Every so often I feel compelled to spend an evening pulling out my record collection and rediscovering a time when I actively enjoyed the process of listening to music. This happens with almost alarming certainty when I have either a) had a little too much to drink or b) split up with my girlfriend (sometimes an unhelpful combination of both). And in almost all cases I seem to arrive at the same conclusion – that for some reason vinyl sounds better.
After much ruminating I have arrived at the conclusion that this has nothing to do with me being some closet analogue purist. I don’t think there is anything intrinsically wrong with my speakers being wobbled by a stream of 1s and 0s as opposed to a stylus jiggling in a groove on a vinyl disc. It has nothing to do with the hiss and crackle of vinyl imparting the pseudo-comforting sound of nature or acting as the sonic glue that imparts a sense of life into an otherwise sterile performance. In fact it is not about how vinyl sounds when compared to CD at all, it is about how the music on a CDcompares with its vinyl equivalent, a result of the process I have come to call ‘masterdisation.’
A common mistake made by advocates of vinyl is that a CD has less dynamic range. The CD format is capable of a dynamic range of 96dB as opposed to around 65 – 70dB for a vinyl record. However, the process of mastering for vinyl favoured using as much dynamic range as was possible, with the caveat that the quietest part should never fall below the agreed noise-floor for the background sounds inherent in a device which basically drags a needle across a plastic surface.
Mastering engineers were still encouraged to try and make the loudest records possible, but there was a limit because above a certain level the needle would literally jump out of the groove. With CDs, the opposite is true. Record company executives looked at the loudness wars in the ’80s, when radio stations competed to get more listeners by being the loudest on the air, and decided they were prepared to sacrifice dynamics if they could have a record that seemed louder than every other.
With dynamics no longer a concern, CD mastering engineers found themselves armed with the same tools as the radios had used. Multiband compressors and limiters let them compress most of those 1s and 0s into straight 1s and despite having a much larger dynamic range than vinyl, it is common for a modern pop CD to be mastered with less than 10dB difference between the loudest and quietest parts. And this is, I think, the key to why so many people claim a preference for vinyl.
Firstly, dynamics are a key dimension in audio. It holds listeners’ interest and we start to actively listen. With no dynamics, listeners get fatigued and lose interest. Secondly, overly loud mastering introduces digital distortions, as CD player converters run out of headroom to recreate the soundwave. In his book ‘Perfecting Sound Forever: The Story of Recorded Music’ (so exhaustively researched it frankly has no business being as enjoyable or entertaining as it is), author Greg Milner cites The Red Hot Chilli Peppers’ ‘Californication’ as being a watershed album for ‘overloud’ mastering. Almost devoid of dynamics (a total dynamic range of less than 6dB across the whole album), the sound of digital clipping produced throughout is recognised by our brains as being painfully loud regardless of how loud the disc is actually being played, and actually becomes unpleasant to listen to.
Finally, all of this compression started to fundamentally change how we perceived the sounds of instruments. Sounds were robbed of transients and others had subtleties boosted. CDs started to sound less like music played on vinyl and more like music heard on the radio. We no longer needed to listen to records, because they were practically screaming at us, the musical equivalent of over-hyped orange-lacquered reality TV celebrities shrieking into our headphones.
The irony of this is that, as CDs used loudness to attract our attention, the effect made the listener less interested. It’s a shame the CD format was standardised before the loudness wars started. In the digital TV age, broadcasters now have access to loudness metadata which allows them to match perceived loudness of different pieces of programme material. If CDs could somehow incorporate the same loudness metadata, a CD wouldn’t have to compete on volume – playback systems would be able to compensate in balancing volumes between different albums based on how loudly the listener will perceive them. Overloud mastering would become undesirable due to the artifacts and limited dynamic range.
While some artists are beginning to see that overloud mastering is detrimental to the enjoyment of the music, the mastering decisions rarely rest with the artist. It may well be that, in future, radio will incorporate loudness monitoring that will help in the fight to reclaim the music from the sound of the CD. For anyone looking to master their own music, I’d advocate paying close attention to how your music sounds, not just how loud it is. Squashing all the transients out of your music may end up reducing a lot more than just the peaks.
Want to know more about mastering? Get in touch with our audio team on 03332 409 306 or email audio@Jigsaw24.com.