Let’s pretend for the sake of argument that you’ve read all of our articles and are now a true believer: The overzealous use of dynamic range compression coupled with brickwall limiting yields lifeless, dull sounding records. But if this is indeed all true, then why does the industry continue to approve of (and even insist on) this insanity in the first place?
I think I’m asked this exact question no less than a dozen times a month in one form or another. And frankly, it’s not an easy question to answer. So in effort to aggregate all of these emails into one unified response (read: I’m lazy), today’s article will attempt to breakdown why artists and labels choose volume over fidelity. As you will learn, it’s not always as clear cut a decision as you’d like to believe.
Very recently I approached an artist whose latest record I happen to think is stellar, but who had it unfortunately crushed within inches of its life – little to no bass, drums sound like tin cans, wall of sound gobbledygook, the usual. And during our conversation he presented an argument I’ve heard countless of times: One of his favorite bands of all time released a few not so great sounding records in their heyday, but these records are still revered and coveted by fans none the less. So as long as he does his job of writing high quality, compelling music, production doesn’t really matter at the end of the day.
And unfortunately, at least to some extent, he’s right.
In my interview with Colin Marston, he even admits it, “The current industry levels are stupid because they’re not about music or good sound, they’re about competitive marketing or more simply, getting your attention for the first two seconds of listening. But if a good recording gets a bad mastering job, it can often still sound good. Low dynamics mastering doesn’t necessarily prevent everything from sounding good at all.”
But here’s the thing, if you’re an artist, why settle for lowest common denominator production? Why not cater to the audience that does care and more often than not, will pay for it? Most fans will come along for the ride regardless. Moreover, even though a low dynamics record doesn’t ruin the music, I can assure you that a high dynamic one certainly improves consuming it. Moreover, most of those early-to-mid 90s records we all worship, are just oozing dynamics. Mayhem. Check. Darkthrone. Yup. Death. You betcha. Morbid Angel. Uh-hun. The list goes on and on.
Some artists think they know better than the engineers they work with. I once spoke with an artist who has had a lot of trouble with various engineers over the years, and in almost every situation it boiled down to the fact that his ears knew better than the engineer’s. I imagine this happens a lot though, and is probably why some albums sound so horrible even when a reputable engineer’s name is buried in the credits.
Truth be told, there is this pervasive misconception among artists and audiophiles alike that your ears are these finely tuned devices that can easily detect even the smallest of audible minutiae. Bad news, they can’t. More bad news, because of various technical and psychological factors like critical masking, equal loudness contours, and expectation bias to name but a few, two listening sessions can yield vastly different results. This is true regardless of how many records you’ve sold or how much money you’ve spent on your playback system. It takes a real expert with years of experience who knows how to mitigate these factors in order to use his or her ears effectively in the studio.
There is very little data supporting the assertion that louder records sell better than their dynamic counterparts, yet this myth still persists among artists and labels. Seriously, there are folks out there who actually believe if a record sounds louder, it will magically sell more copies.
Have any of you ever bought a single record because it sounded louder than another? I’ll wager not. The truth is volume plays almost no role in your music purchase decision making process, and this belief is more the stuff of urban legends than anything even remotely rooted in fact.
Believe it or not, a lot of artists really have not a clue about production. It’s true. I’ve had an artist explain to me that all CDs sound like crap, and that’s just an inherit limitations of the format itself. I’ve had an artist explain to me that due to Bandcamp’s FLAC encoder process unwanted artifacts occur, and that’s why their digital releases in general suck. Heck, here is a well-known columnist’s take from a very popular website on why compressed music makes sense – yeah, he has no idea what he is talking about.
Part of the problem is in an ideal world, an artist or band shouldn’t have to know anything about production, especially if they are backed by a label that gives them a real recording budget. That’s what studios, engineers, and producers are for. Artists already have the most important and difficult job to begin with – to write and play compelling music.
Yet I still find it fascinating that an artist will spend a ginormous amount of personal time honing their craft and writing their little hearts out, only to have it destroyed by a few simple clicks in ProTools. But that is exactly what happens all the time. That’s why I do put some of the blame on mastering engineers who don’t at least present a more dynamic product as a viable option. By level matching the music for the artist against its louder, crappier sounding counterpart, the engineer can at least claim that they tried to do the right thing. Though I imagine it can be heart-breaking (not to mention a lot of extra work) to see an artist choose the DR4 master over the DR8 one.
Also bear in mind that because DAWs are much more affordable than they used to be, the barrier to entry is much lower when it comes to mastering your own stuff. But a lot of these folks have no idea what dynamic range is, hard vs soft knee compression, how to properly use parametric equalization, and so on and so forth. It takes a lot of time and a lot of mistakes before you get skilled enough to produce awesome sounding metal. Caveat emptor.
One of the fundamental laws of physics also just so happens to apply to production as well. That’s why a successful band, even a mildly successful one, will usually stick to their guns and do what they’ve always done for their next big release. I mean if it ain’t broke, why fix it?
Frankly, the whole music industry is in someways a victim of inertia, that’s why Napster stole their lunch and why there are still labels out there who only sell CDs. Right, I know, but change is hard, especially when for all practical purposes what you are currently doing is actually working (at least to some extent).
But if an old dog is actually looking to learn a few new tricks, adding dynamics back into the mix can really spice things up. A great example is the way Katatonia released an acoustic re-imaging of their last record. Yeah, it isn’t a dramatic shift on the TT, but it added a few extra points here and there and to my ears, really breathed new life into an established, albeit jaded formula.
You’re an extreme metal artist and you enter the studio backed by a label that fronted you a few thousand dollars to get your stuff tracked and ready to go. You have a choice: Stand tall and tell the engineer, as well as your most generous benefactor, that you refuse to release your music unless a modicum of dynamics is kept, or just release another loud record since only a few crazy audiophiles will even take notice. What would you do?
You’re an extreme metal artist and you go into the studio and track everything before finally sitting down with the mastering engineer. You also happen to be on a label where all the other artists are mastering a certain way, each one sounding louder than the next. Some of them you even secretly idolize. Do you do the “right” thing (at least from a fidelity stand point), but risk criticism for sounding too weak compared to your label counterparts thereby potentially throwing away all the time, energy, and money spent over the last few months (some cases, few years) over a few points of dynamics, or go with the flow and release yet another loud, albeit acceptable sounding record? What would you do?
You’re a mastering engineer and a famous client shows up at your door and is about to release their next big hit. And guess what? They want you to master it. They already tracked everything and hand you a copy of the mix. Oh by the way, the whole band loves it. Oh by the way, the mix engineer is some big shot in the industry. The mix measures DR5. What would you do?
Suffice it say, choosing dynamics is not as easy as I often make it sound (pun intended).
Some people out there actually prefer their music highly compressed. They like that instant gratification you get when the music knocks their socks off for a split second, even at the sacrifice of fidelity. I mean let’s all be honest, generally speaking, we all want our metal to be loud. But I also know that the volume novelty wears off real fast, and in the long run, a record that sounds as good as it looks will make my daily rotation more often than one that is fatiguing to listen to.
Of course then there are artists, especially black metal types, who believe that in order to achieve their aesthetic goals they need to crush their music as much as possible. Of course that’s not true, but trying to convince them that you can have great production while still maintain that lo-fi charm is no easy task. Some artists just prefer the sound of crappy production and label it as “raw” or my favorite, “organic” (like my vegetables).
Finally, the truth is, a lot of folks and critics treat the metal and its production as one and the same. If the album gets their head moving, mission accomplished. And for those folks who live by that mantra, who am I to argue? I guess I just hold my favorite bands and engineers a bit more accountable when it comes to the sound department, but that’s just me.
As you can see, there are many reasons why a band will go down the Loudness War route by the time they get into the studio. So before you sit down and write that nastygram to your favorite artist or label about their craptastic sounding DR5 master (staring right at you Allegaeon), be aware that choosing dynamics can be a very difficult decision, and one that can have wide ranging ramifications.
Hopefully in time though, the industry as a whole will learn the error of their ways and create an environment that fosters and encourages artists to be more dynamic. Or at the bare minimum, allow their roster to pull a Swanö and use digital downloads as a mechanism to offer alternative, dynamic masters. But until then, we will just have to live with it.