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Monday, November 30, 2009

Is the Music Over?

"Well, the music is your special friend
Dance on fire as it intends
Music is your only friend
Until the end
Until the end,
Until the end..."     --The Doors, "When the Music's Over"

The End of Music?

Glenn Branca has composed 13 symphonies: six for electric guitars, three for harmonic series instruments, three for orchestra and one, No. 13, for 100 guitars. The first movement of No. 14 was premiered by The St Louis Symphony in 2008. He is recording a new album, "The Ascension: The Sequel." I find his commentary compelling and illustrative of the music industry.

Branca comments on the current state of the quality of music in The New York Times ("The End of Music," November 24 2009). Branca states, "For more than half a century we’ve seen incredible advances in sound technology but very little if any advance in the quality of music. In this case the paradigm shift may not be a shift but a dead stop. Is it that people just don’t want to hear anything new? Or is it that composers and musicians have simply swallowed the pomo (postmodern) line that nothing else new can be done, which ironically is really just the 'old, old story.'"

While Branca believes music itself is not dead, he believes we will continue to hear "something approximating it" in malls and retail outlets where it will "mesmerize" consumers into spending money. Muzak is not a new form; however, the general public and even many composers and songwriters can't tell the difference between music and Muzak. The bigger the intended audience, the more the "message" has to be watered down according to Branca. And, if Muzak is paying the bill for musicians, it will likely continue.

As This Relates to Recordings

Suhas Sreedhar (, Inside Technology, August 2007) states, "The loudness war, what many audiophiles refer to as an assault on music (and ears), has been an open secret of the recording industry for nearly the past two decades and has garnered more attention in recent years as CDs have pushed the limits of loudness thanks to advances in digital technology. The ”war” refers to the competition among record companies to make louder and louder albums. But the loudness war could be doing more than simply pumping up the volume and angering aficionados--it could be responsible for halting technological advances in sound quality for years to come."
Overcompression: The Beginnings

Sreedhar believes the main factor in the loudness war is the difference between the waveforms of songs 20 years ago and now.

Music, like speech, is dynamic. Quiet and loud moments serve to accentuate each other and convey meaning by their relative levels of loudness. Sreedhar says, "For instance, if someone is talking and suddenly shouts, the loudness of the shout, in addition to the content, conveys a message--be it a sense of urgency, surprise, or anger."

But when the dynamic range of a song is heavily reduced for the sake of achieving loudness, the sound becomes analogous to someone constantly shouting everything he or she says. Impact is lost and sound fatigue begins. Why, then, is loudness important in the recordings of today?

In the early 1960s, record companies began engaging in a loudness battle when they observed that louder songs in jukeboxes tended to garner more attention than quieter ones. To maintain their competitive edge, record companies demanded raising the loudness of their songs. Vinyl records presented physical limitations to the engineers' ability to keep increase loudness.

A louder vinyl song required a wider groove in the transcription. And, because only a limited amount of usable surface area per vinyl disc existed, gaining loudness meant sacrificing playing time, especially on a long playing (LP) record where upwards of six songs were often fit on each side of the disc.

Machines called compressors were used to boost the loudness of songs to higher-than-average levels. Mastering engineers accomplished this task by reducing the dynamic range of a song so that the entire song could be amplified to a greater extent before it pushed the physical limits of the medium. Shreedhar said, "This became known as 'hot' mastering and was typically done on singles where each side of the record only contained one song. Generally, however, the average level of songs and albums stayed relatively the same throughout the period."

Then came digital audio technology, which removed many of the physical restrictions vinyl had imposed, such as concerns about surface noise (caused by dust, scratches, the lacquer itself, and so on) and limited dynamic range. The CD was capable of supporting a dynamic range of about 96 dB. For most of the 1980s, when CDs were still high-end products and mastering engineers largely did not have access to digital signal-processing technologies, albums released on CD tended to make use of this better dynamic range.

In the 1980s, CDs were mastered so that songs generally peaked at about -6 dBFS with their root mean square (RMS)--or average levels--hovering around -20 dBFS to -18 dBFS. As multidisc CD changers began to gain prominence in households toward the end of the decade, the same jukebox-type loudness competition started all over again as record companies wanted their CDs to stick out more than their competitors'. (, Inside Technology, August 2007)

Pushing Loudness Limits

But, by the end of the 1980s, songs on CDs were often amplified to the point where their peaks started pushing the loudness limit of 0 dBFS. At this point, the only way to raise the average levels of songs without having their loudest parts clipped--the digital equivalent of distortion, where information is lost because it exceeds the bit capacity--was to compress the peaks.

Technology marched on and as mastering engineers began to get hold of digital signal-processing tools, they were able to ”hot” master songs even more. The result? The entire waveform was amplified until the (now reduced) peaks once again reached 0 dBFS, so the average level of the entire song increased.

The 1990s saw average amplitude levels go from around -15 dBFS to as much as -6 dBFS in extreme cases. Most songs in this decade, however, remained at around -12 dBFS. The 2000s saw the loudness war reach its height, with most current songs having an average level of -9 dBFS or higher.

From the mid 1980s to now, the average loudness of CDs increased by a factor of 10, and the peaks of songs are now one-tenth of what they used to be. The loudness war is also not just confined to the big four record companies (Warner Music Group, EMI, Sony BMG, and Universal Music Group). Overcompression is now widespread and performed by independent labels and international record companies.

Reasons For The Change To "Loud!"

1. With more than 100 million iPods sold worldwide as of early this year, more and more people are listening to music on the go rather than at their home stereos. People seek overcompression for on-the-go music.

2. Even though the CD might be in its death throes, most digital music available online was mastered for CDs. Popular formats like MP3, AAC, and Free Lossless Audio Codec (FLAC) merely use data-compression techniques (not to be confused with dynamic-range compression) to reduce the amount of data a song encoded in PCM takes up. People get overcompression from formats mastered for CDs.

3. If people are listening to songs in a noisy environment--such as in their cars, on trains, in airport waiting rooms, at work, or in a dormitory--the music needs to be louder to compensate. Dynamic-range compression does just that and more. Not only does it raise the average loudness of the song, but by doing so it eliminates all the quiet moments of a song as well.

4. But many listeners have subconsciously felt the effects of overcompressed songs in the form of auditory fatigue, where it actually becomes tiring to continue listening to the music. They have grown accustomed to the condition and accept it.

The Future of Recorded Music

Audiophiles looking to the future for relief from overcompression see a very unclear picture. DVD-Audio and Super Audio Compact Disc (SACD), two high-fidelity formats thought to be solutions to the loudness war, offer not only a greater dynamic range than CD but also higher sampling rates.

Since their introduction in 2000, however, neither format has taken hold. An overwhelming majority of releases have been of the classical music genre, which has generally not been subject to overcompression to begin with. So, even if audiophiles want to spend upward of $300 for a DVD-Audio or SACD player, chances are they won't be able to buy their favorite popular albums in either medium.

Since music has gone online, the possibility of having high-fidelity digital files remains, and formats such as FLAC are capable of supporting 24-bit audio. Slim Devices, a company acquired last year by Logitech, has created two products--the Squeezebox and the Transporter--that wirelessly stream digital files from a computer or the Internet to high-end stereo receivers. Both are capable of handling 24-bit audio, but the problem, says Sean Adams, former CEO of Slim Devices, is lack of content. The recording industries are not producing the music due to low demand

With the average consumer being either completely unaware of, or only subconsciously irritated by, the current state of overcompressed music, there is little incentive for sound quality to progress. Consequently, all the potential benefits of higher-quality audio--lifelike dynamic range, greater frequency response, and multichannel surround sound--remain unseen, even though the technology exists today.

But there might still be hope for getting out of the loudness war. RMS (average) normalization algorithms, such as Replay Gain, have been implemented in many digital audio players and work to bring all songs in a digital library to the same average level. With Replay Gain enabled, songs originating from many CDs are processed and played back at a consistent average level of loudness. This helps listeners because they no longer have to adjust their volume each time they go from one album to another.

Sudhas Sreedhar

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