"But ours go to 11…"

September 9th, 2006

I've gotten quite a bit of mail asking me why I haven't reviewed Untilted yet. To put it as plainly as possible, I don't think I will.

You see, before reviewing something, I'll listen to it in its entirety at least twice–closely, and to the exclusion of all else. That's really the only reliable (and honest) way to get a true feel for a record.

Unfortunately, I've been unable to do that with the latest Autechre because it's just plain unlistenable.

I've bested every intellectual challenge they've thrown at me, and I've found beauty in their worst moments, but this is just abusive.

There. I've said it. I'm not referring to the music, which is quite interesting, but to the fact that the mastering on this CD is absolutely horrendous. The whole thing is compressed to death, and any semblance of dynamic range has been choked out in the interest of making the damn thing AS LOUD AS POSSIBLE. As a result, the finished product comes off sounding dull, claustrophobic and downright abrasive. Oh, and loud.

Before Untilted came out, I downloaded a copy to see where they'd be going after Draft 7.30 (which also had a fairly rough final mix). Although the files I pulled were 192kbps, you never know what source they were pulled from, or how many times they've been transcoded, so I didn't think much of the fact that they sounded dull and flat.

Then the CD came out, and I realized that the mp3's I had downloaded were pretty faithful; it was the source that sounded dreadful. I'm not exaggerating when I say that, at first, I couldn't even tell whether or not it was in stereo.

Compare the two images below. The first is the waveform of "Bike" from Incunabula. Like most electronic records from the early 90's, the low end is fairly saturated, and there's some slight clipping, but it's beneath notice.

The second is "Pro Radii" from the new record.

Notice the difference? The waveform from "Bike" has peaks and troughs, as well as breathing space between. This is what's known as "dynamic range," something that's completely missing from the material on Untilted.

This is achieved through reckless and excessive doses of compression and limiting. It's hard to lay blame, though, since the entire industry has been doing this since about 1994. Why? Because everybody wants their song to be THE LOUDEST ONE ON THE RADIO. After all, it's the loudest and most obnoxious person at the party who gets the most attention, right? Surely that must apply to music, too. At least that's the commercial mentality.

This isn't without precedent. Television commercials are consistently recorded at higher volumes than regular programming in order to grab the viewer's attention. As long as there's been popular radio, artists have generally wanted their songs to be loud enough to be noticed.

But at what point is enough enough?

Bob Speer has written some excellent literature on this mentality. Basically, it works like this: if you want to make something louder without causing clipping and distortion, apply compression. Compressors work by "squashing" the high and low ranges of a signal and by limiting the dynamic range, the resulting compressed signal can be boosted to a louder volume.

This comes at the expense of clarity and timbre, of course. I've played bass for many years, and I'm used to compression. In the studio, the electric bass can be a hassle to master, as you've got a vibrating string in the lower range which gives off tons of overtones. Now, unless I'm playing a solo (which is unlikely; bass solos are a sin against all things good), my instrument will be part of a larger ensemble, and it won't hurt much to compress the signal to boost it a bit.

The problem arises when you decide to compress the whole damned recording. Alot of studios will do this in order to create two masters: the one that ships to consumers, and a compressed-but-louder "radio mix." This has always struck me as a stupid idea, since the recording will be compressed anyway by the radio station for broadcast. This is why the music on the radio is always at a consistent volume (and also why it sounds terrible through headphones).

For the last few years, consumers have been collateral damage in what's called the Loudness Wars in the industry. I began to notice the fallout in 1995, when Oasis released What's the Story Morning Glory. At first, I thought my speakers had been blown. The record was clipped, distorted, muddy, and even "Wonderwall," which was supposed to be the record's "quiet moment" was louder than the Burning Airlines record I had played previously.

It was remniscient of the classic moment from This Is Spinal Tap when the guitar player explains to the director that his amps "go to eleven." When the director asks, "why not just make '10' louder," he receives a blank and uncomprehending stare.

That stare has been what we've been getting from the industry for the better part of a decade now. The mentality is that "loud is better. Screw sound quality…nobody cares about that. Just make it really loud! These idiots listen to their music through iPods or cellphones or car stereos. They won't notice. Screw the few people who might actually listen to music through decent equipment. Let 'em bitch. They're not our key demographic."

Since the 1970's, the labels have done their best to turn music from an artistic expression (which is inconvenient, as it requires things like talent and effort) into a consumer commodity. It's not art, it's "product." Just as other consumer products become disposable and cheap through mass production, so does music.

I've noticed the gradual trend away from sound fidelity at every turn, but sometimes there are examples that just make me pause. One is the last Rush album, Vapor Trails. Yes, I listen to Rush. Get over it.

Vapor Trails was supposed to be something of a comeback record. Neil Peart had dealt with several tragedies, and the album was to be a catharsis or sorts. I was really looking forward to it.

The resulting mix was absolutely horrendous, just as bad as the Oasis record, if not worse. In this case, it's hard to believe that the blame can be laid completely on the label, since Rush are a well-established band and retain quite a bit of creative control. They have to have consented to this, if not asked for it themselves.

In a way, it was a slap in the face from a band who had traditionally treated their fanbase with more respect than this. Rush fans are analytical types, often musicians themselves. They listen closely, and Vapor Trails was a record that did a pretty good job of not only discouraging close listening, but punishing it.

This is the exact problem I have with Untilted. Autechre records are supposed to be "headphone" albums, records that reward close listening and reveal themselves over time. As they've gotten more remote over the last few years, each new record seemed to demand patience and close scrutiny to reveal itself. It's ironic then, that as accessible as Untilted was hyped as being, that it does its best to keep the listener at arm's length through the mastering.

1 Comment
  1. thdzx wrote, running Opera 8.54 on Windows XP

    1. I dont think Ae is making records to be heard on headphones. This might be "true" for the firsts albums. But I hear a change in mastering at least since "draft" (not confield). personally I think music should be heard in a room thru the best speaker system you can afford. a symphony should be heard in a concert hall, live. thats a huge "room". you cant compare that sound to what you hear on headphones or some other monitors. And while your article is about some technichal, enigneering stuff: albums should be mixed and mastered on some decent equipment, surely not on headphones. for sure, you'll agree on that. (?) music is all about "rooms" that must pump –
    2. Im quite into this loudness topic. and im absolutely with you. generally. but here youre first comparing two songs out of two decades of engineering. "bike" is of course ol'school and is therefore a good example for comparing old and new style.
    but then, if you would have made the same comparison with "confield" vs. "untilted" you would have noticed that "confield" is in fact hard or harder limited (it looks often "squared"). and its louder (RMS). your example-song of untitled is radii, the soundbombing from the beginning of the song (i assume); radii is -10 (rms), most songs are -20 (!) (confield is -15) (rms on my system – of course).
    i like to add that "untilted" is a "mastering reference" to _my_ ears. you declared that "confield" is yours. i think that headphones fail on stereo imaging and overall balance.

    Comment on October 25, 2006 @ 6:13 pm

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