Today's music is crap, and here's why

By Mike on 6:35 pm

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Vinyl records from the 60s and 70s actually do sound better than today's CDs. Audiophiles aren't imagining it. It's not because of the technical limits of a CD, or tube versus transistor amplifiers. It has more to do with how the music was recorded and edited. It's what many music aficionados call the "Loudness War".

The loudness of music has been increasing over the past few decades. Audio engineers have been steadily bumping up the volumes of tracks. How big of a difference is it? Well, you can test this one out yourself.

I took three different versions of Something by The Beatles from three separate albums and compared the waveform. How high the wave is (it's peaks) show how loud the audio is.

This first version is from the original 1969 Abby Road vinyl album.

This second version from the 1990 re-release of Abby Road on Compact Disc.

The final version is from the 2000 compilation album The Beatles "1".

Over the past 30 years, the volume of the same song has increased by roughly a factor of eight. All using the same master recording. Now here's the problem. When you adjust the gain (volume) digitally, you can't add data, you can only take it away. Audio quality is lost whenever this is done.

Typically, the raw audio would be recorded at the same level as the first track, then they'd boost it to the level of the third. It creates a distortion called clipping. More punchy sounds are lost when this is done, making the entire track sound more muted. Individual instruments become harder to recognize. It ends up destroying the music.

Audio engineer Matt Mayfield explains how this works.

So why has the recording industry done this if it's ruining their product. There's a couple of reasons. People seem to prefer loud music out of the box. It's a marketing gimmick. Secondly, most people listen to their tunes on portable audio players. These have weak amplifiers built in, and they usually come with cheap headphones. Loudness gives it the illusion of sounding better.

It really becomes a problem if you use higher end headphones, or hi-fi home systems. You can pump your tunes out as loudly as you want on these systems because they're boosting an electrical signal, not a sound wave or digital waveform. It doesn't effect the quality. But the loudness is still there, and the distortion becomes vary obvious. It's why so many audio devices now come with dynamic normalizers. These automatically level tracks to the same volume so you don't blow your ears off when switching songs.

It's rare to come across music today that isn't over-processed for loudness. Even LPs have this problem because they're made from same loud audio tracks. Only high end LPs seem to avoid this problem. If you truly appreciate music, that's unfortunately the only way to go.

Caption image courtesy of XO Wave.

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