The Loudness War Is Over - If We Want It - Mastering Media Blog

Wednesday, 26 November 2008

The Loudness War Is Over - If We Want It

The Loudness Wars are over. The tide has turned. The massive backlash against the crushed, distorted sound of Metallica's Death Magnetic has had exactly the impact we all wanted.

Want proof ? Guns 'n' Roses' new CD, "Chinese Democracy", has been mastered by industry legend Bob Ludwig, who offered the producers three different masters, and they chose the most dynamic version.

In an article on his website, Bob says

I was floored when I heard they decided to go with my full dynamics version and the loudness-for-loudness-sake versions be damned.

and goes on to explain:

I think the fan and press backlash against the recent heavily compressed recordings finally set the context for someone to take a stand and return to putting music and dynamics above sheer level...

...I’m hoping that Chinese Democracy will mark the beginning of people returning to sane levels and musicality triumphing over distortion and grunge. I have already seen a new awareness and appreciation for quality from some other producers, I pray it is the end of the level wars.

Bob isn't the only one to see a change, though. Mastering engineers have been commenting on the Gearslutz Mastering forum and elsewhere that since the publicity surrounding the release of "Death Magnetic" more and more people are asking

"Please don't do a 'Metallica' on my record"

I've seen it myself too - recently I called a long-time customer to suggest that his latest CD would sound better with a few dBs more headroom - I said "I realise you'll probably disagree with this, but in my opinion it's too loud" - and he replied "I know" !

That had never happened before.

But it will happen more and more, from now on. Despite Metallica's unconvincing insistence that they are happy with the way Rick Rubin produced "Death Magnetic", over 80% of fans responding to a poll on their forums think that it should be remixed. Over 18,000 people have signed the online petition. Only a handful of the 280,000 who have viewed the YouTube comparison video say they prefer the CD version.

And what about "Chinese Democracy" ? One of the most expensive and anticipated rock albums in recent years ? Against all expectations, it has been produced and mastered with dynamics, punch and power. The average A-weighted RMS loudness is around -16 dBFS, and as a result it "jumps out of the speakers" at you in a way that "Death Magnetic" never will. Check out a preview of the first track on - listen to the way the guitars pile in at 1'26" and then again at 2'10" and then again at 3'36" - you just can't achieve that kind of buzz and build with an RMS of -4 dB.

Here are some predictions for "Chinese Democracy":
  • It will sell by the bucket-load (head?!) even though it hasn't been smashed to hell
  • No-one will complain that it's too quiet
  • It will sound fantastic (and loud) on the radio, because it's dynamic and punchy
  • No-one will start a petition to have a crushed and distorted re-release made
Hats off to Bob and the team behind Guns 'n' Roses, and here's to a future of better-sounding music.

Please use the Digg or Stumble buttons below if you enjoyed this post and would like to publicise the issue of the Loudness Wars !


Richaod said...

It's interesting that the overproduction on Chinese Democracy over the last 17 years has actually been one of the best things about it - the amount of detail in the production makes it sound fresh no matter how long ago the songs were written. And I'm sure a perfectionist like Axl wouldn't have spent that long on it only to ruin the album's dynamics through shoddy mastering.

Dean Whitbread said...

very very very good news. well done!

Benjamin said...

That's good news! Now... about an HD audio format... ;)

ianshepherd said...

One thing at a time, sir :-)

M said...

This is exactly what I've been saying. That "overproduced" feeling makes the album that much better. And recent even though the songs are from another generation. We most of em. This album is great. Please overproduce the next cd too :P


Jonathan said...

Excellent news!

That first track is great. I don't think I've heard a rock song sound as fresh and exciting since Rage Against The Machine, another Bob Ludwig master.

It was nearly worth the whole Loudness War just to hear Metallica on Radio 4 though :-)

iron_gr said...

Hi Ian! This is great news! Maybe they all change!

There are a few months now that I am listening to Tool, esp. the last 2 albums. Can you comment on their sound quality? I think it's great!

Also I've made a bulletin post in myspace

I agree with Benjamin, they should give us HD sound, not crappy CD's...

tung said...

I'm almost considering buying this album, even though I really don't like Axl, because it does sound good. Definitely a good indication that maybe the tide is turning..

As for iron_gr, CDs may be 80s technology, but they still rock! But give me a surround sound DVD-A, and I'll be even happier!

ianshepherd said...

Sadly I think DVD-A and SACD had their chance and blew it. The future of HD surround-sound is Blu Ray, no question.

Of course you can put 24/96 stereo on a regular DVD...

We also do DAVDs - CD on one side, DVD on the other, for example:

Galactic Symphonies

Great format. Also CDs can (and do) sound fantastic if you do them right.

iron_gr said...

Hmm.. no, I don't think surround sound is perfect. Only 2.0 is the true, the perfect sound. IMHO 2.0 is closest to natural sound, so for me is bluray with 2.0 :D

drew said...

Aw, come on, Ian. You didn't think a perfectionist like Uncle Axl would go all Death Magnetic on us, did ya?

I have to confess I wasn't familiar with the Loudness War until the Metallica Incident. But, hearing the difference in quality between Death Magnetic and Chinese Democracy, it's pretty amazing. It's the difference between Axl Robin Finck playing in front of you and James Hetfield and Kirk Hammond playing through a bullhorn. A lot more "bang" in the former.

Thanks for the education on this stuff, Ian. It's really great.

Ash said...

Are you guys listening to the same album as me? Jeez, what are you talking about saying this album isn't too loud and over compressed. Because it certainly is.

The record has no room to breathe, the guitar tones are horrible in most places.

Just go back and listen to the production on "November Rain". Just listen to life of and size of it. Axl's voice is much further back in the mix and it sounds like a real band playing in a big room rather than a band playing in a basement.

Chinese Democracy sounds like a slightly high budget bedroom production its weak and dissapointing. The piano sounds like midi in some places and the strings sound like synth most of the time.

In regards to mastering though, I guess you can't polish a turd.

Don't get me wrong Chinese Democracy isn't a BAD album but the songs and production don't justify 17 years of work.

timseley said...

Nice to see some mainstream awareness/attention towards how records are produced. Good work! Really enjoy the blog. Found it via an @ reply on twitter.

rob said...

Ive read some great interpretations of the album and some very key observations. Given the current state of recorded music, especially rock, we have to admit axl delivered. And I dont like him as much as the next guy , but we owe him great thanks because he really did give us something to sink out teeth into despite any quibbles we may have about its nature. It wasnt hard to like because it was actually interesting, and Man does it sound better than metallica!

Gooner14 said...

The album may not live upto the previous albums of the band, but the production definitely stands out on CD. Its crisp and you can hear every beat on this album clearly.

Instead of having a muffled out bass guitar or trying over an hour to make out the rhythm guitars, once can clearly distiniguish the sound and that definitely sets it apart.

AFD too was a loud, in your face album that was a big eff you in its time and people critticized that, then when they got over that, they criticized UYI when they got over that they criticized spaghetti (when the album was clearly a tribute album) get over yourselves people

dperis said...

Alan Parsons says...

Richard Tollerton said...

Curmudgeon though I am, I still wish you'd be right that there would be some clear consensus about what "the listeners" (read: people who aren't us) want. Unfortunately some googling turned up this rather scary blog post by a major newspaper critic, with comments (from him and another guy) like:

"Too much of the 71-minute, 14-track album is overthought and, its worst offense, it's sonically thin and poorly mixed. Unlike recent top-shelf hard rock albums from Metallica, AC/DC and Nickelback, Chinese Democracy has no bottom end."

"I played GNR on an expensive home system, a good car stereo AND iPod and it's thin and overproduced on all of them and requires that I boost the volume a full 4 to 5 positions on the knob higher than I have to do for most any other current CD, not just in the rock vein.
As for Metallica, I've heard all the complaints about its overloud sound mix and compression. It sounds terrific in my car. Certainly has more presence than the GNR CD. And the Nickelback has a whomping big bottom sound. There's no bass on this GNR CD despite at least 2 bassists credited in the liner notes.
A colleague of mine at another paper even called me last week to ask if it was just him or was there something wrong with the sound? Not just him."

... And from Dallas Morning News:

"Neither will the effort's lack of drum-fortified bottom. It sounds thin... In a year where good old-fashioned RNR has made such a huge comeback, thanks to the great urgency of the new Metallica and AC/DC albums, Guns N' Roses feels like the audible equivalent of Shakespeare."

"This CD is garbage. It is painfully hard to listen to, even as a GNR fan. It is not worth the 18 cents to burn it to CD."

So, you know, blah!

rob said...

I didn't read any reviews of the album before i bought it as I usually don't care at all what some other person thinks or thinks they should think. Ive never had much use for critics, but when i read those statements I must say that I was very angered. These are people whose job it is to rate music and damn it I am certain that when they listened to the record on their stupid ear buds or in their crappy car or on their computer speakers they could not hear the music? does anyone hear the music? If you were not so afraid of the volume knob, you would hear it and if your speakers didn't such so much uncompressed recordings would not hurt to listen to you. Seriously people this is why no one puts out good music anymore, because no one cares one way or another. As for the album lacking low end, are you saying that friggin nickelback and metallica should be example setters? Thats a ridiculous precedent to follow those albums regardless of musical integrity, which this discussion is not about, Everything is the same goddamn volume and they have the depth of a puddle of mud! Some of us can remember how real rock music sounds:Zep,beatles, to pearl jam and muse. We must stick together and never sacrifice our records sonic quality for the sake of the person who is gunna steal it on the internet anyway, we make records for us and for true fans. Its like teaching a class on the things that the dumbest kid understands! Everyone else suffers because of it!
Peace out!

Richard Tollerton said...

Well, the Cohen guy (sorry, got confused, in the first link it's just that one critic making those comments) claimed he listened to Chinese Democracy on all sorts of half-decent systems. And note especially, he negatively commented that he had to turn his volume knob up.

Resist, for a moment, the uncontrollable (and well-founded!) urge to call a professional American Idol blogger a douche. He's a direct contradiction of Ian's prediction, and a rather visible one at that.

And c'mon, #3 on the first week? Compared to Metallica's absolute domination of the charts? Not a particularly good sign, but then again, Death Magnetic also received tremendously more advertising. If CD winds up selling several times less than DM, the whole question of saleability will still be a valid concern for the next several years. Not good. It'll age better 20 years from now, of course, but I don't think people want to wait that long for better mastering...

Double-Dolphin said...

1.since when is it a bad thing that you have to turn the volume up? That's what the volume button was invented for you know. Besides, in today's day and age, if you have to turn the volume up, then I'd say there are very great chances that the album has good production. can someone think of evaluating music in a car? It's absolutely the worst venue for listening to music.

3.anyone who thinks that Death Magnetic sounds better that Chinese Democracy, is mad, or deaf, or both!

4.I have personally checked the album with both professional equipment, on my superb home system, and on a variety of systems and speakers, it sounds like what it should. Good, detailed, clear.

5.what would you guys say of composers like Debussy or Beethoven where the dynamic range of an average symphony is some 30dB? So it goes from a whisper to an explosion in a matter of seconds? Bad right? Since it makes you wanna reach for the volume button every few minutes? So let's compress that as well! Let's compress everything, till every piece of music is at the exact same level! Let's make them all distorted sonic sludge like Death Magentic!

Alex said...

I just had to comment on this, i have heard the internet released version of Chinese Democracy and while its not everyone's cup of tea (yes i'm British...), you can hear the sound of almost everything in the mix.

The Metallica Album Death Magnetic (which i actually do own) does not sound good, its raw, punchy, hard....all those things. But musical depth is missing. Now we skip to seeing Metallica live (seen them a couple times this year as i'm a big fan), these songs kick ass live, they sound so much better than on the album.

Now its nice to hear songs sound better live than on the record, that is every fan's dream when they attend a gig, but not when the album sounds so bad that live CAN ONLY BE AN IMPROVEMENT purely because it gives it more depth and dimension.

I saw Metallica a couple of years ago in a tent at download festival, the sound setup was good, i was fairly close to centre front of the test and the older songs and newer songs sounded immense and at least as good as they did on the album for most of the tracks. With a decent sound setup though Death magnetics can't help but sound better.

Oh also, my brother is buying me the new GNR album on cd for christmas (despite the fact i already own it digitally) i've got all the other cd's and i've waited long enough for this one.

Both albums are an initial disappointment. But the GNR one is very listenable and i think will grow on me, as for Metallica's Death Magnetic..i only listen to the Moderus II fan mix put out on torrent. It says something when metallica forum members release their own mix.

ianshepherd said...

Thanks for the comments, guys !

For what it's worth, I have lots of issues with the production of Chinese Democracy - I'd like more weight in the mix overall, and it sounds quite clinical in places - plus, what's with all the auto-tune ?!

But in mastering terms alone I think it's a triumph, simply for what it stands for, and because Bob chose to speak out.

@richard: I don't think sales will be affected in the least. Here's an anecdote - my colleague Simon Murphy has two friends who have bought both CDs - one can't hear the distortion on DM (!), the other can hear it but isn't bothered by it (!!). Neither of them made any comment about the 10dB difference in overall level on the disks...

The blog you link to is interesting, but the vast majority of discussion I've seen about G'n'R has been positive about the mastering, if not the overall production.

I never got round to replying to your "Lars' Paradox" idea's but not surprisingly I strongly disagree - louder is better exactly as Rubin says, but only up to a certain point. Beyond -12 dBFS A-weighted RMS (or thereabouts) the subjective improvements of extra compression and limiting essentially stop, and all that's left is damage to the audio.

Rubin has tested his theory literally beyond destruction in this case, and I'll be very surprised if he does it again.


Richard Tollerton said...

Certainly, the example put forth by GNR and the increasing number of anecdotal reports about mastering clients wanting quieter masters is a very promising sign - and if it continues into general practice, I'll happily eat crow. But we're not there yet.

Pete Bilderback said...

Dare I hope that Springsteen's upcoming album will not be compressed to death?

Also, one thing I'd like to note, while Rick Rubin rightly has been criticized for making DM far too loud even before it got to the mastering stage, his production of Neil Diamond's Home Before Dark is extremely praiseworthy--tons of dynamic range, and just really great sound in general.

Earl said...

I gave a talk on this topic at the recent Audio Engineering Society convention. The presentation looks at the loudness war in terms of game theory and gives evidence questioning the idea that louder recordings sell better:

ianshepherd said...

Hi Earl,

Thanks for the link, I'll take a look ! Some hard research with evidence about these issues would be very welcome.


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