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12/11/2007

Looking at loudness

CDs are getting louder, and the increased volume is coming at the expense of dynamics and other musical details. The Loudness War isn’t the sole domain of major labels–indie labels are often just as guilty of creating unlistenable CDs due to poor mastering choices.

Same band, different year
The Buzzcocks are a band I admire enormously. I have all their early recordings on LP, and repurchased many of them on CD in the 1990s. This is one of their classic singles, Ever Fallen in Love, ripped from the Singles Going Steady CD. Here’s a short MP3 excerpt of the song :Ever Fallen in Love (excerpt). Even in loss-tastic MP3 form, it sounds pretty damn good.

Ever Fallen in Love waveform

The band’s 2003 self-titled release on indie darling Merge records was rightly hailed as a return to form. The songwriting and playing are quite good. But the record is unlistenable. Here’s an MP3 excerpt of a track from the CD: Stars (excerpt). What your ears don’t tell you, your eyes will. Take a gander at this wave form.

The Loudness War (figure2)

It’s a perfect rectangle. And it’s a perfect rectangle because there is almost no dynamic variation in the track. It’s scarcely different from a test pattern. The result is oppressive, fatiguing, and unmusical. I haven’t listened to it since I bought it in 2003.

We quickly become numb to the ubiquitous. We often don’t notice how bad fast food tastes, how ugly strip malls are, what an eyesore our highways are, or the omnipresence of advertising in our public spaces. And, after a few years of listening to oppresively loud MP3s through crappy earbuds, we forget what music used to sound like.