Why modern music sounds rubbish
The Loudness Wars, illustrated
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 nothing, no vocal, no nothing, just like ... static."
It's called the "Loudness War" and there are many nice illustrations of this. Here's one that arrived in my mailbag this week. Have a look, and see what it's all about.
I tapped veteran audio expert and MIT grad Darryl for this expert summary:
"It is a standard sound engineer complaint, as well as of serious listeners. And, those that have simply listened and (easily) heard the difference. It was propelled by increased CD listening in cars (to further standout over more background noise). Louder and faster records on radio and jukeboxes are earlier variants. Louder ads on radio and TV is another.
"The ear and brain are attracted to loudness ahead of processing range and tonal balance. In loudspeakers, comparing with the same amplifier input, the speaker with less bass response plays louder and 'sounds better'. Only if the power or volume is adjusted for equal volume comparison (and equal placement: not corners vs midfield) does the higher sound quality of the fuller range speaker become easily audible, obvious and preferred. The slight shift of the volume knob is not relevant in everyday use, but very effective to bias the impression and direct the sale – to more easily sell the lower quality speaker, with larger margin."
It hasn't affected all musicians, though. Last year's Mercury winner The xx, despite the band's background in noisy music, was really made to be listened to in a very quiet room. These days cars are quieter than they were in the 1980s – when many were roaring old bangers from the '70s. And people listening on computers should expect less background noise too – they're getting quieter.
Might we to expect this awful trend to be reversed?
I'm curious. Enlighten me. ®
Why modern music sounds rubbish?
...no. Lossy audio compression formats do not use dynamic range compression.
Confusing your compressions
Dynamic range compression and MP3 lossy compression have absolutely nothing to do with one another. They are completely and utterly different things. CDs and other earlier forms of recording have used dynamic range compression. In essence it simply means making quieter sections louder. It was done for good reasons - so that quiet passages could be heard in noisy environments and for radio broadcasting, and for bad reasons. The latter is essentially to make records sound "brighter" or, some might say, less easy to ignore.
MP3 lossy compression is a completely different thing - it basically loses less audible features. An MP3 file can exceed the dynamic range of a CD as it does not use linear encoding.
Anyway, this is hardly a new phenomenon. It's called the "loudness wars" and arose from music producers wanting more of an instant hit. As it happens, the dynamic range on almost all contemporary music is nothing compared to some symphonic pieces which truly only work in quiet rooms or on headphones.