A while ago I was riding in the car with my wife and made the comment that I felt today's music is a lot more boring than yonder year's before (namely the 80's and 70's). I have known as a recording engineer that record companies have been pushing the loudness on CD's, and songs, for quite some time now. The theory is that if a sound is louder on the radio than the song before it or after it, then that song will be remembered by the listener. All I can picture is some record executive with too much time on his hands coming up with that stupid idea one day, and then deciding to put the plan into action. In our industry, attempting to make your artist's music louder than the other guy's is called a "loudness war" - and if you doubt that it exists (which there is way too much proof otherwise), then just take a look at this wave form graphic comparison of Michael Jackson's song "Black and White" from the original release in 1991 to the 2007 re-release.
Cool photo, huh? 1991, was the year "Black and White" originally released, and for those who care to listen I was a young impressionable wanna-be musician, producer and engineer living in Philadelphia. I can recall the minute I heard this song on the radio for the first time. I was driving down City Line Avenue listening to the morning show when they announced that this was Michael Jackson's new song "Black and White". My mouth dropped open as I heard sonic perfection coming from my car's speaker system. I then went out and bought the CD immediately. Over the various releases of that song, I felt that something was changing as they re-released each version. I thought that my mind was playing tricks with my ears, but then I came across the image above. Voila! I wasn't crazy after all....the record companies are literally sucking the life out of the original release with compression and limiting to make it louder. Which brings me to the original point of this blog.
Scientists in Spain used a huge archive known as the Million Song Dataset, which breaks down audio and lyrical content into data that can be analyzed, so pop songs from 1955 to 2010 can be studied. And here is what they found out:
"We found evidence of a progressive homogenization of the musical discourse. In particular, we obtained numerical indicators that the diversity of transitions between note combinations - roughly speaking chords plus melodies - has consistently diminished in the last 50 years."
They also found timbres have become poorer. The same note played at the same volume on, say, a piano and a guitar is said to have a unique timbre, so the scientists found modern pop has a more limited variety of sounds. This shouldn't be too surprising on the timbre front since most modern music utilizes synthesizers and drum machines instead of real wooden (organic) instruments. On the other hand, we can also blame the timbre becoming poorer on over use of compression in both the recording studio/process and the reduction of sound quality in MP3's - which utilize compression to reduce the original file size, thus reducing quality in both the purity of the music, and timbre of it.
What does this mean? Like the scientists, many of us in the music industry have been saying that music is not as "musical" anymore due to the loudness and over-compression. Anyone who works with music for a living, and understands dynamics, can tell you that if you over-compress anything it normally brings out extremely ear fatiguing harmonics, thus making the music sound harsh and brittle. The flip side is that if I were to play one CD for you at a lower volume and then play another at a louder volume your ear would naturally gravitate toward the louder CD. Our brains associate loudness with being better, but it is an auditory illusion. Now, if I were to put you in a room and you listened to both CD's from start to finish with a small break in between, then you would say that the quieter CD was a lot better. The reason is that after so many minutes of listening to the louder CD your brain and ears get tired - or fatigued. With the quieter CD, and more pleasant dynamics, you could literally listen to it three times in a row, and come out wanting more. The reason is that our ears now perceive that CD as being pleasant, warm and non-fatiguing. And that is the reason why modern pop music sounds more bland and less pleasing than pop records from as little as eight to ten years ago.
So what can we do about this? A lot of engineers are fighting this trend against both the record labels and the artists who have bought into the nonsense. Louder is not better. As consumers of music it is all of our right to demand a better product from the record labels - and the artists we love. Personally, I gravitate toward older music (no, not because I'm old), but because the sonic quality is so much better and pleasant. A lot of 20-somethings down to younger kids have grown, and are growing up, in a time where MP3's are the normal format for music listening. I want to challenge anyone reading this to take an hour out of your day, sit in a quiet room or mom and pop record store with a quality speaker system or high quality headphones (no white little spawn of satan ear pods) and LISTEN to music. Close your eyes, open your ears and take in the sonic perfection - just listen to the music. I will leave you with this...if you do not feel that there is a difference in quality, then I ask you to read this article where a 20 year old discovered the beautiful sound of a vinyl record for the first time. Let's take back the industry with a sonic revolution!
Kevin "Danger" Jackson is a New York-based producer, engineer, composer, performer, educator and Berklee College of Music alumnus. He writes, produces and engineers music for a wide range of artists in the pop, hip-hop, rock, R&B, classical and electronic genres. His work can be heard daily on a multitude of albums, radio and television stations worldwide.