I wrote a few weeks back about how doing things wrong has changed music, often for the better, and more than once. But what about when it goes the other way? Can doing things right lead to disaster?
A little experiment I began over the weekend bucked conventional wisdom in pop music production – that louder equals better. But first, some background.
If you've got a wide collection of music, you'd no doubt have noticed albums released in more recent times tend to play back louder than those of old. They leap out of the speakers, putting the classics to shame. Growing up with cheap, knock-off Walkmans and a box of tapes, and not knowing any better, I just figured technology was getting better, so music was too – this logic seemed to work for TV and movies, particularly seeing movies like Jurassic Park and T2, and comparing them to the wonky blue-screen special effects of my mum's favourite flicks.
And as I mentioned in that entry a few weeks back, Oasis were trailblazers of this trend – and to my teenage ears, subconsciously that made them better than everyone else. They were louder and more exciting, and that's all that mattered.
So why is it now, whenever I listen to (What's The Story) Morning Glory? my enjoyment of one of the undoubtedly best albums of the decade is tempered with the wish it could be remixed from scratch? Because the album is a distorted mess.
And instead of being a warning to everyone else, its success (some of which could no doubt be put down to its relative loudness at the time) kicked off a 'loudness war', a musical arms race which is only now, a decade-and-a-half later, showing signs of folding under its own ridiculousness.
The term 'loud' isn't used here in the way you would use it to describe your partying neighbours; in fact one of the ironies of the 'loudness war' is that affected music, when played back at the same perceived volume as unaffected music actually sounds quieter – let me explain. Music has loud parts and soft parts, we all know that – and the difference between them is what gives a song dynamics, an ebb-and-flow. An audio processing technique called 'compression' is often used to bring the softer parts up a bit, so there is not too much difference between the two extremes. When done correctly this can make-or-break a recording, and has been standard practise in rock and pop music since time immemorial.
Nearly two decades ago, when digital recording and production was still relatively young, new technologies allowed producers to push volumes higher, whilst still keeping dynamics and fidelity relatively intact – albums from the era that benefited from well-done mastering include Soundgarden's Superunknown and Nirvana's Nevermind.
Then, as the legend goes, during the production of Oasis' debut, Definitely Maybe, the then-dirt poor and relatively unknown band were struggling to mix what they had recorded, so handed the tapes to engineer Owen Morris, who just drove everything on the mixing board into the red, pioneering the 'brickwall' method – so called because the soundwave when displayed on a screen looks like a brick, instead of a series of peaks and valleys. Digital production has an 'absolute zero' point at which nothing can go louder, so if a track is consistently loud enough to be at or near this zero, the wave appears to have a flat top when zoomed out.
But hey, it worked. Unlike many applications of the method today, it sounded great. But boy, did it open a can of worms. The follow-up Morning Glory was even louder, despite it being a softer, more melodic album. I can't believe my ears these days when I listen to songs such as 'Some Might Say', 'Hey Now' and especially the title track – if my paper round paid enough for a decent set of headphones, there's doubts I'd have been into Oasis at all. But everything sounded bad on $2 Shop earbuds, so luckily, it was the quality of the songwriting that stood out, not the production.
Since then, technology has improved so that albums nowadays are routinely louder than those two without being so distorted. But this is barely an improvement, considering dynamics have been all but lost. This is why as I mentioned earlier these 'loud' records actually sound quieter when you play them back at the same volume as un-brickwalled material – there are no peaks in the volume that stick out, it's all pretty flat.
But in recent times there has been a bit of a backlash – particularly on the internet. The release of Metallica's Death Magnetic triggered probably the first mainstream coverage of the issue, which lead many to wonder why on Earth metal fans of all people were complaining about music being too loud. Those confused were misled by the term 'loudness war', of course. What makes metal loud wasn't a lack of dynamic range, it was the complete opposite! Fans revolted, downloading illegal mixes of the album done using individual tracks taken from Guitar Hero – a video game (?!) of all things, saying it sounded better.
Then to rub salt into the wound, mastering engineer Ted Jensen said he wasn't proud to be associated with the album, as the mixes he had to work with with were apparently already incredibly loud and distorted.
Soon afterwards, Guns N' Roses – oh, who am I kidding, Axl Rose – released Chinese Democracy, which sounded amazing (let's not discuss the actual music, alright). Why? Because Axl chose the quietest of three possible masters presented to him by mastering engineer Bob Ludwig, sacrificing sheer volume for power and fidelity.
Okay, by now I wouldn't blame you for thinking I hated brickwalling with a passion – but it's not always bad. Electronic music doesn't suffer too badly, as there isn't much 'natural' feel to kill, and it can also be used well on rock – Queens of the Stone Age's Songs for the Deaf is scarily flat, but it works. Compressed music often sounds better in the car too, where quieter parts can be drowned out by noise.
In some ways, all the above is a roundabout way of saying I believe the best way forward is multi-format releases – and I don't mean CD, mp3 and eight-track – I'm talking about different masters for different tastes/purposes. Ben Folds, the pianist/songwriter remixed and remastered his latest album Way To Normal following an outcry from fans about the compressed sound of the original – but I think bands should go one better and pre-empt it, now there is more awareness.
So on Saturday, I released my first album under the Radio Over Moscow name in this way, Battletech, and the response was immediate – listeners overwhelmingly said they preferred the sound of the quieter mix, and some were even willing to pay for it – despite the loud mix being on offer for free, in an albeit lower-quality format. In fact, the quieter, less-compressed version has outsold the brickwalled version by a ratio of 4:1, with some saying the primary reason they shelled out money was simply because there was a less-compressed version on offer.
And I'm just a nobody – imagine what bands like Metallica and U2 could do, with fans rabid enough to spend money on anything the band puts out – they could not only sell twice as many albums, but satisfy the growing numbers of people unhappy with the sound of modern music at the same time – all for an extra week or two spent on mastering.
So if you thought Radiohead's foray into the unknown with In Rainbows was brave, just wait till someone of similar stature picks up on this idea. It might not be as easy to understand – many people still think louder is automatically better – but real music fans will find it a lot more exciting than just setting your own price.
Hell, it could just save the record industry!