me from this kind of hyperbole.

Old-skool R&B

I have always enjoyed real R&B music from the 60s and 70s, and not the modern tripe which is released under this genre thesedays. I'm talking artists like Marvin Gaye, Aretha Franklin and Curtis Mayfield as well as some funkier outfits like Sly & The Family Stone, Stevie Wonder and Funkadelic. Well, this appreciation of African-American music has only continued to grow in 2008. I've also gotten into a few new genres this year, which I'll talk more about in the future posts.

Bring on eBay!

While I was previously a JB Hi Fi man for most of my music purchases, this has gradually changed and I now do most of my CD buying on eBay. Music on eBay has well and truly become a buyer's market in the last few years, and combined with the downturn in CD sales this has made it a great place to satisfy my CD purchasing addiction. It has also been great for picking up some rare albums that I haven't been able to find in retail stores. If you are a keen music purchaser, I highly recommend checking out the eBay market.


On the gig front, from a look at my blog posts of 2008, it doesn't look like I went to any gigs this year! This is probably the first time in many years where this has been the case. My next gig is scheduled for the end of January 2009 when I will be seeing My Morning Jacket at Billboard. Looking forward to that one.

Anyway, that's the end of the overview of 2008. I hope you enjoy the rest of the posts in this series!

Friday, 12 December 2008

Loudness war or: How I learned to stop enjoying modern music

The final straw

Just last week, I picked up Hold on now, youngster..., the debut album from Welsh indie pop outfit Los Campesinos! Many reviewers have described them as Belle & Sebastian gone punk. Belle & Sebastian are one of my favourite bands; the last time I picked up an album by an unknown band who were compared to B&S was Neon golden by the Notwist (the love-child of B&S and German electro-pioneers Kraftwerk), and that album paid high dividends for me. So picking up the Los Campesinos! album at the relatively cheap price I saw it at seemed like a no-brainer to me.

Hearing an album by a band you don't know for the first time can be an exciting yet daunting experience. In this case, I had no idea what to expect. Male or female vocalist? Quirky or old-skool punk? The answer to these 2 questions was both and quirky respectively.

But what I wasn't expecting (although maybe I should have, in hindsight) was the wall of noise I was confronted with, within only a few seconds of the opening track. This is the audio waveform of what I heard:

Unfortunately, Los Campesinos! are not alone in the noise stakes. The crazy brick wall you see above is part of a disturbing recording industry trend which has become known as the loudness war.

The loudness war is associated with the perceived need for albums to be mastered louder and louder as each year goes by. The additional loudness is achieved in the mastering process through excessive use of technology known as dynamic range compression.

I have been against the loudness war in all of its forms ever since I become aware of it. But this Los Campesinos! album was the first time that I have ever returned an album for a refund because the CD was too bloody loud to listen to.

Background reading

I'd like to thank Nick Southall, of the sadly departed Stylus Magazine, for his insightful article Imperfect sound forever. This article is essential reading for anyone who even remotely takes their music listening seriously. As an avid reader of Stylus Magazine back in the day, this was the article which enlightened me with information about dynamic range compression and its mis-use in the record industry.

Nick explains compression in a lot of technical detail, better than I could ever do. Nick has been a bit of crusader against the loudness war for many years, and I really respect his opinion on music.

My article will only gloss over the technical details, so please do some background reading if you are interested in further information.

My musical habits

I'm not an audiophile by any stretch of the imagination. Since I purchased my iPod a few years ago, 98% of my music listening happens on the iPod (the other 2% being on CD when I buy an album on the weekend and don't rip it until I come to work on Monday).

My music is ripped at 160kbps CBR AAC. While a lot of music fans would spit at such a low bitrate (and I'll admit that this is far from CD quality), this is good enough for me. Whenever you decide on a bitrate to use, you always need to weigh up quality vs. file size. Back in the day, I only had an 80GB iPod which was disturbingly close to being filled up. I made an executive decision (with invaluable input from MattT) to rip all of my music at 160kps; it was a happy medium between file size and quality.

Down in the music rut at midnight

Over the past few years, I have found myself much less excited about newer music. There are of course some exceptions, but my musical listening tastes have definitely headed towards music from the 80s and earlier (and I'm not just talking about the cheesy fluff here). On my shortlist of potential blog posts was one entitled Down in the music rut at midnight, where I was going to talk about how I was so sick of new music coming out and how old music brings so much more excitement to my ears. But that post will have to wait for another day.

There are many subjective reasons why new music may stop exciting you. After all, there's only so many ways that you can combine vocals, guitar, bass and drums in innovative ways before history will start repeating itself (obviously I'm focusing on rock music here). If it's been done before, it's bound to be much less exciting the 2nd time around; I've certainly alluded to this in previous posts.

But there are also objective reasons why new music may stop exciting you. When I compiled my top 10 albums of 2005, the Go-Betweens' last album Oceans apart made it into the 10th position. At the time, I said the following:

Robert finds a renewed energy in his songs Here comes the city and Born to a family, while Grant reaches the melodic heights that came so naturally to him during their golden years on The statue and Finding you. This album would be higher on the list if it weren't for what appears to be a mastering problem on some of the tracks, where they sound distorted (especially on the iPod). It's both unfortunate and frustrating that a great album has been tarnished by a technical problem.

I wrote this review in December 2005. This was before Nick Southall had published his article, before I knew about dynamic range compression and the loudness war. Back on those days, I thought the only war that was going on was in Iraq. It is only with the benefit of hindsight that I can look back at this post, and see how the loudness war was affecting my enjoyment of music.

From a pure songwriting perspective, Oceans apart was one of the Go-Betweens' finest efforts (only their masterpiece 16 Lovers Lane can beat it). It's only the disgusting production which lets it down. I'm now at the point where, if I feel like listening to a Go-Betweens album, I would choose any album but Oceans apart to listen to.

Excessive compression in music is a little bit like having a dead pixel on your brand new LCD television. You can wallow away in blissful ignorance, enjoying the entertainment and being none-the-wiser. But as soon as you are aware of it, you won't be able to ignore it. So on behalf of the readers of this post who are like me, I humbly apologise for (potentially) destroying your enjoyment of a lot of modern music.

What is dynamic music?

In its simplest form, dynamic music has quiet bits and loud bits. If we listen to an album that has a wide dynamic range, we'll often find that we need to regularly adjust the volume knob while we listen to it. This is because the quiet bits are a little too soft to hear (so we turn it up to hear the subtle details). Then the loud bit comes in, and the new volume we adjusted it to is now too loud so we quickly turn it down again. You may especially notice this while listening to dynamic music in a car, where background noise also interferes with your listening experience.

Let's compare this with music which is generally played on the radio, or through PA systems in shopping centres. Music which is transmitted on the radio is compressed so it fits into the frequency band allocated to the station. Music played on PA systems is hardly an intimate experience, and its purpose is often for background music. Neither of these types of music would generally be considered dynamic.

Let's get (a little bit) technical

Okay, I'm gonna try and keep it fairly simple here. I'm not an expert in sound recording techniques and I'm not going to pretend that I am. There are great articles on the web that could explain this much better than I can. Treat this more as a Dummies guide to dynamic range compression™.

Over the course of the past 15 years or so, the loudness war has lead to albums becoming progressively louder as each year goes by. Why? Well, record company big-wigs seem to think that loud records sound better and will sell more records:

"If my record isn't as loud as your record, it will sound less powerful, less punchy and less impressive. This means it will also get less radio play. And this will result in less record sales."

So what's the solution? We'll have to one-up you and make sure ours is even louder than yours. It's the musical equivalent of the bully in the playground picking on the little guy with glasses, just to make sure that he shows him who is boss.

So what does dynamic range compression have to do with loudness?

Unfortunately, the maximum amplitude of a CD audio waveform is fixed. Trying to increase the sound of the quiet bits will cause the loud bits to exceed the maximum volume. If the waveform exceeds the maximum, it needs to be chopped off to keep it within range. This results in a square wave at the peak, and when a square wave is played back through a CD audio player, it "clips" or sounds distorted. Have you ever tried to play a data CD through a CD player? It's the same sound you get from that, but a bit more subtle as the clipping may only last for a fraction of a second.

To prevent clipping but still maintain the loudness that is desired, the entire sound wave is compressed to a similar volume, and then the compressed signal is adjusted to the new loud volume. The idea is that the whole sound wave is flattened into a homogenous block, which can then easily be adjusted to increase loudness without the fear of distortion or clipping.

In practice, it doesn't always work out. Many modern recordings, despite the "best" intentions of the engineers, still end up suffering from clipping and distortion. This has become disturbingly more prevalent in the past few years.

Compression has proper and tasteful applications during the recording process. For example, individual instruments within a recording can be compressed to make them sound more punchy, or reduce their sustain. This is what producers and engineers do; utilise the studio as another instrument to help make the end result (the album) sound as good as possible.

The problem with compression is that the music industry has been mis-using this technology for the past 15 years or so. Instead of compressing individual elements within a mix, the engineer takes the (already mixed) recording and compresses the entire mix again before it is pressed to CD. This practice completely narrows (and sometimes eliminates) the volume gap between the quiet bits and loud bits, so that everything ends up at a similar volume.

What about data compression?

As I said earlier, I compress all my my music at 160kbps. This is what is known as data compression, and it is completely different to dynamic range compression.

MP3 (and other similar) data compression algorithms are concerned with reducing the overall size of the file so you can fit more information on to your portable listening device. This is achieved by removing the inaudible (to humans at least) portions of the music - mainly the very high frequencies (which only dogs can hear), and very low frequencies.

Data compression also involves other smart techniques. If the compression algorithm detects two waveforms being played simultaneously, one quiet and one loud, it will remove the quiet waveform as it will be drowned out (and thus inaudible) by the loud waveform anyway.

While some data is lost forever in data compression, if you choose a decent enough bitrate, most listeners (except the keenest audiophiles) will find it difficult to tell the difference between a compressed MP3 and the original CD audio.

Most importantly, data compression is designed to preserve the dynamics of a recording.

Musical enjoyment

Dynamic range compression sucks the life out of music. The excitement that you get from a snare hit is gone in a compressed recording, because it is the same volume as the rest of the recording. That funky bassline that seems to come out of nowhere becomes part of the furniture. The beauty of a quiet, whispered vocal is lost because the volume of the vocal is the same as the rest of the mix. It's just not musical.

The disturbing thing is that, to the untrained ear, loud and compressed records do sound better. INITIALLY. It is only with subsequent listens that the listener realises that there is absolutely no depth to the recording. No hidden details, no subtle layers, no instruments buried under the mix.

Why not just lower the excessively loud volume by using the volume knob? Sure you can do that, and it's probably a good idea if you respect your ears. But thinking that this will improve the sound is completely missing the point. The signal has already been compressed, which means the dynamic range has been lost forever. All the volume knob will do is reduce the overall amplitude; the variation (peaks and valleys) have already left the building.

Have you listened to any music from recent years that has given you a headache? It's probably a victim of the loudness war. The human ear can be fairly tolerant to loud music and noises, but its tolerance is inversely proportional to the length of time it is subjected to the noise. When the music has a wide dynamic range, the quiet bits give your ears (and head) a break and a little bit of time to recover. This prepares them for the loud bits when they come.


But I like my music loud!

So do I! A lot of music sounds much better when played at a loud volume. So if the CD you want to listen has been mastered at a quieter volume to preserve the dynamics of the recording, how do I enjoy it loud?

There's a very simple solution to this problem. Reach for the volume knob and turn it up. This will increase the overall loudness of the entire waveform, but keep the new waveform in proportion with the original, quieter waveform. The peaks and valleys will be maintained and the dynamics will be preserved. Music can be both loud and dynamic, as long as the dynamics haven't been compressed out of the CD.

Some examples

Here is the audio waveform of I'll regret it all in the morning, a tender ballad by Richard & Linda Thompson from their 1975 album Hokey pokey:

And here is the audio waveform of Cast no shadow, a tender ballad by Oasis from their 1995 album (What's the story) morning glory:

Think you can spot the difference? Note that these songs are both [supposed to be] quieter moments on their respective albums.

Look at the peaks and valleys in the Richard & Linda Thompson track. Notice the variance in the wave form. Even if this song isn't to your taste, you get a pretty good feeling from looking at that waveform that it will at least sound pretty good.

Now look at the Oasis waveform. It just looks like a wall of noise. There's very little variance in the track. There's no highs, no lows, and nothing in between. IT IS JUST CONSTANT NOISE. All of the emotional intensity, subtlety and nuance has been sucked out of the music by excessive compression.

Don't get me wrong - that Oasis album is in my top 10 albums of all time. I grew up with this music. But there's no denying that the production is absolute shite.

The brick wall you see above is not what Phil Spector dreamt up when he invented the wall of sound.


Remasters are one of the most disturbing casualties of the loudness war. Why? Because they take an album from the past which probably had brilliant (albeit a little bit quiet) sound and "remaster" it for the purposes of selling it off to a new generation of music listeners who may have never heard it before. The record companies would lead you to believe that a remastered recording is superior to the previous one in every way.

Unfortunately, the reality is a lot less pretty than this. In the modern age, remastering is often not a lot more than making the CD a lot louder so it sounds good when listened to next to modern CDs. As described earlier, there are limits to how loud you can make a CD, which is where our evil friend compression comes in. And as described earlier, compression of this form is completely lossy - once a CD is compressed, the dynamic sound is gone forever.

Record companies try to argue this by saying that the majority of music listeners in this day and age listen to music on their portable listening devices, such as iPods. The justification is that if you put your whole music collection on shuffle, you should be able to listen to an old (quietly mastered) Beatles song followed by a new (over-compressed) Muse song without having to get up and adjust the volume.

As I said before, I do practically all of my music listening on the iPod too. And last time I checked, my iPod had a feature on it called Sound check which automatically normalises the volume across subsequent songs so you don't run into this exact problem the record companies are trying to avoid. I'm not sure if other MP3 devices have a similar feature, but I don't care. Maintaining a consistent volume across songs on an iPod is no excuse for over-compressing music on the CD itself.

I'm now at the point where I will actively track down the original CD pressings of old albums, even if it means having to buy them 2nd hand on eBay. This is coming from a guy who only a few years ago sold a few of his original CD pressings to "upgrade" to a remastered version.

One thing to be aware of is that there are always exceptions. Some remasters are done tastefully, and with respect for the music. This is where the power of the Internet at your fingertips is a great thing. Read reviews, and not just from professional critics (who I suspect are often getting kickbacks from record companies). Read user reviews on Amazon and similar websites. You'll quickly find out whether a "remastered edition" is an improvement or butchering of the original album.

The good, the bad and the ugly

Bob Dylan was recently quoted as saying the following:

"I don't know anybody who's made a record that sounds decent in the past 20 years, really," ... "You listen to these modern records, they're atrocious, they have sound all over them. There's no definition of nothing, no vocal, no nothing, just like ... static."

While this is largely true, there are luckily still a few
artists and bands out there who have the balls to stand up against the evils of the loudness war. These musicians have my utmost respect for standing up against this disturbing trend.

Manchester band Elbow have stood up against the loudness war, refusing to over-compress their music like many of their contemporaries, including Coldplay. Their latest album even has the Turn me up! logo on it, a non-profit organisation campaigning for the release of more dynamic records.

Ben Harper's latest album Lifeline proudly boasts that it was recorded entirely on analog equipment, with no use of Pro Tools. And you can hear it on the recording - rich, warm and dynamic. This is how music is supposed to sound; when listening to this album (from 2007) next to other albums from the same year, it sounds like a real musical experience and not a manufactured one.

Other recording artists with integrity, like Tom Waits and Augie March, have also maintained a high degree of dynamics in their recent releases.

I wish I could say the same about Oasis, R.E.M. and You Am I; despite the fact that they have written some great songs on their albums this year, the over-compressed sound doesn't make me want to listen to them again in a hurry. No matter how good the songwriting is, bad production can still ruin it. Even the (usually reliable) Elvis Costello went a bit too loud on his recent effort, although not as bad as some of the others.

Metallica are where it gets ugly. Their latest album Death magnetic is considered by many to be one of the loudest albums ever released. Take a look at this wave-form analysis. It's a monstrosity of music production, and it also suffers from excessive digital distortion or clipping. Which is a real pity, because apparently the songwriting and performance on the album is some of their best in years.

Most people will get a headache after listening to Death magnetic for longer than 10 minutes. You only need to listen to Master of puppets or Metallica (the "Black album") to know that music doesn't have to be compressed to the max to be powerful. Quite the opposite really.

The good news about the botched production job on Death magnetic is that many fans have noticed it and complained. Metallica are a very popular band, and I hope the flood of complaints will lead to some sort of revolution against the loudness war.

It must stop!


Thanks for reading my ramblings. While I am definitely not the first to write about the loudness war and dynamic range compression, I hope you found this article informative. If you find that newer music isn't exciting you as much as it used to, I hope this helps to shed some light on why this may be the case.

Further reading (and viewing)

The Loudness War - A great YouTube clip demonstrating how compression is affecting music
Imperfect Sound Forever - The article that started it all for me
Loudness war - Informative Wikipedia article
Top 10 worst sounding records, 1997-present - Nick Southall's list of poorly mastered albums...
Top 10 best sounding albums, 1997-present - ...and his list of the best sounding albums
Turn Me Up! - Organisation aiming to bring dynamics back to music

Monday, 1 December 2008

RIP: Richey James Edwards 1967-1995

Hmmm...this is quickly turning into an rockstar obituary blog.

And while it looks like I'm reporting 13-year-old news (hear it first on Wireless Cranium!) there's a twist to this one.

Richey Edwards, rhythm guitarist, lyricist and founding member of Welsh band Manic Street Preachers, disappeared on 1st February 1995. It's almost 14 years on, and no body has been found. On 23rd November 2008 he became officially "presumed dead". Hence, this obituary.

Richey embodied the spirit of early Manics. They released 3 albums in his lifetime: the patchy and overlong (but brilliant in parts) debut Generation terrorists (1992), underrated follow-up Gold against the soul (1993) and dark tortured masterwork The holy bible (1994). While he was a pretty poor rhythm guitarist by all accounts (James Dean Bradfield made up for it with his stellar lead guitar work), it was his dark, tortured lyrics which he became known for.

Richey was also quite a troubled young man, into self-mutilation and the like. In hindsight, it's no surprise that he became a member of the not-so-exclusive 27 club. Like Elvis, there have been many Richey sightings over the years. But I think we can safely say that if he is alive, he doesn't want people to know about it.

It's been a long time, but rest in peace Richey, wherever you are.

Here's one of the Manics' darkest songs (about anorexia) from The holy bible.

MP3: Manic Street Preachers - 4st 7lb [Link removed]

P.S. Apparently the Manics' 9th studio album, Journal for plague lovers, will contain many lyrics from the late Richey. It will also be produced by Steve Albini.

Update: Song links removed.