Thursday, June 14, 2012

Thoughts On Sound Keltie!

Thoughts On Sound Keltie Harding (for Maritime Vinyl blog.)

Sound quality. What a can of worms we music fans can open when we discuss this topic. I can't talk about the state of today's music industry without talking about the way our music sounds. There seem to be 2 seperate camps here. One, the record companies who just want to re-issue our favorite recordings, with bonus tracks, patches, stickers, deluxe booklets, and make money off of the company's back catalog, without putting any thought or care into the sound quality, or the fans who crave enjoyable, quality sound from their music.

Have you ever listened to the radio and noticed there are NO DYNAMICS in music anymore? Well we have the record industry to blame. The so-called "loudness wars" are deeply rooted. Nowadays, music producers and mixers want (and are sometimes forced) to make songs sound louder and more "in your face", in an effort to get noticed, and compete with other records out there. A master recording is subjected to heavy amounts of compression & limiting, which can squeeze the life out of a perfectly good recording. Even classic albums that we know and love are re-mastered and subjected to extreme mastering, sometimes even being "Brickwalled" (a term in the industry where (in my terms) basically the music sounds as if it was being forced against a brick wall). There is a story floating around about a very well known and well respected mastering engineer who was working on a big-name artist's record, creating the final master tape for the artist and record company. He did 2 seperate masterings. One was mastered to current industry demands, with loud, over-compressed sound, and a more conservative mastering which was considerably "quieter" in volume but had more overall dynamics. The band chose the over-compressed version, as did the record company. Why? So it could compete with the loudness of similar other records being issued at the time. Bob Ludwig, a very well resepected and seasoned mastering engineer has lately gotten the nickname of "Brickwall Bob", refering to the brickwalled sound of some of his latest work. Well don't forget when he is mastering an album for vinyl or CD, he is basically employed by the producer, artist, record company or a combo of all 3. He may not agree personally about having a piece of music that loud, but if he is being hired, then he must do what is asked. Its not really HIS fault for doing his job to what the client(s) require.

Take a copy of Zeppelin's "Mothership" CD and then an original 1980's Atlantic Records CD pressing of Zeppelin 1(pre-Jimmy Page remasters). Listen to the original CD first. Notice how the sound is alive and dynamic, how the snare drum snaps, the bottom end grooves and rattles and how the sound seems to "breathe". Then listen to the same songs on "Mothership". Sure they may have been mastered from the original master tapes, but there is no definition anymore. No life. Everything just sounds squashed and loud. No dynamics.

One of the WORST sounding CD's I have ever heard was the Iggy Pop remix of The Stooges "Raw Power". It was LOUD, ear-splitting loud, mastered well into the red and past +3 dB on the VU meters. Sure Iggy's remix gave the album a new lease on life, but the CD mastering has ruined it. Just recently, a 2 LP anniversary edition of "Raw Power" was issued, with the original 1973 mix, and the Iggy remix, this time, re-mastered for vinyl. Iggy's remix on the new vinyl LP sounds alive and fresh! Sure Iggy's faders were in the red, but the mix sounded great. Raw and dynamic. And David Bowie's original mix has never sounded any better.

As a sound engineer of some experience, I've produced works where the mixes do not comform to the "loudness war" aesthetic. I tend to go for depth and dynamics, not over-processed volume. I try to keep my mixes no louder than 0 dB, giving the music some breathing room or "headroom". I could easily over-compress and over-limit the production to give it that "loud" sound, but the dynamics are going to get lost really quick.

This link ( provides an easy to understand overview of the loudness war.

OK another point. Most newer CD reissues of older material claim to be "remastered from original master tapes". All fine and dandy, but the master tapes for Zeppelin 1 sure as hell don't sound like they do on "Mothership". Using the original first generation master tape is fine (unless the tape is obviously damaged and its clearly audible.) Using the original master (or best sounding possible) should take priority, but so should proper mastering of the material, to bring out all the nuances of the original recording. Not to run the digital masters through compressors and limiters to make it sound "loud".

Another point to moot on, regarding CD reissues of older stuff, is the apparent use of digital noise reduction techniques. So many of the classic albums we love have been subjected to the use of digital noise reduction systems such as Sonic Solutions and CEDAR. The CD era ushered in the expectation that recordings should have NO tape hiss whatsoever. I fully bought into that philosophy and when I saw a new "remaster", I parted with my money and left the store happy. But as I got older and more astute in my listening, I could audibly notice things didn't sound quite "right". I have the members of the Steve Hoffman Music Forums ( to thank for opening my eyes and ears. I've since learned to love tape hiss once again, and a little hiss is OK.

While I do feel that digital noise reduction (and various forms of digital processing) have its place, and can be used properly (in the right circumstances and proper context), I feel many classic recordings have been un-necessarily "futzed" with. (There are however, many recordings that have been rescued through the use of noise reduction and other modern forms of processing such as de-clicking and de-crackling.) Now, take for example the early Jimi Hendrix CD catalog on Reprise Records. All the Reprise CD's were released circa 1986, mastered from the US master tapes, with tape hiss intact. In mid 1988/89, these are re-pressed by Reprise (unbeknownst to the CD buying public), remastered using Sonic Solutions. The result was seemingly clearer sounding recordings, but the "air" in the recordings seemed lost. The 2nd phase of Reprise CD's were just the beginning. The mid-90's issues on MCA (with new cover art) sounded even more brittle and sterile. The MCA discs are the absolute nadir of Jimi's catalog. Newer re-issues have a little bit better sound, but this time instead of being subjected to NR, loud mastering is being used.

Thanks to file sharing, the original, unprocessed Reprise CD's from the US (and Polydor CD's in the UK and Europe) can be downloaded and enjoyed. Listen to "Purple Haze" from the original Reprise CD and a later issue. You'll hear a HUGE difference between the 2. On the original Reprise CD's, sure, there is tape hiss, but there is the aformentioned "air" in the recording, the depth of sound, and full dynamics. (While not condoning the download of an artist's work, I feel that after buying at least 3 different issues of the major Jimi records, I have some right to seek out the best sounding version to my ears, be it the early CD pressings or fan-made high resolution vinyl rips. Sometimes I go back to my records and enjoy those. Sometimes vinyl is hard to beat!!)

So with the combination of using the right master tapes (or the best possible sounding master in that case) and proper re-mastering, the classics we know and love can be presented in stunning quality. There are some companies out there, such as Audio Fidelity, who remaster some of the best known and loved classics, and present them in jaw dropping quality, lovingly mastered from the original tapes. Mobile Fidelity Sound Lab (MFSL) were the forerunners of the audiophile movement and still continue to put out better sounding pressings. Only thing is that audiophile CD's and LP's are very expensive, but can be well worth the investment. Audio Fidelity did amazing re-issues of The Beach Boys' "Pet Sounds" and Alice Cooper's "Love It To Death" and both sound as fresh and as crisp as the day they were made, with no noise reduction used.

So lately its been a kind of crap-shoot with newer reissues of classic albums. And getting them on vinyl is confusing still. As you may have seen, many (if not all) of your favorites are available on LP again. But what do they SOUND like? Is that newer copy of Black Sabbath Vol. 4 mastered and cut from the original master recording, or was a digital remaster (complete with noise reduction and loudness mastering) used to cut the LP laquers. The proof is in the listening. And again, thankfully the music obsessed fans over at the Hoffman forums give no-holds-barred critiques of vinyl pressings.

Speaking of vinyl, seeing how a lot of source tapes have been converted to the digital medium, I'm not opposed to having an LP cut from a digital source. But make it known. If the LP was cut from the analog masters with analog gear (or possibly pressed with the original master plates if they were to still exist,) then make it known on the sleeve. Some people are fussy and want to know if their new record is an all analog press or a pressing with a digital generation somewhere down the line.

Then again, opinions on sound quality are different for everyone. While I don't go into every little detail about what pressing sounds better, whether a US Cut is better than a UK Cut, some of the answers are obvious to those with a good ear and who care to listen. An original Vertigo vinyl pressing of Sabbath Vol. 4 (with the word "porky" etched into the dead wax portion of the record) absolutely kills the US vinyls. its that noticable!

The delivery method of music has to take some of the blame here. In a world of MP3 players, iPod's and computer speakers, the old fashioned hi-fi stereo component system had fallen in popularity. But Hi-fi component systems, much like turntables and vinyl records, never went away. Now that fans are "seeing the light" about the sound quality of their music, or re-discovering the love of a good sound system, systems with dedicated components and higher end turntables are making a comeback. My favorite hi-fi unit is well over 22 years old, and the sound quality of that old Yamaha amp and SPL Monitors speakers can't be beat. its not the most powerful or fanciest amp out there, but it sounds great.

So I hope my ranting and raving has possibly educated you a little, or maybe has entertained you somewhat. Writing when you are fighting sleep can either be a bad thing or a good thing. But it shows that I care about how my music sounds. I don't have a system that cost thousands of dollers, but you don't need that. You just need a good set of ears and an opportunity to really LISTEN to what is being offered, and some basic knowledge to know the difference.



  1. Great post! Another item not often tackled in association with the loudness wars is the damage it's doing to people's hearing. These songs are recorded loud and are played loud in clubs, if there are a bunch of clubs together in an area they're each trying to blast their music louder than the guy next door. It's a bad scenario.

    In addition, a person wearing a digital hearing aid gets the sound compressed a second time, which makes this already compressed music sound even more terrible to a hearing aid wearer.

  2. LC, you are right. And great points you made. The fight to be "louder than the next guy", combined with over-compressed recordings is really ruining people's hearing. I don't frequent dance clubs and I am one of those people that wished dance music died just as disco did. I'd rather go to a club or bar that has good LIVE music. My town (and a nearby college town) have amazing indie scenes and the music is so much better than alot of the garbage today. (getting off the soapbox now...)

    I don't know if its just me, but it seems users of portable media players always have it blasting loudly, so loud that I can actually hear it when I'm standing next to said listener. But the tide DOES seem to be shifting slowly. With vinyl returning as a medium to be respected and reckoned with, the more "in tune" listener is realizing that loud and over compressed, over-de-noised, over-everything, isn't good. (Then again I like mine over-easy...wait, breakfast is over now, huh!)

    People are talking about the death of the CD and many people are preferring the instant availability of the digital download. My friend Rick White (of Eric's Trip & Elevator fame) is making his archive available through Bandcamp. And all songs are available as lossless or lossy, whatever you prefer. (Bandcamp's policy is that when an artist uploads a recording to make available, the recording MUST be a .wav file. Its nice that they also are concerned about audio quality for their users!) And many of our beloved classics are being re-re-issued as digital downloads in high-resolution sound. I got the hi-rez download of "The Velvet Underground & Nico" and as flawed as that recording is, the hi-rez sounds absolutely amazing! No major futzing from what I can tell. I just may be hopping on the hi-rez bandwagon if the sound quality is worth it.

    In addition, consider the person with the hearing aid. Yes, its compressing sound signals even further, but without the miracle of these little things, many people would not be able to enjoy music at all. But I am sure that a person with a hearing aid CAN tell the difference between a recording that has dynamic range intact and something that's been squeezed to shit.


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