My illustrated take on compression and the "Loudness Wars"

Discussion in 'Music Corner' started by Andrew T., Nov 20, 2006.

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  1. Andrew T.

    Andrew T. Out of the Vein Thread Starter

    I just wrote up a piece for my weblog about the increased loudness and dynamic range compression affecting CDs over the years.

    While I'm sure it doesn't reveal anything that isn't common knowledge here, I think people here might be interested in seeing it, and I included waveform samples taken from various CDs released in the last 23 years (with a little help from EAC and Audacity ;) ):

    Have you ever thought that popular music today sounds worse than ever? There's truth to that...and I'm not talking about musical styles.

    It's not your imagination: The sound quality itself of music on CD has deteriorated over the years. The reason? Dynamic Range Compression.

    Dynamic range is the difference between the loudest and softest parts of a recording. Compression is used to reduce this dynamic range. Compression itself has a number of practical uses, but in record or CD mastering it usually carries the purpose of making the recording sound louder than it otherwise would be.

    So, why would mastering engineers make a CD sound louder than it otherwise would be? To be fair, the earliest CDs played at relatively low volume levels, and to many people, LOUDER is equated with better. Thus, new CD releases on average have been sounding louder and louder ever since then. The Compact Disc format allows for a very large dynamic range, but even so releases soon got loud enough for the use of compression to be necessary in order to maintain a higher average volume level. Some compression led to more compression, and nowadays many CDs are compressed so much that they are distorted and fatiguing to listen to, and basically constitute sonic mush. Listen to Rush's Vapor Trails if you don't believe me.

    Since a picture is worth a thousand words (or something like that), here are pictures of representative waveforms of songs taken from various CDs released each year from 1983 to 2005. Notice how the diagrams resemble brick walls more and more as the chronology approaches the present:

    Bob Dylan - "Jokerman" (Infidels)
    The Cars - "You Might Think" (Heartbeat City)
    INXS - "Listen Like Thieves" (Listen Like Thieves)
    Journey - "Girl Can't Help It" (Raised on Radio)
    Bryan Adams - "Heat of the Night" (Into the Fire)
    Mike + the Mechanics - "Seeing is Believing" (Living Years)
    The Smithereens - "A Girl Like You" (11)
    Alice in Chains - "Sea of Sorrow" (Facelift)
    Toad the Wet Sprocket - "Walk on the Ocean" (Fear)
    Gin Blossoms - "Found Out About You" (New Miserable Experience)
    Rush - "Cold Fire" (Counterparts)
    Weezer - "Buddy Holly" (Weezer)
    Collective Soul - "Smashing Young Man" (Collective Soul)
    Dave Matthews Band - "So Much to Say" (Crash)
    Savage Garden - "To the Moon and Back" (Savage Garden)
    Better Than Ezra - "At the Stars" (How Does Your Garden Grow)
    Third Eye Blind - "10 Days Late" (Blue)
    Green Day - "Minority" (Warning)
    Incubus - "Nice to Know You" (Morning View)
    Jason Mraz - "The Remedy" (Waiting for My Rocket to Come)
    Third Eye Blind - "Crystal Baller" (Out of the Vein)
    U2 - "Vertigo" (How to Dismantle an Atomic Bomb)
    INXS - "Devil's Party" (Switch)

    The saddest part of the increasing over-compression in CD mastering over the years is how unnecessary it is: It carries no purpose whatsoever, and once the damage is done, it can't be undone, short of remastering a CD in question. Earlier CDs mastered at lower levels sound fine (and often great) with just a turn of the volume knob. While it is true that radio stations use compression in their broadcasts, this additional compression is always added at the broadcaster's end and overly-compressed CDs do not have any advantages in this context either. You don't need to be an audiophile to pay note, either: Even when I first started buying CDs six years ago, listened to them on a cheap headphone setup, and knew nothing about the issues at hand, I noticed that releases from 1999 or 2000 tended to sound needlessly louder and less dynamic than CDs from 1997 or 1998.

    Unfortunately, over-compression has become so accustomed to on major-label CD releases (and oftentimes insisted upon by record companies, artists, and/or producers) that it probably won't go away any time soon. That said, the popularity of vinyl and audiophile-oriented LPs and CDs with superior mastering in some well as the endurance of older music in general...speaks some about the avenues in which dissatisfaction with the sound quality of recent CDs can be vented.
  2. PMC7027

    PMC7027 Forum Hall Of Fame

    Hoschton, Georgia
    Thanks for posting the waveforms.
  3. Jamie Tate

    Jamie Tate New Member

    Looks like an art project. :)

    Nice work at illustrating the problem which is evident even for those who don't like to read. :thumbsup:
  4. Andrew, thanks a lot for posting this. You hit the nail on the head. Things were good until around 1990 (according to your examples). It's (almost) all downhill from then (there are some exceptions of course, like DCC, MFSL, etc.).

    Every once in a while, we get a modern remastering which looks (and sounds) just like your examples from the 80's. One of them is Rainbow - Catch The Rainbow: Anthology from 2003. I can't praise this relatively new CD enough for the wonderful mastering. I would like to know how Steve Fallone was able to slip such a great mastering through the loudness and compression machinery going on at the major labels. Maybe it has to do with his first name...
  5. Matt I

    Matt I Forum Resident

    1991 on looks pretty bad, are these typical or examples?
  6. Starwanderer

    Starwanderer Senior Member

    Valencia, Spain
    :agree: Very interesting. Thanks :righton:
  7. mecano

    mecano Escape The Human Myth

    Athens Greece
    Nice job Andrew :righton:
  8. Black Elk

    Black Elk Music Lover

    Bay Area, U.S.A.
    Just a small comment. You (and others in some of the recent compression threads) use the term brickwall. This term is usually used in relation to the anti-aliasing/reconstruction filters in analogue-to-digital or digital-to-analogue converters, since an ideal filter has a perfectly vertical roll-off that looks like a vertical wall. I point this out to avoid confusion for readers who may not be familiar with all the terms, and may think that people are discussing the same thing in relation to filters and compressors when mentioning a brickwall response.
  9. ChristianL

    ChristianL Senior Member

    Berlin, Germany
  10. Gary

    Gary Nauga Gort! Staff

    That's a great illustration.

    And quite a shock!
  11. arrakian

    arrakian Forum Resident

    Damn, look at the Green Day!!!!
  12. johnny33

    johnny33 New Member

    What is it a conspiracy to ruin our ears? :(
  13. RobertKaneda

    RobertKaneda New Member

    Paris, France
    I did a much more jive illustration of compression for another thread in this forum, which I'm attaching here.

    Attached Files:

  14. They're typical examples. :)

    There are exceptions though, since not all labels caught on to this trend at the exact same time. Most CD's after 1995 though have pretty much some kind of compression (with some rare exceptions).
  15. Alan D

    Alan D New Member

    North Wales
    While we are on the subject - here are three waveforms of CD versions of "Help!". The first CD issue on Parlophone, the "1" album and the new "Love" album. Apart from the obvious level difference (the original CD was, as they all were then, quieter) - there is plenty of dynamic range still evident in the later editions.
  16. Alan D

    Alan D New Member

    North Wales
    I realise the Help! example might also be relevant on the "Look of Love" thread
  17. Grant

    Grant Life is a rock, but the radio rolled me!


    For me, 1993 was the last aceptable one.
  18. RayistaGeoff

    RayistaGeoff Forum Resident

    Nice summary, and the illustrations, as you say, are worth 1000 words. The only suggestion I might make is just a sentence or two more about the "louder = better" claim. Someone reading your article knowing nothing about the situation might wonder *why* louder was thought to be better. Obviously, there's the issue about people tending to have music on in the background, listening on little boom boxes, etc. But, more subtly, there's also the issue about louder, more compressed CDs appearing to sound more detailed (because all the bits that were quiet, and less audible, are now much louder relative to the loud bits, and therefore much more prominent). So "louder = better" wasn't just an arbitrary, random thing (like the trend could have just as easily been "quieter = better"). You can be tricked into thinking that louder CDs actually do "sound better" (as long as you don't listen to them for any length of time).

    Anyway, just $0.02 from an old teacher.

  19. Drifter

    Drifter AAD survivor

    Vancouver, BC, CA
    Alice in Chains - "Sea of Sorrow" (Facelift) almost looks like it was maxed out and then reduced in volume when dynamics.
  20. Grant

    Grant Life is a rock, but the radio rolled me!

    But, how do they all sound? You can't judge sound just by loking at a waveform.
  21. delias

    delias New Member

    SF Bay Area
    Thank you for answering this question I've had for a long time. While I have gone out of my way to avoid compression in recordings I've made, I have found it helpful when creating mp3's for online streaming. This is essentially a broadcast and compression helps in these cases, not on the original mastered recordings, especially since most people listen to these mp3's through sub par speakers that usually need help with bass and overall loudness. Thanks for all the references too. Best Regards, - DE
  22. Drifter

    Drifter AAD survivor

    Vancouver, BC, CA
    Well I've heard U2 - "Vertigo" (How to Dismantle an Atomic Bomb) :hurl:

    On the other hand, my 1983 Bob Dylan - "Jokerman" (Infidels) sounds pretty good for a CD. :righton:
  23. aynrandgirl

    aynrandgirl Member

    Do you have any idea how that sounds compared to the 1997 release The Very Best of Rainbow?
  24. KeithH

    KeithH Success With Honor...then and now

    Beaver Stadium
    Andrew, thanks much for posting these waveforms. It's criminal how they've destroyed a lot of great music over the years. :shake:

    Over the weekend, I was surprised to find a recent Japanese issue of Queen The Game in the bins for $7.99. The catalog number is TOCP-65848, and it is a jewel-case issue. I had high hopes for the sound of this disc due the "mystique" of Japanese releases. In comparing it to the target, I much preferred the target. The Japanese disc is nowhere near the worst offender I've ever heard, but it strained the ears at high volume and is louder than the target. The target sounded far more balanced and pleasing. Yet another example of "modern mastering".
  25. beatle_giancarlo

    beatle_giancarlo Forum Resident

    How much compression do you guys recommend for our home audio receiver settings? (if any)
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