What's the loudness war?

This is about compression. Not the sort of compression that makes file sizes smaller, though the two types are often confused. Audio compression reduces dynamic range (the difference between loud and soft) in order to make recordings sound ‘punchier’ or – at least perceptually – louder.

One of the advantages of a louder sounding recording is to make albums more ‘impressive’. This is often considered particularly important on smaller speakers, through radio, or via mp3 where most users are not listening in ideal conditions (ie: on little headphones, on the bus).

But audiophiles – and, increasingly, just people who like music – are complaining that too much compression and not enough dynamic range is killing the quality of recorded music. And they kind of have a point.


Aqua > Radiohead


In response to a comment that Sebastiaan from the band Ridinghood made elsewhere on this site today, that “the cultural significance of Aqua far outweighs that of Radiohead”…

It’s an assertion that warrants a lot more careful consideration than the typical and instinctive knee-jerk WTF response that most people will have when confronted with such a suggestion. Personally, I wouldn’t have chosen these acts to make this point if I was him. Perhaps I’d have gone with Rihanna and Melt Banana. Or Take That and Art Brut. Still…

I should say for the sake of openness here that I know Sebastiaan. That is to say, I met him once with his bandmate Rhiannon over coffee and sandwiches in Cardiff once, and I’ve had dealings with Rhiannon since. I have an enormous amount of respect for his level of craft when it comes to pop songwriting. He knows his stuff and is far and away one of the UK’s best hidden pop production talents.

But that doesn’t stop him being fundamentally and monumentally 32-flavours-of-wrong in this instance.


Rockin' all over the world

Forget promoting, distributing and selling music online. Sometimes you have to stop and make the stuff. Might as well use the internet for that too, right?


In the latest of my ongoing campaign of getting other people to write my posts for me and then passing it off as legitimate blogging, I interviewed Raf Fiol, founder of Kompoz.com.

Kompoz is an online community of musicians who record a track, and submit it for others to collaborate. It’s not a free-for-all, and there’s actually some smart ways of directing the project to include the mix of talents you think it’ll need to turn out the way you want it to.

But I have some niggling questions about the whole thing.


Hot and cold running music

I understand the draw of the physical purchase. I dig the appeal of the sleeve notes. I totally get the joy of ownership. But I wonder — how much longer are you going to have to keep making CDs?

I’m not a fan of the CD format. I understand why other people appreciate its convenience, but for me, it’s a bucket in which to carry home the music. Once I get it there, I empty the bucket out into my computer, and then I’m left with a useless receptacle. Mostly, I hand the disc onto someone else, take it down the Oxfam or throw it away.

Let’s think about that bucket metaphor a bit longer. It’s as if there’s a well of music down in the village high street where I collect my music. I draw it up from the well, and take it home to use (actually, I tend not to buy CDs — a point I’ll return to — but for the sake of the analogy, let’s pretend).

Now that so many people have broadband plumbing, the bucket is less important than it once was. You can fill your own buckets (ie: burn your own CDs — see how this metaphor thing works?) to go and do things outside, but when you’re at home, they’re just taking up space.

But a lot of people like the bucket. They’ve invested so much in collecting them, it would be a major drama to switch entirely over to the internal plumbing and the 160GB USB external hot water cylinder.

I was lucky. I moved to the other side of the world a couple of years back, and that made it the perfect time to reappraise my attachment to the physical disc and its annoyingly breakable plastic case. As a matter of necessity, everything was transferred to hard drive and the CDs themselves were dispatched with.

I think for most consumers of music media, this will be a longer process. We’re starting to see it happen — as digital downloads increase, sales of CDs decrease — but there is naturally an emotional and conceptual attachment to the physical disc and its packaging.

But interestingly, vinyl is on the upswing. I know I buy vinyl whenever possible, and that’s not just because I’m old and nostalgic, and nor simply because I’m a DJ.

Vinyl is again becoming the format of choice for serious music collection and ‘full focus of attention’ music consumption. The rise in record sales is not being reflected particularly well in the international literature, because counting systems such as Soundscan don’t factor in the smaller independent record stores, where most of the vinyl is being purchased.

In fact, according to this article in the Billings Gazette, a growing number of labels are choosing to release as digital downloads for the general consumer and as vinyl records for the DJ and connoisseur. They’re starting to skip the CD all together.

Some people, though a diminishing amount, still insist on the compact disc as their preferred music entertainment platform, but its popularity is starting to wane in the face of the convenience of downloads and the richness of the physical experience and collectibility of vinyl.

Which, when you translate it back to the water analogy, is like acknowledging that people have plumbing for everyday drinking, washing, cooking and bathing, but sometimes they like to sit down and consume bottled sparkling mineral water.

Pretty much nobody’s using buckets from the well these days.

Just a bit of Apple on Ry

We all know that professional music production technologies have become more and more within the grasp of those of us on something of a budget. But it might surprise you to learn that a free bit of consumer playback software has become the mastering choice of one of the world’s most notoriously fussy musicians.

buddy the catThe New York Times reports that guitarist/producer Ry Cooder recently struggled with the sonic integrity of a folk/blues concert record concerning a cat in a mythical American music landscape. The usual processing wasn’t cutting it — and when he played back in his car (a tried and trusted objective test of listenability), it just sounded processed.

However, listening to a CD that he burned using iTunes, he noticed that it all sounded much nicer. One of the studio engineers explained to him about the default setting in iTunes called “Sound Enhancer“, and so he decided to investigate.

Cooder concluded that, in fact, it was exactly the sound that he’d been after — and so the final mastering on the album consisted of nothing more than a trip through the iTunes software.

It’s a nice story. I’m not sure to what extent it’s rooted in fact, since mastering is actually about more than just sound-sweetening, but does raise interesting possibilities.

Even though Sound Enhancer is meant to treat finish digital files that have already been through the mastering process, Cooder seemed to think that the process was enough of a mastering system itself. That, of course, has a lot to do with the genre of music and, in a way, makes sense simply because professional studio mastering can often get quite heavy handed on the compression front under pressure from the labels to put ever louder records.

Unlike Rock, Hip Hop and Dance music, which require a certain body and punch, folk and blues music (like jazz and classical) benefit from dynamic range, acoustic space and room for the instruments to breathe. That kind of treatment only comes with the slightest of processing. A light touch.

Sounds like the iTunes software has just the right type of the slightest of processing for this kind of job. I just listened to some unmastered folk music through the Sound Enhancer (which can be found in the Playback settings), and cranked it up to about 75%.

He may have a point.

Not sure what we conclude from that — but maybe it’s of some use to you.

Mastering online

MasteringIt’s perhaps important to remind ourselves from time to time that New Music Strategies are not simply about selling, promoting or distributing music online. Sometimes, the online environment can make all sorts of other efficiencies and services available that can be of tremendous help to music business.

While it may not be feasible to professionally record music in the studio over the internet (though, actually, that’s a much more complicated topic that it may appear), there are production-end professional music services that can be delivered online.