Adam Sherwin, Media Correspondent
The Times (UK) June 4, 2007
Dad was right all along – rock music really is getting louder and now recording experts have warned that the sound of chart-topping albums is making listeners feel sick.
That distortion effect running through your Oasis album is not entirely the Gallagher brothers’ invention. Record companies are using digital technology to turn the volume on CDs up to “11”.
Artists and record bosses believe that the best album is the loudest one. Sound levels are being artificially enhanced so that the music punches through when it competes against background noise in pubs or cars.
Britain’s leading studio engineers are starting a campaign against a widespread technique that removes the dynamic range of a recording, making everything sound “loud”.
“Peak limiting” squeezes the sound range to one level, removing the peaks and troughs that would normally separate a quieter verse from a pumping chorus.
The process takes place at mastering, the final stage before a track is prepared for release. In the days of vinyl, the needle would jump out of the groove if a track was too loud.
But today musical details, including vocals and snare drums, are lost in the blare and many CD players respond to the frequency challenge by adding a buzzing, distorted sound to tracks.
Oasis started the loudness war and recent albums by Arctic Monkeys and Lily Allen have pushed the loudness needle further into the red.
The Red Hot Chili Peppers’ Californication, branded “unlistenable” by studio experts, is the subject of an online petition calling for it to be “remastered” without its harsh, compressed sound.
Peter Mew, senior mastering engineer at Abbey Road studios, said: “Record companies are competing in an arms race to make their album sound the ‘loudest’. The quieter parts are becoming louder and the loudest parts are just becoming a buzz.”
Mr Mew, who joined Abbey Road in 1965 and mastered David Bowie’s classic 1970s albums, warned that modern albums now induced nausea.
He said: “The brain is not geared to accept buzzing. The CDs induce a sense of fatigue in the listeners. It becomes psychologically tiring and almost impossible to listen to. This could be the reason why CD sales are in a slump.”
Geoff Emerick, engineer on the Beatles’ Sgt. Pepper album, said: “A lot of what is released today is basically a scrunched-up mess. Whole layers of sound are missing. It is because record companies don’t trust the listener to decide themselves if they want to turn the volume up.”
Downloading has exacerbated the effect. Songs are compressed once again into digital files before being sold on iTunes and similar sites. The reduction in quality is so marked that EMI has introduced higher-quality digital tracks, albeit at a premium price, in response to consumer demand.
Domino, Arctic Monkeys’ record company, defended its band’s use of compression on their chart-topping albums, as a way of making their music sound “impactful”.
Angelo Montrone, an executive at One Haven, a Sony Music company, said the technique was “causing our listeners fatigue and even pain while trying to enjoy their favourite music”.
In an open letter to the music industry, he asked: “Have you ever heard one of those test tones on TV when the station is off the air? Notice how it becomes painfully annoying in a very short time? That’s essentially what you do to a song when you super-compress it. You eliminate all dynamics.”
Mr Montrone released a compression-free album by Texan roots rock group Los Lonely Boys which sold 2.5 million copies.
Val Weedon, of the UK Noise Association, called for a ceasefire in the “loudness war”. She said: “Bass-heavy music is already one of the biggest concerns for suffering neighbours. It is one thing for music to be loud but to make it deliberately noisy seems pointless.”
Mr Emerick, who has rerecorded Sgt. Pepper on the original studio equipment with contemporary artists, admitted that bands have always had to fight to get their artistic vision across.
He said: “The Beatles didn’t want any nuance altered on Sgt. Pepper. I had a stand-up row with the mastering engineer because I insisted on sitting in on the final transfer.”
The Beatles lobbied Parlophone, their record company, to get their records pressed on thicker vinyl so they could achieve a bigger bass sound.
Bob Dylan has joined the campaign for a return to musical dynamics. He told Rolling Stone magazine: “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.”
– The human ear responds to the average sound across a piece of music rather than peaks and crescendos. Quiet and loud sounds are squashed together, decreasing the dynamic range, raising the average loudness
– The saturation level for a sound signal is digital full scale, or 0dB. In the 1980s, the average sound level of a track was -18dB. The arrival of digital technology allowed engineers to push finished tracks closer to the loudest possible, 0dB
– The curves of a sound wave, which represent a wide dynamic range, become clipped and flattened to create “square waves” which generate a buzzing effect and digital distortion on CD players