this article started life as a Soulseeking column about my new headphones, a rather delicious-sounding pair of Grado SR60s. The original opening line was meant to be as follows:

"You’d think I’d know Spirit Of Eden pretty well by now. I’ve listened to it often enough. But maybe I haven’t listened to it well enough?"
And I was going to go on to detail how much, well, detail my wonderful new cans had rung out of this fantastic record, about how I'd noticed the sound of rain against the window of the building they recorded in during a few seconds of what I had previously considered to be near-silence at the start of "The Rainbow." I was going to witter on about the timbre of instruments, about how when I listened to Mark Hollis' eponymous solo album from 1998 I could hear the creak of the stool he was sitting on during recording. I was going to talk about how those little details, the accidents, the colourations of sound that remind you that people made this music, are almost as important as the music itself. But I got distracted. I got distracted because it suddenly dawned on me that an awful lot of recent music, much of which I adore, sounds horrible.

So, this new article starts like this:

Imperfect Sound Forever

The new Flaming Lips CD is the kind of cod-metaphysical psychedelia (there’s a reason actual philosophers don’t take acid—it stops them from thinking properly) that’s bound to garner glowing reviews from broadsheet critics to whom all music blends into a homogenous morass and to whom cosmic platitudes equal great spiritual insight. It’s pretty good; you could argue that they're running out of ideas and melodies and are compensating by being weird for the sake of it, and that Coyne's voice, never strong, is now so shot that you fear for his ability to even talk, but it's not a bad record. It is, however, an incredibly LOUD record. So it might as well be bad because I simply cannot stand to hear it.

I don’t mean that it’s lashed with savage, Angus Young-esque guitar riffs or grindcore percussion, because it’s not (it’s the kind of luscious, unpredictable-yet-lucid-dream futurist collage that Yoshimi… predicated, occasionally punctured with some rowdiness and energy); I simply mean that the CD itself when played back bashes out of your speakers at a massive, wearing volume. It’s not alone in its pummeling attack, either. In fact it’s far from alone.

Don’t get me wrong; music sounds better loud. It’s more dynamic, more exciting, you can hear more detail, you get a better sense of space as instruments and sounds surround you and involve you (like a Taoist says, the space between the spokes is the most important part of the wheel—as it is with music), and the physical pleasure of feeling a ripple of bass run through your body simply can’t be beaten. But loudness and dynamics aren’t the same thing. Loudness is relative. Surfer Rosa by The Pixies is an old CD that seems daintily quiet next to At War with the Mystics, but if you nudge the volume dial up and then up a little more and maybe up a little further, it gets better and better, louder and louder, the juxtapositional leap from whispered, undulating verse to hammer-attack chorus getting more and more exciting and visceral, guitars and bass and drums and Black Francis’ yowling curses all clear and vibrant and dangerously realistic. It could maybe do with a little more bass now that we're more able to reproduce low-frequencies than we were in 1988, but that's a very minor gripe. At War with the Mystics, on the other hand, just gets painful and messy and starts "clipping" when you turn it up.

I’m pretty anal about sound, and I’m prepared to admit it. I’m not a super-duper audiophile (I can’t afford to be), but I have spent hundreds thousands of pounds over the years on stereos, headphones, hi-fi separates, portable audio systems, and even (in my more gullible moments) biwired speaker cables and limestone slabs to position my speaker stands on, all in pursuit of the “perfect” sound: slightly more sparkle and physical *ping* in the treble (hearing the stick hit the hi-hat, perhaps, rather than a vague *splash*); a more rounded and tighter bass sound that doesn’t bloom like ugly bathwater and overwhelm the song; more realistic vocals that put the singer right in front of you, spittle-filled lips and all. You know the kind of thing… It’s like when serious wine buffs talk about being able to smell diesel or orange peel in a bottle of Shiraz: it seems like nonsense until you immerse yourself in the sensations of the discipline and find that you too are scrabbling for ridiculous metaphors to describe how something tastes or sounds or smells when you suddenly realise there are more nuances than you ever imagined.

It started when I was about sixteen and listened to “I Am the Resurrection” through shitty headphones out of a shitty boombox while trying to write an essay for school, straining to hear all these sounds buried in the song that I could faintly perceive but had never heard before when wheeling around my bedroom air-guitaring like a delirious fool. That moment planted a seed in me, made me want to hear everything possible, every detail in every song, soak it in and lose myself in it. For the last eleven years I’ve been trying to find that sound, and the equipment that will make it for me.

I’m not about to claim that you can’t “properly” enjoy music unless you’re running it through some multi-thousand-pound Naim system with enormous £900 Epos floorstanding speakers, because we all know that you can get a kick out of a great tune running off a crappy C90 cassette in a bog-standard car stereo. Or by playing the new Flaming Lips album through your iBook speakers, or through the earbuds that came with your MP3 player. But that’s not the only way to listen to music, and certainly not the best way to listen properly, and I doubt anyone would disagree for long if you confronted them with even a modest hi-fi set-up that can really play.

I think music journalists have a responsibility to listen to records on at least half-decent equipment—film critics wouldn’t (I hope) review a film based on viewing it on an iPod Video during a train journey, and film studios would be aghast if they did. Certainly you could ascertain the plot from that, but film is about more than just story in the same way that music is about more than just song. Sadly very few music journalists appear to be concerned with the nuts and bolts of actual sound quality though—possibly because it “gets in the way of the music, maaaan,” but more likely because they’re scared that they’d look as if they didn’t know what they were talking about if they tried. I know more than a few people who’ve reviewed albums based solely on MP3s—I’ve done it myself in the past, to my shame. An art critic wouldn’t evaluate a painting based on a black & white Xerox, and while some people will be up in arms saying it’s not the same thing with music, I disagree—MP3s lose colour, space, and depth, all of which can affect your relationship with a song.

So what's the actual problem here? The reason At War with the Mystics is so punishingly loud is because of how it’s recorded, mixed and mastered, how the components and levels of the music are arranged and set in the processes before it gets put on to CD.

A quick lesson from someone who doesn’t fully understand (and I am very much a novice learning this stuff on-the-job as I research this article)—in basic, layman's terms “producing” gets the music out of the musicians; “recording” and “engineering” get it onto tape; “mixing” arranges the elements of the music on that tape; and “mastering” polishes the songs up to a cohesive shine and sets the final levels for the finished whole—it makes a bunch of "songs" into an "album," if you like.

Record companies these days (and I don’t just mean nasty behemoths like EMI or Sony—your favourite indie are probably just as bad) are eager to make CDs as loud as possible because they think, with some justification, that this is what people want. In order to get CDs to be consistently loud, they get compressed—essentially this means that the quieter moments are made louder in relation to the, um, louder moments, to make the entire CD a consistent, and high, level of volume. During the compression process, the tops of signals can be cut off, or "clipped." Compress a record too much, and it sounds bad. Make it “clip” even slightly, and it sounds worse.

There are two ways to measure "loudness"—peak levels and average levels. The former refers to the loudest part of a piece of music or sound; a crescendo or climax. The difference between the highest and lowest points makes for the average level. Sadly, the science of psychoacoustics suggests our ears generally respond to the average level rather than the peak level of volume—hence we would perceive a consistently loud piece of rock music as being "louder" than a piece of classical that reaches the same or even a higher volume level during a crescendo, simply because the rock song is "loud" all the way through. "Loud" records grab our attention (obviously—being louder they are harder to ignore on first impression) and in order to grab attention quicker and more effectively in a crowded marketplace, record companies and artists have been striving to make their records as loud as possible from the second the first note is played, whatever the cost.

This isn’t a recent thing. The "Loudness War" has been going on almost as long as pop music has existed, and probably longer—nobody has ever wanted their record to be the quietest on the jukebox or the radio. The Beatles lobbied Parlophone to get their records pressed on thicker vinyl so they could achieve a bigger bass sound more than 40 years ago. The MC5 apparently mixed their second album, Back in the USA, at such extreme volume in the studio that they failed to notice how tinny and thin it sounded—there's practically no bottom-end to it at all. Then there's Phil Spector's legendary "wall of sound" production style, mixed and mastered to sound good on tiny, tinny transistor radios, squeezing as big a sound as possible into as small a space. Three or four decades ago record companies would send out compilations of singles to radio stations on a single vinyl record—if a band or producer heard their song on one of these and it was quieter than the competitions’ song, they would call the mastering engineer and get him to up the levels until it was the loudest, even if that meant corrupting the sound quality.

The advent of CD technology in the early 80s changed the game, albeit not initially for the worse. CDs allowed for a greater dynamic range than vinyl or tape (live music spans approximately 120 dB; vinyl covers approx. 75 dB; CD ranges across approx. 90 dB)—meaning that they could be encoded with a much larger differential in volume between the quiet moments and the loud moments of a piece of music. The 90dB range of CDs encouraged mastering engineers to exploit the potential of the new format for a while, which made for a few awesome-sounding (but relatively quiet) albums mastered for the early days of CD, even though much of the industry hadn't yet cottoned-on to how to best exploit the new format. Of course the music itself wasn't always great however well-mastered, but for every Dire Straits there was a Blue Nile (almost). The early 90s are considered by many to have been a golden age of mastering and sound engineering, when the industry had become familiar with CDs, technology had yet to be overtaken by commercial concerns, and albums were being mastered to exploit the medium rather than the market.

Levels have crept up over the last decade though, and alarmingly so. Nevermind is 6-8dB quieter than, say, Hopes & Fears by Keane—to contextualise this, those 6-8dB will make Nevermind sound approximately half as loud. On most modern CDs the music is squashed into the top 5 dB of a medium that has over 90 dB of range. It’s like the oft-quoted myth that humans use only 10% of their brain, only real—imagine what we could do if we realised potential. Think of the classic, exciting Pixies formula again—it doesn't exist anymore, because those dynamic leaps have been ironed out. Keane should NOT be twice as loud as Nirvana.

In fact you don’t need to imagine—just go back to Laughing Stock or Giant Steps or Selected Ambient Works 85-92 or Siamese Dream or Hex or Music for the Jilted Generation and listen for yourself. Play “Hey Ladies” from Paul's Boutique again, a song that's almost 20 years old, and feel just how head-snappingly phantasmagorical it is when the soundstage suddenly flips into widescreen during the intro. Is there anything remotely approaching that on the headachingly dense and loud St. Elsewhere by Gnarls Barkley? Not even slightly. Friends of mine (and fellow music writers) often cite Paul's Boutique as a record they'd like to hear remastered, but it sounds absolutely wonderful to my ears—it just needs turning up a touch on your own amplifier if you think it's not loud enough!

Music with an incredibly loud signal is referred to in the industry as "hot." One way to make music "hot" is by compressing it—essentially this means lowering the peaks so they're almost level with the troughs, and then increasing all of the signal to make it as loud as you can before it starts "clipping." Only a lot of people seemingly don't know when to stop. Compression can be added at almost any stage of the recording process, in large or small doses. Small increments added at both recording, mixing and mastering are more effective in preserving sound quality than huge leaps taken at the final stage, for instance.

One result of this is that modern CDs have much more consistent volume levels than ever before. But when is it desirable for music to be at a consistent volume? When it's not being actively listened to; i.e. when it's intended as background music. Sudden (or even gradual) dynamic changes in ambient volume disturb people from what they are otherwise doing (shopping, eating, working) by making them pay attention to the fluctuating sound rather than the task in hand—I only notice the air conditioning at work when it switches off ten minutes before I go home every day, for instance—for the previous eight hours, my brain tunes the hum out so I can concentrate. So it is with music too—it may grab your attention more effectively at the start, but it's ultimately easier to ignore too. All music becomes background music if it's at one flat level, no matter how loud. And flat, hypnotic background music is a form of social control—I used to work in the catering industry and there was significant research suggesting that diners played ambient music with a low BPM and steady level ate slower and made less mess when eating. Similarly a faster BPM made them eat quicker—the type of establishment you piped music to determined the music used; fast food restaurants wanting multiple table covers play pop, rock, and R&B;, while classier, more sedate places play jazz or classical.

Not only are the volume differentials flattened when you compress music, but bass and treble frequencies are pressed into the midrange and the space surrounding instruments is lost, making them less easy to separate when you listen. Bass frequencies drive music, they give us a physical sensation to hold onto and ride through a song. Play "Unfinished Sympathy" on a decent hi-fi and the sub-bass shots that open the song hit you like a punch in the belly and a pillow-whack to the chest. Play Girls Aloud's superficially sonically savage "Wake Me Up," Nine Inch Nails meets Gwen Stefani, on the same set-up, and it sounds flat and lifeless. Treble frequencies by contrast add imaging—a sparkling, accurate treble hit can almost be seen—think Jacko's early 80s work with Quincy, all those pointillist pricks of light over the top; cymbals, shakers, and twinkling keys. Try The Killers though and their cymbal work is so muddy and indistinct that it's hard to even identify, let alone hear clearly. Speakers work by moving air molecules. Overly compressed music moves a LOT of molecules, but it doesn’t move them very precisely.

Artists want to make their CDs excessively "hot" for the sake of being louder on the radio, but this is fallacious. The sad thing is that radio equalises music anyway, songs are run through a whole other set of compressors during the broadcast process to even-out differences in volume, which means CDs don’t actually need to be mastered loudly to sound loud on radio—in the UK even relatively open-sounding channels like Radio 3 and Radio 4 are compressed in order to send the signal as efficiently as possible. They’re also very quiet compared to the uber-compressed Radio 1, which is designed for a punchy, consistent sound, the poor quality of which isn’t fully apparent when listening on a dodgy mono set in a workshop or in the car, which is what demographic research suggests are the most common listening environments for Radio 1. Television is much the same—watching VH1’s A-Z of Anthems the other night I was stunned to hear how much the level of vocals and synths in Underworld’s “Born Slippy” dropped when the beat came in, presumably because neither the television nor the station could handle the dynamic shift. As for DAB… well, the payoff for having a million radio stations is that most of them transmit at 128kbps or less. I wouldn't listen to an MP3 encoded that badly, so I'm certainly not going to listen to radio at that bitrate.

If there’s a jump-the-shark moment as far as CD mastering goes then it’s probably Oasis. In 1987 Appetite for Destruction averaged about -15dB RMS volume, and was considered loud. By 1994 the average loudness in RMS power for a rock record was -12dB. (What’s the Story) Morning Glory in 1995 hit a phenomenal -8dB on many tracks. The 1997 remaster of Raw Power reaches an extraordinary -4dB, making it supposedly the loudest rock record ever. In 2005 the average RMS volume is -9dB. Audiophiles and people who work in audio engineering largely agree that this is too loud, but in the face of massive commercial impetus their say is often ignored. Arguably (What’s the Story) Morning Glory became so successful in the UK precisely because it was so loud; its excessive volume and lack of dynamics meant it worked incredibly well in noisy environments like cars and crowded pubs, meaning it very easily became an ubiquitous and noticeable record in cultural terms.

Music isn’t meant to be at a consistent volume and flat frequency; it’s meant to be dynamic, to move, to fall and rise and to take you with it, physically and emotionally. Otherwise it literally is just background noise. Compressed CDs grab your attention in the same way that people who shout grab your attention, and they’re just as tiring and annoying in the long run if you’re standing too close to them. They sound fine if you’re playing them back through some satellites and a subwoofer hooked up to your PC, or through a half-decent pair of headphones and an iPod, or in your car where the compression helps the music rise above engine and road noise; but if you push them through a system designed to reproduce sound as realistically and effectively as possible, they can and do sound pretty poor—forced, lifeless, wearing, and flat. Much more information about dynamic range compression, to use its full name, from people who know what they’re talking about considerably more than I do, can be found in the links at the bottom of this article. As you can see if you read on from there, some mastering engineers claim that a huge amount of professionally released CDs since the turn of the decade (and earlier) have been so compressed that they don’t even consider them to be “musical.” I can’t bear to play back some of my favourite records from the last few years through my hi-fi and pay them full attention, and this is upsetting.

Dynamic range compression may be responsible for a multitude of recent record industry sins but it’s a difficult phenomenon to identify if you're not aware of what you're looking for. Aside from making records simply sound louder and flattening the delivered frequencies, it also sucks all the space out of music, but many people simply aren’t accustomed to listening to what isn’t there.

In the days before digital coaxial and optical recording to minidisc or CDR, home taping enthusiasts would have to set the analogue recording levels so that the peak level, i.e. the loudest moment of the song, was to just below the red on a cassette recorder’s level indicator. Pushing it into the red clips and distorts the signal, and blows your speakers if you hammer them too hard. But the key thing is that the levels would vary—low for quiet moments, high for louder. It’s stultifyingly obvious. Modern CDs hit the peak level from the off though, and stay there resolutely. When the music gets louder there is literally nowhere else for it to go on the CD because the CD is already "full" (i.e. the music is already at the top of the CD's dynamic range and thus as loud as it can be) , and it maxes out, resulting in clipping of the signal.

It used to be said that valve gear when pushed to distort makes the right type of harmonic distortion to make music sound better (valve compressors and desks backing up that claim) and that solid state (i.e. digital) makes a very different type of (un)harmonic distortion. Digital distortion is unacceptable, because unlike analogue where the sound goes through a subtle “furring” as you start to overload signal levels, an overloaded digital signal remains the same until it suddenly goes QUACK through the speakers (similar to a scratched CD skipping). This can and does damage equipment if it’s driving music at high levels.

On At War with the Mystics, for instance, there is so much clipping during the crescendos (which aren't real crescendos anyway, because they're the same volume) that it almost seems as if it's being used deliberately as another instrument in the mix. It’s this flatness, this clipping, this unwavering attack, that wears and tires and means you won’t listen to your favourite records, if they’re from the last few years, as often as you might want to, because they are intrinsically unmusical and unpleasant. Hence, perhaps, the perpetual merry-go-round of seeking the newest flavour-of-the-month; over-compressed music sounds great for a couple of listens, but there is little desire to replay the music because your brain recognises that there is something fundamentally unmusical about the sound.

Music is about tension and release. With very "hot," un-dynamic music there is no release because the sensory assault simply doesn’t let-up. By the time you've listened closely (or tried to) to a whole album that's heavily compressed, you end up feeling like Alex at the end of A Clockwork Orange—battered, fatigued by, and disgusted with the music you love. I think the reason I suffer from a musical malaise for the first couple of months of every year recently is largely because October, November and December are spent frantically listening to a morass of the year's records in an effort to concoct "best-of" lists for end-of-year polls. By Christmas I simply have a massive dose of listening fatigue that takes 8-10 weeks to recover from. I very much doubt that this is just me.

Who’s guilty then, beyond Wayne Coyne’s merry psychedelic troubadours? The simple answer is almost everyone, but some offenders are much, much worse than others. Californication by Red Hot Chilli Peppers is so loud and suffers from so much digital clipping that even non-audiophile consumers complained about it. Hot Fuss by The Killers is one of the most unpleasantly flat and harsh recordings I have ever heard, so much so that I couldn't bring myself to play it again and recently sold it. Sounds great on the radio though… The new Embrace album, as much as I love the songs and arrangements, is like a shock and awe assault designed to prepare for a later land attack. Part of the reason Mogwai’s new album fails to truly engage me is that the quiet bits are pretty much as loud as the loud bits—if you too consider that the real thrill of the Scottish postrockers was their dizzying command of dynamics as demonstrated on “Like Herod,” then it’s no wonder that Mr Beast has arrived to such a muted reception. The Liars' Drum's Not Dead is meant to be some kind of percussion odyssey, but it has one of the worst, most over-compressed, hollow, and unrealistic drum sounds I've ever heard. Try listening to Songs for the Deaf by Queens of the Stone Age while thinking about compression and it becomes almost unbearable. But perhaps that's the point? It’s sequenced with skits to make it sound like listening to a car radio, after all—a concept album about sounding horrible. Noise artists like Merzbow routinely master CDs so "hot" as to render them almost unlistenable, simply because they want their music to be like that.

Even The White Stripes, those fashionistas of vintage recording and mixing technology, compress their records massively; it’s just not as obvious (or wearing) because there are usually less elements being crammed into the mix in the first place. It's similar with a lot of R&B; and hip-hop—minimal music without many compositional elements (a bassline, a drum track, a single synth and a vocal, perhaps) can be compressed to seem much louder than a more densely layered piece of music with more elements, because each ingredient can be made to take up that much more space on the CD itself in terms of raw information/signal. To try and apply that EQ and compression to a densely layered or orchestrated piece of music is futile. But people will try it anyway.

Compression loses space and realism and involvement. Why go back to a piece of music that's hard, unnatural and unpleasant? This is not saying "only listen to acoustic guitars" because this affects ALL music—minimal hip-hop and heavily textured electronic music both sound better if you can hear them properly, if they have dynamics that you can ride as you listen, that take you somewhere emotionally rather than just battering you in order to get your attention.

How many times have you been blown away by a band’s demo only to find the professionally recorded version of it, mixed and mastered properly, sounds lifeless and dull? One repeated complaint against Arctic Monkeys' debut album is that it lacks the excitement of the early demos that caused such a fuss online. Why? Because the final recording and release is compressed to hell, loses its space, its dynamic, its vitality, and its excitement.

Compression in itself isn't bad though; many state of the art rock records and iconic sounds from the last 40 years would not exist without the good old compressor. “Tomorrow Never Knows,” John Bonham's drum sound, “Song 2,” Lennon's piano sound on Plastic Ono, Ride, Public Enemy and countless others, basically anyone with a savage electric guitar or really driving drumbeat, would not sound the way they do, punchy, exciting, intriguing, otherworldly, and brilliant, if it weren’t for compression. The recent and escalating problems with compression are "user errors"; people falling victim to negative instincts and misguided commercial desires, a kind of penis envy transposed to volume, and sabotaging their own records in the process. The key, as always, is to use the available tools with taste in sympathy/empathy with the actual music you’re creating, not just to max them out because you can.

We know why artists, producers and labels want loud CDs, but why do consumers want them if they sound so bad when played through good hi-fi equipment? As with anything, technology and the pace of modern life are probably to blame. Possibly we're just too lazy to reach for the volume knob. If people listen to music in substandard conditions where they can’t even hear it properly, why bother to make the music that they’re listening to worth listening to well in the first place?

Think about how you listen for a moment. I’d wager that a large chunk of your listening is done during a commute, whether that’s in a car or on a bus or train or a walk through a city centre. I listen a lot on the train myself, running my iPod (songs encoded as 192kb AAC files) through a pair of Koss Portapros and trying to sit next to other people who have earphones in so my leaking sound doesn’t offend commuters who want to read or whatever. Unsurprisingly I see a lot of other people with MP3 players, most of them using tiny earbuds of various kinds. Often their ears are plugged and their eyes are intently focused on a book or magazine or even a mobile phone screen too, senses shut to the horror of public transport. I get the impression that they’re not listening to music so much as avoiding what’s outside.

I fidget when I listen to music in public. I tap my feet, nod my head, drum my fingers together. Occasionally, if I’m pretty sure no one’s looking, I’ll break out into a spectacular air-drum roll, swooshing my invisible sticks across fifty tom-toms, thirty cymbals and heaven-only-knows how many snares and kick-drums. While full-on drum rolls might be rare, the rest is commonplace whether I’m on the train or walking through the woods. Other people I see out and about wearing walkmans or MP3 players seldom seem to tap, or nod, or hum along at all though; instead their gazes seem fixed with a steely resolve, their bodies tense and their minds seemingly tenser. To me that isn’t the body language of someone enjoying music.

The story goes that Brian Eno “invented” ambient music after a car accident, when he was forced to stay in hospital dosed on painkillers, and someone left a radio playing so quietly that he couldn’t properly hear the music it emitted no matter how much he strained. The genre that this happenstance spawned has produced some truly wonderful music over the years, music that both floats absently in a room and that can be paid great attention to; like a painting hung on a wall that you see everyday but seldom look at. It strikes me that the way many people are listening to music these days—on trains, in offices, on the street—is not a normal listening experience. It is neither conscious engagement nor ambient enhancement. It’s a hermetic seal, a blockade to the outside world. It’s the opposite of ambient music, in that it doesn’t become a part of or complement the environment it is played in, but rather destroys it. How often do people simply sit down and listen to a record, rather than putting on some music while they do something else?

The rise of the iPod (or other generic MP3 player of your choice) initially made me hopeful that people would start putting a greater level of thought into mixing new music with headphones in mind, and it looks as if my hope has been borne out—sadly I was thinking more of increased ambient detail and stereo-imaging than outright sonic attack. Mixing for headphones is a very different thing from mixing for iPods—binaural recording already exists, for instance, and is a very different approach to the idea of making music to be listened to via headphones. I've read countless articles about people shunning their iPods because they encouraged them to over-saturated themselves with music (and even written one myself, almost), but there are countless more by people who think that all music, all the time is a great thing, even if they never actually listen.

Compression is a way of life. A week's worth of radio broadcasts have become an hour-long podcast. Think of those plastic bags you can get for clothes with a hole to stick a vacuum cleaner nozzle in so you can suck all the air out and pack them tighter. We squash fruit into smoothies, social policy into soundbites, vitamins into pills, entire meals into cans and English into txt spk, all so we can consume things quicker than ever before. But quicker is not the same as better. Meanings, subtleties, and understandings are lost because we don't have the time to pick up on them.

People are forgetting how to listen, and who can blame them? Music is ubiquitous—it pervades every shop, every café, every workplace, every restaurant, every television programme, and every film. It is pervasive to such an extent that some of us, who would profess to love music, find ourselves trying to actively avoid it during the day so that we can more fully enjoy it when we choose to, when we know we can appreciate it. Increased availability and increased choice do not equal increased quality—we're taught that we can have everything we want, but not taught how to decide what we want.

But people are slowly realising that so many modern CDs sound so bad because they're too loud—they may not consciously know the reasons, but subconsciously listeners are shunning overly "hot" music; a swift analysis of album chart sales suggests more people are buying modern easy-listening and AOR types than rock, pop, hip-hop, or dance albums, presumably because people are simply tired of being shouted at. The increase in home cinema and the wonderful dynamics it can bring is making people aware that today’s music, by comparison, is flat and dull, even if it’s “louder.” The recent Kate Bush album was a strike against unnecessary volume, and Leaders of the Free World by Elbow contains some startling dynamic shifts. Nashville is beginning to understand how its music is harmed by the pursuit of loudness, and country records are being clawed back from the brink.

Please, just stop a moment and think about how you’re listening, about what you’re listening to and how it sounds. If you want to listen to something loud, there’s a simple method—turn it up.

-Producing Great Sounding Phonograph Records (or Why Records Don’t Always Sound Like the Master Tape)
-Sound Mirror: Mastering Articles
-Wikipedia: The Loudness War
-The Loudness War
-How to Make Better Records in the 21st Century
-Regulation in Digital Broadcasting
-What happened to Dynamic Range?

Thanks to MD and ME for opinions, photos, and facts, and ER for putting up with me not shutting up about this for the last two months.

By: Nick Southall
Published on: 2006-05-01
Comments (80)

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