Everything Louder Than Everything Else

Chris Neal | September 14th, 2009

As a music critic and journalist, I can get pretty jaded about listening to the new CDs that cross my desk (or, increasingly, the digital downloads or streams that are grudgingly entrusted to me by record labels through top-secret back alleys of the Interwebs). But I can’t front—I was flat-out excited when I opened up a package recently and found inside my very own copy of Miranda Lambert’s third album, Revolution.

I have found Lambert’s unlikely journey from Nashville Star runner-up to fully-formed artist uniquely satisfying, and admire the speed and sureness with which she established herself as a first-rate songwriter and singer with a remarkably fully formed artistic persona. That she has managed to thrive in mainstream country even while being mostly ignored by radio (her lone Top 10 to date, the murderous “Gunpowder & Lead,” is also her most amusingly unlikely) has also helped to redraw longstanding Nashville rules and given her the freedom to avoid the kinds of compromise that for most artists in her position are a matter of course. She’s one of the best we have.

I held onto my copy of Revolution until the end of the workday, when I could slide it into my car’s CD player and give it the undivided attention it surely would deserve (while simultaneously obeying all traffic laws, naturally). As the first few songs spilled out of the speakers, something began nagging at me. These were clearly good songs—the singles “White Liar” and “Dead Flowers” I’d already heard and liked, and “Only Prettier” was up-to-par Lambertian sass. By “Me and Your Cigarettes,” I knew something was afoot. One part of my brain was entertained, another was troubled.

It was the fifth track that did it. “Maintain the Pain” opened with a menacingly understated intro and a classic Lambert lyric: “I put a bullet in my radio/Something just hit me funny, I don’t know/Just pulled the trigger going down the road.” When the song exploded into its aggressively rocking chorus, I immediately wished I had a gun of my own. My suspicions were definitively confirmed: This album is too damn loud. I knew immediately that what should have been one of the best albums of the year had been ruthlessly defaced, and that the Loudness War had well and truly come to Nashville at last.

If you have no idea what I’ve been going on about for the last couple of sentences, don’t feel bad—it’s a technical audio matter that until recently went comfortably under the radar of most consumers. Think of it as a conflict in a far-off land that has been raging for a decade, but only now come to your shores. And believe me: Both sides are losing, valuable treasures are being sacrificed and the fight is not worth it.

So here’s what you need to know. First of all, there’s a difference between “volume” and “loudness.” The former you can control with the knob or button on your stereo/radio/computer/iPod/Victrola/whatever. The latter is decided upon before you ever buy the music. “Loudness” is the built-in volume of each element of each track, levels that are usually determined in the mixing or mastering stage of music production. The more “loudness” is applied to a track, the less it has in the way of dynamics—the quiet parts of a song become just as loud as the noisy parts. When “Maintain the Pain” slams into its chorus, for instance, the dramatic impact is lessened because the “quiet” intro isn’t really quiet at all.

Since the late 1990s, many of the people who make the music we listen to—from artists to producers to label execs to whatever other chefs are in the kitchen—have carried on a war of attrition in which one after another nudges the loudness higher and higher and higher in an attempt to grab the consumer’s increasingly difficult-to-hold attention. No one wants his or her song to be quieter than the song that precedes it on the radio, for fear of losing a possible consumer’s attention. (Much more information can be found at the website of Turn Me Up!, an organization formed to fight the practice.)

The loss of dynamics is a shame, but that’s not the aspect of the Loudness War that’s had me throwing an epic music-geek hissy fit for the last year or so. The real trouble comes when loudness is jacked up so far that it “clips”—that is, it becomes louder than the available spectrum of sound on the recording media can handle. Then the sound becomes distorted, and not that good kind of distortion you get from a guitar pedal—this is the kind of distortion that fatigues and even hurts your ears, and turns a great song like “Maintain the Pain” into a cacophony of undifferentiated noise. Pull “Maintain the Pain,” “Somewhere Trouble Don’t Go,” “Sin for a Sin” or several other Revolution tracks up on a recording device and look at the wave forms; you don’t have to be an engineer to see that for large chunks of each song what should look like squiggly lines (think parallel EKG readouts, one line for each stereo channel) instead look like simple rectangular blocks.

For the rock world, the Loudness War finally became a matter of public protest last year with Metallica’s Death Magnetic. The band’s return to artistic form was wrecked by a mix that compromised the drama of epic songs like “The Day That Never Comes” by compressing their dynamics flat and so heavily distorted the loudest tracks that I, for one, couldn’t stand to listen to it on headphones. I wasn’t alone—fans started a petition to have the album remixed (mastering engineer Ted Jensen repudiated the album, saying the loudness was built into the mix before it reached the mastering stage). Other offenses were cataloged, including loudness-afflicted rock and pop albums by the Red Hot Chili Peppers, Sting, Christina Aguilera, Rush and others; recently remastered albums by groups like the Rolling Stones and ABBA have classic music sounding suddenly shrill and clattery. And now it’s country’s problem too.

This must stop. Great music should be timeless, something to be returned to again and again, something to be discovered anew. The long-term viability of music like that on Revolution is compromised when presented in a fashion that punishes, rather than rewards, repeated listening. The fact that this phenomenon has continued after the Death Magnetic fiasco bespeaks a troubling disregard for the value of music on the part of the very industry that is built upon it. Songs are being painstakingly composed, performed and recorded by teams of talented people only to be casually defaced at the end of the process.

Yes, a great deal of hackneyed, commercially calculated and downright vacuous music emerges from Nashville city limits. But each song I loathe is undoubtedly loved by someone, and when any person hears a song that enriches his or her life I believe that moment is at least a little bit sacred. For that reason, every song deserves a chance to be heard clearly.

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  3. [...] Everything Louder Than Everything Else – by Chris Neal – The 9513Emotional truth: Sentiment and sentimentality in country music – by Occasional Hope – My Kind of Country [...]
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  1. JD
    September 14, 2009 at 8:17 am

    Chris… unfortunately, this is another battle we ain’t gonna win. The average Joe listens to most of his music either in the car or on mp3′s, so he’s accustomed to low-fi.

    Chalk this one up there with karaoke, deejays, rap and McDonald’s hamburgers…..

  2. Kelly
    September 14, 2009 at 8:58 am

    I really like this article, Chris. I also really like the Death Magnetic album. I’ll admit to not having noticed the uneccessary “loudness”, but I also dont consider myself to be a “sound-guy” type of fan. I often fail to pick up on such technical aspects, so it’s hard for me to be as passionate about this as you are…

  3. Ben Milam
    September 14, 2009 at 9:00 am

    ain’t no money in being quite and listening.

  4. J.R. Journey
    September 14, 2009 at 9:27 am

    This was a great read. It would be pointless to try and add anything to the discussion, so I’ll just say I agree with you.

  5. Tom
    September 14, 2009 at 9:32 am

    worst of all, this technical bug is also found quite frequently in country’s human life forms these days.

  6. Jon
    September 14, 2009 at 9:57 am

    Nice piece. The clipping isn’t much of an issue, in my opinion – there are ways around it through the recording-mixing-mastering sequence – but the diminution of dynamics is a pretty serious matter.

  7. Paul W Dennis
    September 14, 2009 at 10:04 am

    Absolute spot on

  8. Audra
    September 14, 2009 at 11:02 am

    Amen. I work at a radio station where we still play CD’s, and I am continually amazed at the difference between the classics and the new music. It’s far more than just volume; it’s what it takes to get there. The music is compressed and manipulated to the point where it’s like goulash instead of a three course meal.

  9. the pistolero
    September 14, 2009 at 11:19 am

    I also loved Death Magnetic, but I am really curious to see how much better the Guitar Hero version sounds; it’s been said the GH mix of the album sounds much better.

  10. Littleboot
    September 14, 2009 at 12:44 pm

    Have a listen to Earl Clifton’s “Broken Flower” that’s how songs should be mastered. Music is suppose to have crescendos, decrescendos, soft passes and loud passes. It’s suppose to have dynamics, the dynamics make up the emotion of the song. The listner can “feel” the song when it has it’s dynamics. Commercial music is pulling it’s own trigger…

  11. Chris D.
    September 14, 2009 at 4:19 pm

    Good read- but I just want to know, Miranda’s album is still good, right?

  12. Chris N.
    September 14, 2009 at 4:26 pm

    Putting the loudness issue aside, it’s at least as good as the first two records (which are terrific) — which is why this frustrates me so. If it was a lousy album I could just ignore it. I just want to be able to hear it properly.

  13. Mayor Jobob
    September 14, 2009 at 5:13 pm

    I have the guitar Hero version of Death Magnetic but I have nothing to compare it to so it sounds fine!

  14. Debbie W.
    September 14, 2009 at 6:03 pm

    Loud or not, I can’t wait for “Revolution”!!

  15. Ian Shepherd
    September 14, 2009 at 6:20 pm

    It’s sad to hear this. I was one of the voices complaining about “Death Magentic”, and I really hoped it would prove to be a watershed. Sadly that hasn’t happened yet, although there have been steps in the right direction.

    One particularly sad aspect of all this is that the often-cited need to be louder on the radio is a complete red herring – Death Magnetic proved that, and I blogged about it here:

    ‘Death Magnetic’ – Guitar Hero Game Mix Sounds Better on the Radio

    You can also hear an example of this for yourself in an interview I did for BBC Radio 4:

    Heavy Metal Mix-up

    Thanks for writing this – let’s hope a similar backlash starts to grow amongst country fans, and eventually the “Loudness Wars” stop being an issue.

  16. Chris N.
    September 14, 2009 at 6:25 pm

    It was actually Ian’s writing about ‘DM’ that first sparked my interest in the topic and helped me to begin understanding why so much of what I was hearing sounded like crap. Dig around on his blog at the link above and you’ll find a lot of valuable information if you want to investigate further.

  17. Chris D.
    September 14, 2009 at 6:30 pm

    Good, I feel better then. That stinks that it’s too loud, but I know I’ll love the album anyway.

  18. Leeann Ward
    September 14, 2009 at 7:11 pm

    Now, I’ll be listening for this when I hear the album. Interesting.

  19. James S.
    September 14, 2009 at 8:37 pm

    Excellent article. I couldn’t quite put my finger on it, but this is something else that’s been bugging me about recent recordings.

  20. Rick
    September 14, 2009 at 9:28 pm

    Sound quality has always been very important to me and the low quality of so much of the mainstream Nashville output these days helps drive me even further away from their “product”. The bombastic “80′s Rock” production in so many of the rock-pop songs that fill the Top 40 country charts is bad enough and this is just another step in the wrong direction. As Ernest Tubb was known to sing, its just another nail in the coffin of any residual interest I may have held in Nashville’s mainstream commercial output.

    Sadly in trying the emulate “The Nashville Sound” the sound quality of some of the Australian country CD’s I’ve acquired lately also seems to be declining, and especially the ones recorded and produced in Nashville! (Big surprise there.) One pleasant stalwart Aussie hold-out is producer Herm Kovac who recently helmed production of Harmony James’ “Tailwind” CD. Herm is likely best known in the States for his work with AC-DC and he consistently does a great job.

  21. Nicolas
    September 14, 2009 at 9:37 pm

    I still think that Miranda’s new album is going to be the best album of the year

  22. buddynoel
    September 15, 2009 at 2:46 am

    First of all – radio and broadcast TV stations MUST compress music in order to comply with FCC power and interference regulations. Their steady efforts to improve their sound has made compression something that is here to stay.

    I must admit I love hearing Pink Floyd’s “Wish You Were Here” when the compressor has captured the turntable needle, hetrodyne squeal, the sniffing sounds and English voices. It makes Alan Parson’s mastery of that 70s piece only sound that much better. Try playing that Metallica piece through WinAmp using the StereoTool plug-in and your SPDIF output on a laptop into the digital input into your car. You will find what the recording engineer really wanted you to hear instead of the crap you’re getting from inside your car’s head unit. All music sounds better if you just adapt to the latest technology.

  23. Bradley Olson
    September 15, 2009 at 9:21 pm

    In fact, country has had the loudness wars problem just as long as pop and rock. BTW, the loudness wars is one reason why there are some people seeking out original CD issues on eBay and paying premium prices for them. They are also buying specialty audiophile releases on 24 karat gold CDs, SACDs, DVD-A discs, etc. that retail for about $30. BTW, for the most part in the used CD section, if you read the liner notes and see the note that it is mastered by Bob Irwin, most Vic Anesini, many Joe C. Palmaccio, Steve Hoffman, Barry Diament, Doug Sax for the most part, Joe Sidore, most Denny Purcell, Bill Inglot in the 1980s-1990s, Dennis Drake, Glenn Meadows during his time (mainly in the 1980s-1990s), etc. buy it. Many 3rd party licensed reissue CDs are dynamic sounding just like the original vinyl as well.

    most Erick Labson mastered CDs, most recent Bob Ludwig, most recent Ted Jensen, recent Steve Hall, recent Vlado Meller, Adam Ayan, etc. are loudness wars affected CDs. For the best sounding CD of Buddy Holly’s greatest hits, pick up a used copy of “From The Original Master Tapes” on MCA, mastered by Steve Hoffman.

  24. Bradley Olson
    September 15, 2009 at 9:23 pm

    Wally Traugott at Capitol during the 1970s-1990s consistently mastered great sounding CDs and LPs as well.

  25. Lucas
    September 16, 2009 at 12:51 am

    ““Loudness” is the built-in volume of each element of each track, levels that are usually determined in the mixing or mastering stage of music production. The more “loudness” is applied to a track, the less it has in the way of dynamics”

    Most call it compression.

  26. Chris N.
    September 16, 2009 at 1:07 am

    I kinda didn’t want to muck up the matter any further with another geeky term. Fuller and certainly more learned explanations than mine can be found through the various links above.

  27. Rick
    September 16, 2009 at 6:28 pm

    Even apart from “loudness” and “compression” signal processing issues, can anyone explain why the John Mellencamp/Karen Fairchild duet “A Ride Back Home” sounds like crap? When CMT first posted the music video I thought a low bit-rate feed was to blame, but when I saw the video broadcast on either CMT or GAC it still sounded equally terrible! I really like that song but would never spend a dime on anything that sounds so atrocious! If it was intentional to get an “old timey” sound, they missed the mark by a mile.

  28. Marc
    September 17, 2009 at 6:17 am

    +1 for using audacity screen shot on main page

  29. John B
    September 19, 2009 at 12:28 pm

    I’ve been reading articles on this problem for a while and I think you explained how it effects THE LISTENER better than anyone else. People who are as passionate about the music we listen to as we are want to hear it all, Not get blasted out and turn the volume down only to find out there’s no punch or dynamic range whatsoever. Music fans may not know all the technical aspects, but they do know quality and crap when they hear it.

  30. K
    September 22, 2009 at 10:53 pm

    I actually think the opposite of the new Lambert album; I have listened to it online, and I didn’t notice excessive loudness or distortions. On a side note, I enjoyed quite a few of the tracks- “Me And Your Cigaretts,” “White Liar” and “Dead Flowers” among them. After listening to “Revolution” it is pretty clear Miranda has a love for tardtional country music; I heard a lot of those influences in the album.

    I understood your loudness issue after listening to Carrie Underwood’s sigle “Cowboy Casanova” on my Ipod. The song literally hurt my ears because it was so loud- I even tried to change the bass and distortion levels to make it listenable. It appeared when the volume was turned down it needed the song was too soft- because the “lodness” built into the track was in the cuprit.

    It’s dissappointment that I didn’t notice this issue when listening to this song on radio- it makes for an unpleasant listen to a playful, enjoyable song.

  31. Rose
    September 25, 2009 at 10:58 pm

    Thank you for putting a spotlight on this – I HATE excessive compression!! At first it’s like, something’s wrong here, I think, but what is it? Once you know what it is, it will dog your music-listening days forever. Crazy Ex-Girlfriend has the same problem as Miranda’s new album, and it drives me nuts, along with quite a few other albums. I gave up listening to the Chili Peppers – I like them fairly well, but GOD, it’s so annoying to turn down the volume to the point where you can barely hear it and yet it’s blasting your ears out that it’s just not worth it.

    I heard there was an uncompressed version of Crazy Ex-Girlfriend floating around the Internet at the time of its release…I suppose that’s not exactly legal, but I think I’ll try to look for her new album this time anyway (after I buy the CD legally, of course…no really, my CD burner doesn’t work, so I need it for the car).

  32. Steve Harvey
    September 29, 2009 at 4:27 am

    Just heard this record and I have to concur with the article. The clipping is terrible.
    Great record though.

  33. Sheep
    December 26, 2009 at 11:14 pm

    I understood your loudness issue after listening to Carrie Underwood’s sigle “Cowboy Casanova” on my Ipod. The song literally hurt my ears because it was so loud- I even tried to change the bass and distortion levels to make it listenable. It appeared when the volume was turned down it needed the song was too soft- because the “loudness” built into the track was in the cuprit.

    How was “Cowboy Casanova” loud? Several of the Revolution tracks (even though they’re all better than Carrie’s song) were much louder than “Cowboy Casanova” is.

  34. Sheep
    December 26, 2009 at 11:15 pm

    Whoops, the first paragraph up above should be quoted, it was K’s statement.

  35. Robert
    June 29, 2010 at 7:36 am

    I’m so fed up with the crappy Loudness Wars too. Just received Jewel’s new album, and guess what, its squashed to bits, yes lots of dense square waves, real low dynamics. I’ve looked at them already, horrible. The acoustic part not much better either. I’ve entered it into the Dynamic Range Database here: http://www.dr.loudness-war.info/index.php?search_artist=Jewel

  36. Kid
    September 4, 2010 at 1:43 am

    THANKYOUTHANKYOUTHANKYOU for bringing this up. It’s been nagging at me for years and the problem seems to be getting worse. It’s like producers (and to a large extent artists) have forgotten how to build emotion and feeling. I do a lot of production at a radio station and just out of curiosity started running songs through my copy of adobe audition to look at them. The difference between music (all genres) 30, 20, and even ten years ago is amazing. I look at some current songs and can see exactly what they did to them when they mixed them and I just ask why? Good songs where the singer’s voice and everything are almost perfect are murdered because all the feeling is stolen in the mixing. There’s a book called “This Is Your Brain On Music” that explains both why this “loudness” is unappealing and why producers do it. It’s deffinately a practice that needs to stop.

  37. Clete Campbell
    September 7, 2010 at 1:11 am

    Chris, I know you know this: Both WHITE LIAR and THE HOUSE THAT BUILT ME have gone No. 1. GUNPOWDER AND LEAD is now Miranda’s third biggest single to date.

  38. Chris N.
    September 7, 2010 at 1:59 am

    Check the date — I wrote this a year ago. Do you expect me to update it every time she puts another single out?

  39. Lawrence John
    August 23, 2011 at 6:10 pm

    Hi Chris
    I always enjoy your articles in The 9513 and wondered if you might give me your opinion on two country music songs I wrote and produced in Nashville recently.
    I’m actually from Belfast, Northern Ireland and write for some of Ireland’s top Country singers, but I would love to get an opinion from someone so obviously into country music, of how my music stacks up in Nashville.
    If you send me your e-mail address I could send you the two songs on mp3.

    Kind regards
    Lawrence John

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