Become a member
Become a member

or
Continue with Google
Log in
Log in

or
Log in using a Google account
learning

Mastering and remastering

The Loudness War - Part 7

Here's the latest installment in our series of articles dedicated to the race for volume, and its consequences on music, sound and human ears.

View other articles in this series...

The day came when our dear record industry friends (who, let it be said, are nothing but salesmen for whom the artistic value of a work is a variable measured in terms of profits) decided to take their back catalog and release remastered versions. In other words, versions whose overall volume is artificially increased, with a complete disregard for the music’s dynamics and the (often) exceptional work of the mixing engineers, not to mention the musicians themselves.

In the screenshot below you can see the original CD release (1985) of a classic Genesis song, “Watcher of The Skies”, taken from the Foxtrot album (Charisma, 1972; vinyl release). This song’s dynamic range is 14dB, while the album’s is 12dB on average.

The loudness war

If you examine the waveform, you’ll see two outstanding peaks, one right before the middle of the song and the other one almost at the end. These two peaks could’ve been “limited” back in the day or reduced during mixdown in order to achieve a higher output volume. But they weren’t. The mix was considered done and, if you wanted to listen to the song louder, you only had to pump up the volume on your listening system.

Remember that back then, people used VU-meters (with a response time of 300ms, so peaks weren’t displayed with precision) or peakmeters (with a response time of 10ms, which meant they displayed peak averages), and there were no digital audio editors.

Let’s take a look now at the “remastered” version, dating from 2007

.

The album’s overall dynamic range is 10dB, while the song’s is 8dB, besides being loaded with intersampled clipping. Where the first waveform showed the dynamic subtleties of the musicians’ performances and the production, it’s easy to realize that the nice crescendo starting at 1:30 has been shattered. Not to mention the crushing of the rest of the parts of the song. Another phenomenon commonly associated with overcompression (in addition to the overall altering of the timbre) is the exaggeration of almost all frequencies. Especially when overcompressing with a multiband compressor (a great tool, which is also unfortunately responsible for sonic butcheries).

Let’s now take a look at the volume achieved by the individual frequencies across the entire song (maximums in red and averages in yellow). The images speak for themselves.

loudness war et mastering audio
loudness war et mastering audio

Add to this the grinding resulting from current radio broadcasting practices and you end up with a nice and flat-looking log. Granted, not many radio stations play 1972 Genesis anymore…

But still, all music is being sacrificed in the name of this crazy race for the loudest-sounding track.

How to describe those who engage in this type of practice? And, for the sake of coherence, don’t blame only the salesmen: Technicians, engineers and all other people involved in the mechanics of it are just as responsible. Without them there wouldn’t be any sonic massacres. And, sorry, the “if I don’t do it someone else will” philosophy is not good enough for me. I’m sick and tired of people eluding their responsibility

What is mastering, anyway?

loudness war et mastering audio

That’s a great question that conjures different answers. For those of you who still have a vinyl collection from before the mid '80s, take a look at the sleeves and, in most cases, you’ll be able to find straight away who engineered, produced and mixed the album, but you’ll have a hard time finding out anything about any mastering.

Because, even if the principle behind mastering ─ namely preparing and adjusting multiple tracks to a given media, which is something we’ll talk about in the next article ─ has been around for lots of years, its systematization, especially regarding artistic creation, became widespread only with the arrival of the CD and digital formats.

“If you have a problem with the recording, solve it at the recording stage; and if you have a problem with the mix, solve it during mixdown.” This principle ought to be applied systematically. It’s not wise to assume that the problems from one stage can be readily solved in the next one. And yet, that’s the way we tend to do things these days, pretending that we can do more (with less) at the mastering stage than we can at mixdown

loudness war et mastering audio

To paraphrase one of the most respected voices in the field — Bob Katz  (see “Mastering Audio, The Art And The Science” by Bob Katz, Focal Press, 2002): Mastering engineers listen to your work in an objective and experienced way. They are used to technical and aesthetic mistakes. Sometimes they don’t do anything…at all! If they sign off on a track, it means it’s ready go.

The rules have certainly changed with the the arrival of digital audio, together with home and project studios, as well as the mixing in places not fit to the task (the consequences of mixing in a room that isn’t acoustically treated or whose defects haven’t been taken into consideration can be heard right away). In this scenario, the intervention of an extra pair of ears, the implementation of an additional processing stage, and the views of a person unrelated to the project, can prove very useful, even indispensable.

But many mastering engineers have forgotten that when a mix is well-balanced there’s no need to add, remove or do anything else to it. Nobody can do a better job at mixing a song than an experienced mixing engineer, in an adequate room in front of a multitrack recorder, be it analog or digital. It’s a simple matter of logic. Who do you think can deal better with all sound-related issues that may arise (volume, EQ, compression, spatialization), someone working with individual tracks (48 tracks, for instance) or someone working with a stereo mix or a couple of stems (the famous Gang of Four approach)?

← Previous article in this series:
Compression Has Consequences
Next article in this series:
It Can Happen to Anybody →

Would you like to comment this article?

Log in
Become a member
cookies
We are using cookies!

Yes, Audiofanzine is using cookies. Since the last thing that we want is disturbing your diet with too much fat or too much sugar, you'll be glad to learn that we made them ourselves with fresh, organic and fair ingredients, and with a perfect nutritional balance. What this means is that the data we store in them is used to enhance your use of our website as well as improve your user experience on our pages (learn more). To configure your cookie preferences, click here.

We did not wait for a law to make us respect our members and visitors' privacy. The cookies that we use are only meant to improve your experience on our website.

Our cookies
Cookies not subject to consent
These are cookies that guarantee the proper functioning of Audiofanzine and allow its optimization. The website cannot function properly without these cookies. Example: cookies that help you stay logged in from page to page or that help customizing your usage of the website (dark mode or filters).
Google Analytics
We are using Google Analytics in order to better understand the use that our visitors make of our website in an attempt to improve it.
Advertising
This information allows us to show you personalized advertisements thanks to which Audiofanzine is financed. By unchecking this box you will still have advertisements but they may be less interesting :) We are using Google Ad Manager to display part of our ads, or tools integrated to our own CMS for the rest.

We did not wait for a law to make us respect our members and visitors' privacy. The cookies that we use are only meant to improve your experience on our website.

Our cookies
Cookies not subject to consent

These are cookies that guarantee the proper functioning of Audiofanzine. The website cannot function properly without these cookies. Examples: cookies that help you stay logged in from page to page or that help customizing your usage of the website (dark mode or filters).

Google Analytics

We are using Google Analytics in order to better understand the use that our visitors make of our website in an attempt to improve it. When this parameter is activated, no personal information is sent to Google and the IP addresses are anonymized.

Advertising

This information allows us to show you personalized advertisements thanks to which Audiofanzine is financed. By unchecking this box you will still have advertisements but they may be less interesting :) We are using Google Ad Manager to display part of our ads, or tools integrated to our own CMS for the rest.


You can find more details on data protection in our privacy policy.
You can also find information about how Google uses personal data by following this link.