Why Music Sounds Bad (Sonically, I Mean) — And Why It’s Your Fault

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With a couple of exceptions, I’ve given up buying CDs.  Why?  Because they sound awful–and it’s getting worse.

When CDs first came out in the 80s, sonic quality was a hit-and-miss affair.  Some discs were merely duplications of masters used for the vinyl release with all its shortcomings and imperfections.  The best example I can think of was the first edition of Elvis Costello’s My Aim is True which featured so much tape hiss–hiss that would have been obscured on vinyl–so as to render it almost unlistenable.  LoFi?  More like NOfi.

But there were the discs that sounded glorious.  I have a copy of AC/DC’s Back in Black c.1987 that is outstanding.  And what makes it so good? An almost complete absence of compression. The quiet bits are quiet and the loud bits are LOUD.  The dynamic range in this recording makes for a powerful listening experience.

Today, though, most music sounds like shit: compressed, squished and over-EQed.  And it’s YOUR fault.

Wait.  Back up.  I’d better explain.

The the pre-CD days, all music was mastered for vinyl, a format that could only handle so much compression before the needle started jumping out of the grooves.  There are no such limits with digital recording, which has led to what’s called The Loudness Wars.

This trend toward putting out overcompressed music stripped of its dynamic range was bad enough with CDs.  But then we all moved to digital files.  This prompted a new approach in the mastering process. From CNET:

Today’s bands and record labels know their audiences aren’t listening at home on a stereo, so they have to make sure the music’s volume never changes. That way the listeners can hear it well enough in the noisiest of places. That’s why engineers compress music, compression boosts the softer sounds, and flattens the really loud bits, so it all comes out sounding the same. From a whisper to a scream, it’s all equally loud.

Adding a little extra zing to the mix helps it cut better over the lowest-fi Bluetooth speakers, especially when there’s lots of competing sound on the beach or park or other settings. And since most BT speakers are just one speaker, mono is well on its way to replacing stereo over speakers.

One of the weirdest things about all this is that many, many people believe that this kind of audio sounds good–or at least good enough.  They’re completely satisfied with the audio quality of what’s coming out of their tiny speakers and earbuds. They don’t see the need for anything more–and the recording industry is simply responding to what they seem to want.

In other words, if you love really good sound when it comes to your music, don’t hold your breath.  The trend in the industry is to service the people who like their music to sound good enough.  That means tweaking, mixing, mastering and EQing tracks for how most people will hear it: on shitty speakers.

But this isn’t a new thing.  Music has been getting louder (i.e. sonically worse) every year for decades. FastCoDesign found proof:

Analyzing the top 5,000 songs since 1950, the Echo Nest found that the average loudness of music increased very, very slowly up until 1990, when it suddenly exploded, increasing in average loudness by about 39% in just 20 years.

What do we mean, though, when we say that music is “louder” than it used to be? Can’t you just turn down the volume if you choose to? Actually, it’s not really about how loud the music coming out of your headphones or speakers is, but the difference in volume between the quietest elements of a song and the loudest elements. In any media format–vinyl, cassette, CD, MP3, you name it–there’s a maximum volume that an element can be, and that is not growing. It’s the quieter parts of a song that are getting louder and louder, resulting in a dynamic range that has continued to shrink over time.

In a way, then, the issue isn’t so much that music is getting so loud we’re risking our hearing; it’s more that music is, when averaged out, less nuanced and complex with every passing year than the year before it. But hey, let’s face it, Nicki Minaj’s “Super Bass” was never meant to be a subtle, multifaceted acoustic experience. Maybe it’s enough to rattle your fillings loose.

While there are people who are kicking against these trends (cf. Neil Young and his Pono system), the easiest way to experience the best possible sound is with vinyl.  The new 180-gram reissues on virgin (i.e. non-recycled) vinyl sound spectacular.

When I play, say, Daft Punk’s Randdom Access Memories for a vinyl newbie  through even my decent mid-range stereo, their eyes widen.  Some have even gasped at the clarity, the depth and the sonic range of the production.

And then most of them go back to their $10 ear buds.  “They’re fine,” they say.

If you believe that what you hear in your cheap ear buds or through your $30 Bluetooth speaker sounds good, I feel sorry for you.  You’re not only missing the incredible effort the artist put into making that record, you’re also missing the full incredible emotional and physical glory of listening to music.

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