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When hi-res audio stops making sense…

  • To listen to many an audiophile is to hear how the delivery format of music is paramount: that nothing beats the sound of vinyl, that the CD remains criminally underrated, that hi-res audio is the gold standard of streaming and that MP3s are garbage.

    I could hold aloft a freshly-bought copy of Talking Heads’ Stop Making Sense – issued as 2LP  limited Deluxe Edition by Rhino last Friday and coming to movie theatres again in September – and claim it to be the definitive version on any forum of my choosing. And yet I would be incorrect. Why? It has nothing to do with the 2023 edition’s plain cover that dispenses with the ‘big suit’ image, the lack of a gatefold outer, the large colour booklet contained therein or the plain paper inner sleeves.

    Let’s dig deeper…

    Stop Making Sense was shot by Jonathan Demme and Jordan Cronenweth in mid-December 1983 as Talking Heads played three nights at the Pantages Theatre in Hollywood. The following year, Demme cut the footage into a full-length movie that has gone on to be considered by many as the greatest concert movie ever made. An album of the same name containing nine songs from the movie’s set of sixteen hit record stores that same year: 1984.

    One important fact to note out of the gate is how the 2023 2LP edition of Stop Making Sense contains far more music than the original vinyl and CD. It gives us the movie’s original sixteen and in the correct sequence plus two more songs (‘Cities’ and ‘Big Business/I Zimbra’) cut from the theatrical movie release but reinstated by Demme for 1986’s video cassette and Laserdisc releases. Bizarrely, those same two songs were relegated to bonus material when Stop Making Sense was ‘remastered and remixed’ for DVD (2003) and Blu-ray (2009).

    Anyone who has ever spent any time on a hifi forum will know that if I was to express my enthusiasm for the double vinyl set, it would only be a matter of minutes before another audiophile would hit me with an ‘au contraire’; didn’t I know that the surface noise spilling from my vinyl copy was far too intrusive for serious audiophile listening and that the 24bit/44.1kHz hi-res version of the same (and now available to stream) was far superior? That’s 8 bits more than would otherwise be held by a CD.

    Curiously, the new Deluxe Edition of Stop Making Sense has yet to be issued on CD (for which it’d have to be a double). No mind. There exist two CD versions in circulation: the 1984 original that extended the run time of all but two of its nine songs and 1999’s Special New Edition that mirrored the movie itself on song count and sequencing but not run time.

    Jonathan Demme’s original cut ran 88 minutes (the VHS and Laserdisc 99 minutes) and only 80 of those minutes can fit on a CD. Some songs were therefore cut down in length for the 1999 CD. And fair enough: perhaps we don’t need to hear David Byrne introduce the band by name during “Take Me To The River”‘s extended breakdown. But the 1999 CD also takes an axe to the intra-song crowd noise to such an extent that each song smashes into the next as if the band cannot wait to be done with the set. It doesn’t breathe. The original CD didn’t suffer this issue because it was sequenced and edited to serve as a standalone Talking Heads album. You could enjoy it and never see the movie.

    Perhaps we make such bold proclamations about our favourite formats because we enjoy their physical presence (vinyl, CDs). Or perhaps it’s because digital formats, a regular flashpoint for the terminally online, come with a set of numbers that tell us something about their encoded resolution (MP3, CD, hi-res audio).

    And yet our assertions about the sound quality of our chosen format remain ignorant of – or choose to ignore – mastering quality, which I (and many others would contend) is something that has a far greater impact on what we hear.

    The 2023 remaster of Stop Making Sense turns over more deep-mix details than the original – of that there is doubt – but what of the new master’s dynamic range? That’s the distance, volume-wise, between the loud sounds and the quiet. The further they are apart, the higher the master’s dynamic range. The closer the two, the lower the master’s dynamic range — this is when we’ll hear people complain that the master has been cut ‘too loud’ and that it’s exhausting to listen to because it contains no sense of light and shade. That’s great news for the record label wanting their song to really pop on the radio but bad news for anyone who cares about sound quality.

    Many other audiophiles – those not enslaved by format dogma – are hip to this knowledge and will source their music accordingly. But to do so takes some effort. The dynamic range of a recording is rarely, if ever, published by the record label, the pressing plant, the streaming service or the artist. Fortunately, we can measure it.

    I used a piece of software called DR Offline MKII by MAAT to analyse the dynamic range of numerous digital versions of Stop Making Sense. Here’s the original nine-track CD which has an overall score of DR14.

    That’s a very good score; one that goes toward explaining why this is one of the best-sounding recordings in my library. Many masters cut in the 1980s sound incredible by modern standards. Mastering engineers didn’t begin exploiting dynamic range compression until the mid-90s. By the time the Special New (CD) Edition of Stop Making Sense was released in 1999, the ‘loudness wars’ were well underway. And yet despite that, it scores a respectable DR11 from MAAT analysis.

    Not only do our ears tell us that this 1999 remaster is a little louder (read: more compressed) than the original, DR Offline MKII confirms it. But it’s by no means a car crash. Many modern pop records clock up DR6 and DR7 as they scream their way up the album charts.

    So what of the new 2023 Deluxe edition? As its name suggests, DR Offline MKII can only measure files that reside on a hard drive (and not those on streaming services) so I sourced a 24bit/44.1kHz download. And I hope you’re sitting down because the news isn’t good: DR9.

    On a really good hi-fi or headphone system, and despite the 2023 master’s more detailed presentation, you can hear the higher levels of dynamic range compression relative to the original master. And you can hear them on the vinyl too. I’ll also add that this vinyl version nitpick: ramping up the crowd noise so close to the start of the first song on each new side sounds shabby.

    So, to recap: the latest 2023 remaster gives us the complete 18-song, 99-minute ‘VHS release’ set (and in proper sequence) but it also gives us the most dynamic range compression. The 1999 CD (no vinyl) drops two songs and delivers mid-level dynamic range compression. And the original 1984 release sounds (and measures) by far the best with minimal dynamic range compression; such a shame that it only contains nine songs of which seven are heavily edited on vinyl.

    But wait! There’s one digital version of Stop Making Sense that we’ve yet to consider: the audio buried on the Blu-ray disc. Several years ago, I had a friend extract the stereo mix for me to reveal a 24bit/48kHz file. This was then cut up into 18 songs (including the two bonus cuts tacked onto the end). This week’s DR Offline MKII analysis returned an album score of DR13. Not bad!

    This goes a long way toward explaining why I listen to this version of Stop Making Sense the most often. Not only do we get all 18 songs (albeit with Cities and ‘Big Business/I Zimbra’ tacked onto the end) but we get 1980s levels of dynamic range compression that are almost as low as the original master and we get to hear Byrne introduce the band by name.

    Furthermore, I can still hear the DR disparities between the original master, the 1999 remaster (which was also remixed), the 2023 remaster and the 2009 Blu-ray with all the source FLAC files cross-converted to 320kbps MP3. I know because I’ve done the (rather tedious) side-by-side comparisons. The upshot was that, judged strictly from a sonics point of view whilst ignoring track selections and mix differences, I prefer the sound of the original Stop Making Sense CD encoded with MP3 to the 2023 remaster sitting on the same hard drive in 24bit/44.1kHz FLAC — or pressed to two slabs of vinyl.

    Today’s lesson is a sharp reminder that the mastering quality of an album will always trump its delivery format. That an MP3 – or the Ogg Vorbis and AAC used by Spotify and Apple Music respectively – can sound astonishingly good when the mastering engineer has maintained a recording’s dynamic range. And that hi-res audio stops making sense when it wraps a heavily compressed master.

    Further information: Talking Heads | Dr Loudness Database


    Written by John

    John currently lives in Berlin where he creates videos and podcasts for Darko.Audio. He has previously contributed to 6moons, TONEAudio, AudioStream and Stereophile.

    Darko.Audio is a member of EISA.

    Follow John on YouTube or Instagram

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