Music sucks today.

Not the bands — theres lots of great stuff out there, its just much harder to given the death of radio

No, we are talking about the quality of recorded music. Its bad, and getting worse.  And, we have proof of exactly how bad it sucks: Overcompression

As reported by Institute of Electrical and Electronics Engineers (IEEE), recored music has increasingly grown louder, at the expense of dynamic range — the differences between the softest and loudest portions of any recorded music sample.   

IEEE reports on "the smoking gun of the loudness war is the difference between the waveforms of songs 20 years ago and now."   Below you can see two examples:

A waveform from the late 80s / early 90s:Wave1

 

A waveform from now:Wave2

 

For those people interested in this sort of thing, there is a full article on this: The Future of Music. See also  The CD Turns 25).

UPDATE: December 28, 2007 9:27 AM

See this new article:

The Death of High Fidelity
In the age of MP3s, sound quality is worse than ever
ROBERT LEVINE
Rolling Stone, Dec 26, 2007 1:27 PM
http://www.rollingstone.com/news/story/17777619/the_death_of_high_fidelity

>

Source:
The Future of Music
Suhas Sreedhar      
August 2007
http://spectrum.ieee.org/aug07/5429

Category: Corporate Management, Digital Media, Music, Technology

Please use the comments to demonstrate your own ignorance, unfamiliarity with empirical data and lack of respect for scientific knowledge. Be sure to create straw men and argue against things I have neither said nor implied. If you could repeat previously discredited memes or steer the conversation into irrelevant, off topic discussions, it would be appreciated. Lastly, kindly forgo all civility in your discourse . . . you are, after all, anonymous.

40 Responses to “Overcompression”

  1. DavidB says:

    Compression is also apparently why TV commercials appear louder than the show you were watching

    That is, assuming anybody watches commercial TV anymore. Loud commercials are the one thing I don’t miss. I get compensated for the loss by talk radio though

  2. Greg0658 says:

    Your 2 examples show a second problem, Volume Level. You’d be running to the amp volume knob to turn #2 down.

    I miss the deflecting VU meter on the new gadgets.

  3. sanjosie says:

    It is also very stressful. Our neurosystem is wired for the natural waveforms. These compressed forms are fatiguing – our neurosystem kicks into overdrive trying to process the unatural.

  4. ml says:

    I had noticed the decrease in the quality and range of sound with CDs versus LPs & Tapes. I thought it was just a personal bias till I learned about encryption and compression in a college class. When I bought an MP3, it just reinforced the feeling. I couldn’t listen to the music on it. It just didn’t sound as good. I kept hoping that the quality would improve when storage isn’t an issue, but it seems like that isn’t being addressed.

  5. Fred says:

    Phil Spector’s Wall of Sound is the root of all evil.

  6. jules says:

    Thank you Barry…..the Music Sound IS DEAD.

    MP3 is SHIT.

    Lossless downloads are the only acceptable media.

    School ‘em Barry

  7. Owen says:

    Barry,

    I have a friend taunting me with vinyl fidelity, the time-tested “high resolution” format.

    I am tempted. To exacerbate matters, excellent tube amps are plentiful.

  8. jules says:

    TUBE AMPS ROCK!

  9. dblwyo says:

    Just to add to the fun with a slight veer you know why all those low-riders can be heard by their bass a block away ? Because the wavelength of the super-low stuff is longer than the car so the “aficionado” keeps turning it up and up and up not knowing that all he’s done is share his noise farther and farther ahead & behind. With that training Waveform #2 is what they think it should be. This is a financial blog, right ? Go with the money flows :) !

  10. Will says:

    Slight correction, Barry- I believe that top waveform is of my ex-wife and I having sex in the 80s, and the bottom one is of her nagging me through the 90s.

  11. Katherine says:

    That’s odd. There is absolutely nothing wrong with my new Renaissance church music CDs. They’re totally gorgeous and meticulously recorded. Maybe you guys should try some different music.

  12. Gunther says:

    The problem is not CDs or MP3 but the music industry. The possible quality from a CD is clearly better than the possible quality from a LP. But if the guys processing the recording do not pay attention to quality garbage is the result.
    I do not buy a CD without listening into it and no pop at all; for a lot of classical recordings the quality of CDs is o.k. compared with live performance.

    In the German computer magazine C’T a trial with CD versus MP3 was published. At low compression even trained ears (opera singers, recording engineers) could not hear a difference between MP3 and CD!

    Position your speakers properly in the room at least 75 cm away from every wall; that makes a huge difference. Then enjoy the good recordings you have.

  13. patf says:

    On the other hand, compression (it was revealed to me) is part of the secret sauce that makes Jaco Pastorius’ astonishing harmonics in his astonishing “Portrait of Tracy” work. (wow – there’s a YouTube video of it. After I finish writing this, I’ll have to watch _and listen_ to the video).

    I play guitar (and eventually managed to duplicate pieces of “Portrait of Tracy” on acoustic guitar).

    It’s generally ,said “it’s not the pedal, but the way it’s used” (yeah, yeah, yeah – Maria Muldaur – let’s not go there).

    Hendrix’s use of the wah (pedal) was awesome. My son has just ‘gotten into’ Audioslave. I’ve grown to like Audioslave some (maybe 6 on a scale of 10?). But their guitarist’s use of the wah if awful. He’s resurrected it as a gimmick. Meaning he doesn’t really know how to use it. (pity his wife).

  14. wally says:

    Fred is right; it is the Wall-o-sound.
    Phil should go on trial.
    Oh, wait…

  15. brion says:

    There has been an audio arms race (ear race?) since the 80′s, true….. still, I’d be curious to know what 2 songs those waveforms represent….
    “Kokomo” vs. “I Scream, You Die” perhaps?

  16. nick says:

    just to clarify, I believe that 2 different definitions of ‘compression’ are being used here… the kind that barry posted about is the flattening of the waveform so that the is less dynamic range (the volume level is the same throughout — no quiet parts). the other meaning of compression is data compression — the removing of sound information so that it takes up less space.

  17. wunsacon says:

    >> MP3 is SHIT.
    >> Lossless downloads are the only acceptable media.

    You said it, Jules.

    Mp3′s are lossy. They don’t capture sound above something like 10k or 12k. Your ears — and cymbals and some overtones of instruments — go to 20k.

    Listen to an early Van Halen album on any fairly lossless format (CD or analog) and then on an MP3 (or other lossy format). Much of the “energy” or “excitement” comes from the constant cymbal noise. Comparatively, the music sounds unexciting without it.

    Does the *format* of the music we listen to affect what we *like* to listen to? If Van Halen (and other rock music) doesn’t sound good on mp3, maybe people gravitate towards hip-hop, electronic, or more rhythmic music, since it sounds good without the high end.

    And I have a sneaking suspicion that a distorted rock guitar sounds better when recorded/played entirely in analog rather than sampled (even at 64khz). But, maybe this is my overactive imagination.

    I’m not going to go out and buy analog equipment though. Sticking with lossless digital here like CD’s. It’s the “curse” of “good enough”. At least they cover the full human hearing spectrum.

  18. Pete says:

    An example of losing the thread.

    Modern sound engineers have maxed the levels so their songs sound louder than what comes before or after on the mix. A Beck album should have a lot of dynamics in the sound. Intead, it just sounds loud … a lot louder than a mid-80′s Van Halen album.

    Yes, analog LPs (in good shape) sound slihtly better than CDs, but not becuase of the engineering — it’s because the data is anaolog, not (slightly compressed) digital. Totally different issue.

  19. Mike says:

    Regarding MP3 compression, what bit rate are you encoding at? That’s one question. If you rip at 64 or 128 kbps, well… then change it to 192 or 256 and the quality will get markedly better and the files will be larger (you can set this attribute in iTunes under Preferences–>Advanced–>Importing). Or you can use variable bit rate encoding to get better quality (better than 128 but not as good as 192 or 256) and not quite as large file size.

    Regarding the other compression — the one with less dynamic range. Oddly, I kind of like the chunky, fat, thick sound of the compressed waveform. When I worked in radio, the engineers would spend inordinate amounts of time playing around with various compressor/limiters, aural exciters (no jokes please), and EQ to get that sound right.

    When I used to buy vinyl in the 80s and 90s (and lots of it) I always liked records mastered by Herbie Jr (Herb Powers — he always signed the plates and so his name is on gazillions of discs) because Herbie cut the grooves deep, making them a bit louder, but the sound really resonated.

    Also, when working in clubs, you could take some very crappy sounding systems and make them sound great by adding a cheap compressor/limiter and a BBE sonic maximizer.

    So, for the MP3 fans, set your bit rate higher. For you dynamic range lovers, sorry ya gotta takes what ya gets from “the man”. But I for one kind of like it loud.

  20. Artur says:

    autechre

  21. One of the things I remember about The Pretenders (their debut album) — aside from the fact that it is one of the finest rock and roll debut albums ever made — were the words “Play Loud!” written across the cover.

    That would be redundant today . . .

  22. cinefoz says:

    http://www.berkshirerecordoutlet.com/cgi-bin/advanced.pl

    Well, it may suck but there are still bargains to be found if you like top shelf classical music or old jazz. You can find rare recordings here being sold as closeout stock. It is one of my favorite places on earth.

  23. James Bednar says:

    Does compression and sound quality even matter anymore? Nobody cares, it’s about having a tiny [pretty] playback device or a ringtone. Gone are the days of the space-age bachelor pad hi-fi.

    jb

    Currently running an Manley tube setup wired in to a pair of Vandersteen 3a sigs…

    …in my space-age-bachelor-pad.

    Heaven.

  24. Alex Khenkin says:

    Just to set a few details straight, being a head engineer of a high-end microphone company:
    - “digital” does not automatically mean “compressed”, as some posters here implied; CD format introduces no compression.
    - plenty of musical instruments, and especially cymbals, have spectra extending far beyond 20kHz, up to and beyond 100kHz.
    - the fact that a car is smaller than the lowest bass wavelengths does not mean that you cannot reproduce those frequencies inside. Quite the opposite is true, it becomes a very efficient coupler. What this does to the ears of those inside is a different matter…
    - a lot of compression is driven by the fact that today most music is listened to in cars and other noisy environments, so one simply cannot hear quiet passages.
    Small Investor Chronicles™

  25. barlow says:

    Another problem is that if you *don’t* compress the crap out of music, people sometimes can’t hear it on their laptops and complain…

    CDs can contain nuanced dynamic range – as a format it is not as faithful as an LP – but the bigger problem is the sound engineers who compress things so much…

  26. Uncle Jeffy says:

    OT a bit, but I couldn’t resist – are you sure that second waveform isn’t Cramer melting down on CNBC? Looks about right…

  27. dblwyo says:

    Following up some of the earlier comments will admit to creating a bunch of MP3 files from my Jazz and Classical CDs via iTunes for portable purposes and experiencing pretty good sound; certainly for travel and boating/outdoors purposes. May be loosing nuances but the total waveform seems to hold up well enough that Mahler is definitely Mahler late night on the boat.

  28. steeliekid says:

    Yup, todays music sucks, and those damn kids play it too LOUD!

    ***channeling my inner grumpy old man***

  29. bichevartz says:

    Ok, can’t resist. (disclosure — recording and mastering engineer for 20 years, working happily in both analog and digital media)

    “CDs can contain nuanced dynamic range – as a format it is not as faithful as an LP – but the bigger problem is the sound engineers who compress things so much…”

    First, CD is a more faithful medium. Sorry, but it’s true. One reason people like tubes, and LP’s, is because, in part, they add things to the sound that were previously NOT THERE. Things like harmonic content, mild and pleasing distortion, and subtle, pleasing compression. That’s right, the ever-vilified compression. What’s the diff? Sometimes, just too much of a good thing. But faithful, consumer analog ain’t.

    Seems many folks here skipped the last portion of the original linked article. Where they mention (as do recent posters) that our “consumption” of music has a lot to do with the current state of affairs: want to hear your music while rollerblading downtown? While sitting in a busy, loud cafe? In your car, doing 80 with the windows down? Under your conversations, but still audible? You want your tunes’ dynamic range compressed. No other way to get what you want, consumers.

    Try using headphones on dynamically uncompressed music in those relevant situations. Not only will you be trading the benefit of less fatiguing de-compressed music for potentially ear-damaging music (since you gotta turn it up to hear the soft parts, those peaks get REAL loud), you’re gonna torch those headphone drivers. Fast. Headphones get wrecked constantly in recording studios because 1)people treat them like crap, and 2) they turn them up hella loud to reproduce uncompressed signals loud enough to hear detail over ambient noise. Same problem treated with same solution will yield the same results; broken headphones and broken ears.

    Finally, please remember, the good old days weren’t always so good. Go back and listen to a bunch of vinyl, from different genres, from the same era and from different eras, all you aural conservatives who only like jazz and chamber music. There have been volume wars since they made the jump from wax cylinders to transcription discs, 78′s, shellac to vinyl, etc., and it wasn’t solely some objective sound-reproduction criterion driving those decisions. As fast as the technology would allow them to compress and/or reproduce louder, volume wars have raged on. And please, when deciding that modern music and digital suck, compare apples to apples — no comparing a CD/LP-based Manley/Vandersteen system costing a couple grand to a $100 ipod with bundled, garbagey headphones. That’s a yellow card, audiophiles! If you’re gonna choose to remember all the wonderful things about analog, I hereby limit you to cassette (which sucked when it was good); or the inner two songs on any LP (remember how crappy they sound compared to the outer/first songs on an LP?); or 45′s (the original mp3); or music on AM (still available, folks).

    Post-finally: The drive for volume is, and has been, driven as much by artists as anyone. The people playing music ask for louder records far more often, in my couple decades (which did start before widespread digital usage) than do the people recording the music or the paying for music to be made, those awful people known as labels. I don’t care if big labels go out of business en masse; they deserve nothing less for their many sins and stupidities. But the trip to loudestness has many happy drivers and passengers. (I am not one of ‘em, btw)

    Barry, love love love your blog!

  30. Sergei Volkov says:

    Bob Dylan describes modern overcompressed records as having “sound all over them”:

    http://news.bbc.co.uk/2/hi/entertainment/5277574.stm

    He also says he doesn’t care about free downloads, because “it’s all worthless anyway”. Well said!

  31. Gary says:

    I think all of this is rather amusing. Music is all about manipulation of the acoustics. The decision is how close to the original do you need the derivative (what you listen to) to be? Anyone buying downloaded music is not going to get the same quality as a CD (or LP).

    As for compression, this has been going on since recorded music began. Dynamic range had to be compressed in order to get the music on the media. Most radio stations used to do a time compression so they could get more commercials on air. And now there’s data compression. Heck they just found out a few years ago that the most famous jazz album of all time — Kind of Blue — was laid down incorrectly from the master tapes. And nobody noticed for all those years.

    Different music has different dynamic range in any case. The waveform of a lot of rock looks like the second image, whether I’ve ripped from an LP or a CD.

    When I rip a CD or an LP (well not exactly ‘rip’ for an LP) I save it as PCM wave. I convert to 320CBR using the Fraunhoffer alternate codec and don’t let the conversion fool with the stereo imaging. I use this format for my home stereo. I convert the 320CBR to 50% variable Microsoft format for the car, mp3 players, work computer, and other areas where the listening environment and data storage are a limiting factor. I archive the wav’s to MS’s lossless format. Although I will probably go completely lossless for home use when I get some more storage.

  32. Patrick says:

    My ears tell me that the same process has occurred in movies. Not only are peak levels higher than they used to be, compression and aggressive sound design have raised the volume of supposedly ambient sounds like silverware hitting plates and car doors closing. Nevermind flying drop kicks to the temple. For some people, the effect is an exhilarating hyper-realism; for others, like me, it’s fatigue. Just another reason I treasure, even crave, silence. And I’m a composer! A great article on the value of silence appeared recently here:

    http://www.newmusicbox.org/article.nmbx?id=5188

  33. Patrick says:

    My ears tell me that the same process has occurred in movies. Not only are peak levels higher than they used to be, compression and aggressive sound design have raised the volume of supposedly ambient sounds like silverware hitting plates and car doors closing. Nevermind flying drop kicks to the temple. For some people, the effect is an exhilarating hyper-realism; for others, like me, it’s fatigue. Just another reason I treasure, even crave, silence. And I’m a composer! A great article on the value of silence appeared recently here:

    http://www.newmusicbox.org/article.nmbx?id=5188

  34. Patrick says:

    My ears tell me that the same process has occurred in movies. Not only are peak levels higher than they used to be, compression and aggressive sound design have raised the volume of supposedly ambient sounds like silverware hitting plates and car doors closing. Nevermind flying drop kicks to the temple. For some people, the effect is an exhilarating hyper-realism; for others, like me, it’s fatigue. Just another reason I treasure, even crave, silence. And I’m a composer! A great article on the value of silence appeared recently here:

    http://www.newmusicbox.org/article.nmbx?id=5188

  35. Patrick says:

    My ears tell me that the same process has occurred in movies. Not only are peak levels higher than they used to be, compression and aggressive sound design have raised the volume of supposedly ambient sounds like silverware hitting plates and car doors closing. Nevermind flying drop kicks to the temple. For some people, the effect is an exhilarating hyper-realism; for others, like me, it’s fatigue. Just another reason I treasure, even crave, silence. And I’m a composer! A great article on the value of silence appeared recently here:

    http://www.newmusicbox.org/article.nmbx?id=5188

  36. ideogenetic says:

    I understand the need for compression in our musically mobile, noise polluted world. But the mention of movie compression reminds me of the most annoying side-effect of compression. When you are actually in a quiet environment, those ambient sounds seem to be “breathing” (technically a slow, annoying tremolo) as dialogue or music or something louder comes into the mix. It’s very unnatural!

    I actually have some poorly compressed concert DVD’s where the music itself is “breathing” as the singer’s voice appears and disappears from the mix!

  37. Donny says:

    It’s more than our generation growing older or the “overcompression” of sonic levels. The writing, the scoring, the arrangements and the production sucks!

    I find myself now listening to music that was popular before my high school generation (mid eighties). It’s very difficult to compare older music to most popular music today. All you have to do is listen to Goodbye Yellow Brick Road, Some Girls or Van Halen 1 to realize that music has dropped in value, content and meaning.

    I can’t listen to another POS production, recorded by another generic recording artist. Don’t get me wrong … I love technology, but the digital era destroyed the quality of music.

    We’re not getting old, music is!

  38. The good thing is musicians and bands can control their own production and sound with a store-bought computer and software. The bad news is that musicians and bands can control their own production and sound with a store-bought computer and software.

    The issue of the use and overuse of compressors and limiters in music production was perfectly summed up by Nigel Tufnel in Spinal Tap: this one goes to 11.

    The perception of loudness by the human ear is relative. You can make something sound loud by putting just before or after something soft. That is dynamic range, or if you will, dimuendo and crescendo. Overuse of compression tends to create a sonic landscape that has less variety and interest to the ear and is foreign to live performance on live instruments, where musicians naturally change their playing volume and intensity, often without even thinking about it.

  39. BTW, an awful lot of musicians, bands, producers etc. are very well aware of the pitfalls of the overuse of compression and limiters and do not use them, use them very sparingly, or use them just to, say, deal with a vocalist who keeps moving closer and farther away from the mic. I think Barry is talking more about a production aesthetic that is confined to a fairly narrow band of pop, metal and music where the aesthetic goal has become indistinguishable from that of a commercial jingle.

  40. If you’re gonna choose to remember all the wonderful things about analog, I hereby limit you to cassette (which sucked when it was good); or the inner two songs on any LP (remember how crappy they sound compared to the outer/first songs on an LP?); or 45′s (the original mp3); or music on AM (still available, folks).

    Well said. You gotta love:

    a) Tape hiss.
    b) Eight tracks cutting songs in two.
    c) Long songs fading out and fading back in on LPs.
    d) Mono 45s.
    e) Cassette tapes getting eaten after 10-20 plays.
    f) Taping stacks of pennies to turntable needles to keep the record from skipping.
    g) All the quiet parts of a passage on an LP sounding like someone is frying bacon in the background.