Garbage in, garbage out. I’ll bet you’ve used this phrase countless number of times. In fact, these four little words have collectively become one of the few generally accepted tenets of the audiophile world, especially among we digital folk. Now in case you haven’t ever heard this expression in context before, let me explain: it is typically used by audiophiles as a trite way to point out that the weakest link in your digital playback chain can obviate the benefits of the expensive analogue gear behind it.
For example, I’ve heard audiophiles leverage this phrase to justify the cost of upgrading their DAC, since if the conversion from 1’s and 0’s to electrons isn’t up to snuff, it really doesn’t matter how much money you’ve spent on your favorite transducer of choice (personally, I’m partial to the HiFiMAN HE-1000).
Garbage in, garbage out. I’ve also heard this phrase used to describe why you shouldn’t ever enjoy the sound of low-res MP3s or any other type of lossy format. Again, if your source material is missing bits to begin with then you’ve already lost a modicum of fidelity before you even press play. GIGO! But over the last decade or so, these words have taken on a whole new meaning for me, and as a result, my perspective on this hobby has changed dramatically. Hopefully by the end of this article you’ll understand why.
Full disclosure: to this day, I can’t really fully explain why I love metal as much as I do. Even my wife is sometimes confused by it. I know that I gave my heart to Megadeth and Type O Negative in my teenage years. GWAR got me through my freshmen year in college. And Death was my constant study companion in graduate school. These days, when I write for my own blog, I listen to mainly black and death; sub-genres of metal that most audiophiles I meet consider obnoxious noise.
And before you write me off as someone who doesn’t appreciate “good” music like classical or jazz, I assure you I do. My mother went to Julliard (harp) and was my early music teacher. My great-uncle (clarinet) and aunt (harp) also went to Julliard and played for the Met and the New York Philharmonic respectively. Up until I was fifteen years old, I was being groomed to follow in their footsteps. This year alone I’ve seen five operas (Otello, Tannhauser, Tosca, Lakmé, and Figaro) and three orchestral works. (I’m writing this article to a live broadcast of Rigoletto right now). As you can see, I adore classical music as well. But despite my love for Wagner, Verdi, and Mozart, my heart belongs to metal, and I’m perfectly fine with that.
However, my love affair with heavy metal posses a big dilemma for me as a self-professed audiophile. Why? Because unlike classical and it’s “American” variant, jazz, where high-fidelity reigns supreme, heavy metal is a form of popular music (another term audiophile trade shows still don’t quite grasp yet), and as such is produced with a very different goal in mind, namely volume. The louder, the better. At all costs. Unfortunately, it’s not just metal either; all genres of popular music today including pop, rock, rap, EDM, you name it, are subject to the same production constraints as metal. The rise in prominence of this kind of production style is dubiously known as the Loudness War, which began life in the early ’90s and has been single-handedly destroying popular music ever since.
Despite being widely regarded as an artefact of the digital age, the Loudness War is really a by product of the golden era of vinyl. Back in the ’40s and ’50s, there weren’t any kind of broadcast standards to normalise loudness on the radio like there are today. That meant different songs played on the radio were all heard at different loudness levels. Songs played from vinyl records pressed from hot (loud) masters would sound louder than their soft (quiet) counterparts. Consequently, the volume knob in your grandfather’s Edsel would get a lot of heavy rotation (literally) when his favourite Motown tune came on. Record labels of course knew this and leveraged it to their full advantage, trying to drown each other out through volume. The idea was (and largely still is) that if one label’s roster of artists sounded louder on the radio than the others, people were more likely to gravitate toward the louder set.
Ultimately, this first round of the Loudness War reached its peak in the ’70s, when the limits of the vinyl format itself prevented labels from producing records any louder. But then the digital music resolution happened, and with it, a new and more brutal Loudness War took its place.
As a format, the CD is superior to vinyl in practically every measurable way. And by the early ’90s, it was pretty clear that the CD and more generally speaking, digital music, would eventually become the defacto high-fidelity format.
The first decade of the CD showed no signs of the Loudness War re-emerging, no matter the genre. From Megadeth to Madonna to even Massive Attack, CDs were mastered with fidelity first, volume second in those early golden years. But with the advent of the digital audio workstation (DAW) coupled with the fact that the CD wasn’t subject to the same intrinsic loudness limitations as vinyl, it was only a matter of time before CDs were being produced louder and louder. In fact, by the end of the ’90s, most forms of popular music were being mastered to previously unprecedented levels of volume. And though the world somehow managed to survive the Y2K problem, transients and dynamics in mainstream music unfortunately did not.
This second Loudness War reached a breaking point with the now infamous 2008 release of Metallica’s Death Magnetic, which had its volume level pushed beyond the point of digital clipping to cause audible distortion! But here is the sad truth: by 2008, Death Magnetic was no different than many, many other well-known Loudness War causalities before it. The Red Hot Chilli Peppers released Californication in 1999, almost a decade before Death Magnetic’s release, and it too was pushed to within inches of its sonic life. Same is true for Oasis’ (What’s the Story) Morning Glory? which was released in 1995 and also heavily compressed. And the list goes on and on.
Most Loudness War discussions centre on dynamic range compression (DRC), a technique used to reduce a track’s overall dynamic range, or the ratio of the softest sound to the loudest. This is done to in pursuit of maximum loudness. But DRC is not evil in itself, only its misuse. Which begs the question: why would an engineer ever want to use DRC anyway? Because not all sonic components of an individual track maybe recorded at the same volume level.
For instance, vocal components maybe recorded at a much louder or softer level than their accompanying instrumental counterparts and vice versa. So in an effort to achieve volume homogeneity across all of these components, a mastering engineer may apply a little DRC to a particular instrument or vocal section so that it sits more comfortably in the overall mix. This process is accomplished by making all the quiet parts louder while lowering or maintaining the louder parts at their respective levels. The net result is a more cohesive and pleasurable listening experience, since the loud sections don’t over power the soft ones allowing your ear drums to fully digest the aural goodness hitting them.
However, DRC is typically used in combination with brickwall limiting, a technique used to increase the volume of the record to its absolute peak level (0dbFS) before unwanted distortion occurs. The end result is a homogeneous sense of loudness (whether the material warranted this artificial boost or not). And as an engineer compresses the level of dynamic range past a certain threshold using a brickwall limiter, the music starts to lose its vibrancy and sense of realism. In fact, certain frequencies can get squashed so badly that they become completely inaudible. Ever wonder why you can’t hear bass guitars or why cymbals and hi-hats sound tinny and don’t reverb quite right on your favorite track? That’s typically the result of DRC coupled with brickwall limiting. And these production abuses are rampant in the industry; again, not just in the metal world either, but in all forms of popular music.
So with all of the above in mind, how does one quantify whether or not an album is over compressed? Over the last few years, the audiophile community has used a software tool called a TT Meter, which measures the dynamic range (DR) of an album and pops out a score e.g. DR11 or DR5.5. DR = dynamic range.
For proper context, DR6 is now the industry average and already considered by most sane engineers as too compressed. The recommended level according to most industry experts is DR8 or higher. Death Magnetic measured DR3. A bit of a fair warning though, a higher number doesn’t necessarily mean its sounds better, but in the overwhelming majority of cases, it usually does. I highly encourage you to both read my article on how to measure your own album collection as well as peruse the unofficial DR database online to get an even greater sense of how widespread this sonic epidemic really is. However, I can’t underscore this point enough: the application of DRC to a recording is not evil in itself, provided it’s performed judiciously. The fact is DRC is an invaluable production tool that can make a good sounding record sound even better. But because of the industry’s loudness-at-all-costs mentality fostered by the hunt for more ears (and therefore more sales), it is more often than not abused, irrevocably damaging the music in the process.
Since the dawn of digital music, the audiophile community has been largely focused on playback, constantly arguing over sample rates, formats, and so forth, when in reality, the real focus should be on production, since a record’s fidelity has more to do with the choices made in the studio than what format it is ultimately delivered in. The fact is all recordings have a certain intrinsic production value to them, and if that value is very low to begin with, it makes no difference whether you play it back as MP3s, high-res FLAC, or even vinyl.
It’s also why I’m not big into Pono or high-res audio in general. Not because I don’t think there aren’t any real audible benefits to be had with higher sampling rates, but because it fails to address the real problem facing fidelity in popular music today vis-à-vis its production. No format can fix the fact that Adele’s recently released 25 is a DR5 compressed nightmare. In other words, garbage in, garbage out.
Further reading: Metal-Fi