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Mastering Engineer Explains Types of Compression, Effects On Today's Music

timothy posted more than 2 years ago | from the squeeze-play dept.

Music 382

Stowie101 writes "Today is Dynamic Range Day, which is an event to educate the public about the 'Loudness Wars' that are compressing and harming the quality of today's music. Ian Shepherd, a mastering engineer and founder of Dynamic Range Day, explains why music lovers should avoid MP3 files. 'The one that springs to mind is to avoid MP3, especially if it's 128 kbps. Apple uses a more advanced technology called AAC, but if someone can get lossless files like FLAC that's a better place to start.' Shepherd says it's actually harder to make a good 'lossy' encode of something that has been heavily musically compressed. Very heavy dynamic compression and limiting makes MP3s sound worse, so the loudness wars indirectly make MP3s sound worse."

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huh (1, Insightful)

Anonymous Coward | more than 2 years ago | (#39385059)

good luck finding the master tracks to even go to lossless. If you're getting your music from a CD, don't waste your time. Record all the music yourself?

obligatory... (5, Funny)

Anonymous Coward | more than 2 years ago | (#39385071)

Hearing the difference now isn't the reason to encode to FLAC. FLAC uses lossless compression, while MP3 is 'lossy'. What this means is that for each year the MP3 sits on your hard drive, it will lose roughly 12kbps, assuming you have SATA - it's about 15kbps on IDE, but only 7kbps on SCSI, due to rotational velocidensity. You don't want to know how much worse it is on CD-ROM or other optical media.

I started collecting MP3s in about 2001, and if I try to play any of the tracks I downloaded back then, even the stuff I grabbed at 320kbps, they just sound like crap. The bass is terrible, the midrange...well don't get me started. Some of those albums have degraded down to 32 or even 16kbps. FLAC rips from the same period still sound great, even if they weren't stored correctly, in a cool, dry place. Seriously, stick to FLAC, you may not be able to hear the difference now, but in a year or two, you'll be glad you did.

Re:obligatory... (5, Funny)

Anonymous Coward | more than 2 years ago | (#39385135)

Did you even look for a job today?

Re:obligatory... (0, Offtopic)

interkin3tic (1469267) | more than 2 years ago | (#39385149)

it's about 15kbps on IDE, but only 7kbps on SCSI, due to rotational velocidensity

Sir, I suspect you are lying to me.

Re:obligatory... (5, Funny)

binarylarry (1338699) | more than 2 years ago | (#39385231)

No, it's true. Velocidensity is a very important consideration to an audiophile.

You can sometimes improve velocidensity by using very expensive, high quality wooden knobs on all the stereo equipment. The superior quality wood's acoustogravity spreads out the reverberations and diminishes the effects of compression and SNR gain.

Re:obligatory... (5, Funny)

Anaerin (905998) | more than 2 years ago | (#39385429)

Don't fall into the trap of switching to SSDs to try and escape the velocidensity issues, either. What with electron drift, bit rot, transistor breakdown and silicon-isolator tunneling issues, you can get up to 12kbps loss, depending on NAND structure and refresh frequency of your SSD. And heaven forbid you place your SSD in anything but an isolated Faraday cage - solar ejection events can cause havoc with silicon-based storage systems!

Re:obligatory... (5, Funny)

Anonymous Coward | more than 2 years ago | (#39385959)

What? No thermal enclosure? Just 2 degrees celcius variation can manifest noticeable stochastic interference, not to mention the loss of the warmth from the tube amplifier.

Re:obligatory... (0)

Anonymous Coward | more than 2 years ago | (#39385299)

Time to dust off those old physics books there buddy. Rotational velocidensity should be right before sinusoidal thermogravitation and just after polarmagnetophotorefractionessence theory.

Re:obligatory... (3, Funny)

Anonymous Coward | more than 2 years ago | (#39385197)

Too much technobabble. Can you give me a car analogy instead?

Re:obligatory... (4, Interesting)

Anaerin (905998) | more than 2 years ago | (#39385333)

Of course. Cars made of plain, cheap, sheet steel might look great when you first get them, but store them in a leaky garage for a few years and they'll be rusty and broken, and a real problem to drive. Cars made of "Exotic" materials like Aluminium and Carbon Fibre are more expensive to purchase initially, but if you left them in the same leaky garage there would be no (or at least fewer) problems with rusting or breaking down.

Does this fulfill my nerd quotia for the day?

Re:obligatory... (3, Funny)

Anonymous Coward | more than 2 years ago | (#39385285)

"for each year the MP3 sits on your hard drive, it will lose roughly 12kbps"
ok so 12 kbps / 8 * 60 * 60 * 24 * 365.25 = 47.3 GB of audio stream loss per year. niceee

Re:obligatory... (0, Redundant)

cpu6502 (1960974) | more than 2 years ago | (#39385305)

What on earth did I just read?

Digital data does not degrade Mr. Audiophile. If it was 256k when you got the MP3 it will still be 256k. Though the CD-R might self-erase (the dye fades) and become completely unplayable. I recommend only store-bought CDs (they are pressed with permanent pits). Or just save money and stream your music off youtube for free. ;-)

Re:obligatory... (5, Funny)

zimage (6623) | more than 2 years ago | (#39385361)

What on earth did I just read?

Digital data does not degrade Mr. Audiophile. If it was 256k when you got the MP3 it will still be 256k. Though the CD-R might self-erase (the dye fades) and become completely unplayable. I recommend only store-bought CDs (they are pressed with permanent pits). Or just save money and stream your music off youtube for free. ;-)

Mod parent "Doesn't understand humor".

Re:obligatory... (1)

Beelzebud (1361137) | more than 2 years ago | (#39385529)

That WHOOSH sound you just heard is the sonic boom left in the wake of a fleet of super sonic jets that just flew right over your head.

Re:obligatory... (5, Funny)

CharlyFoxtrot (1607527) | more than 2 years ago | (#39385377)

Tip: put a magnet on top of your hard drive. If bits do fall off they'll stick to the magnet so you can recycle them. These are also known as "sticky bits."

Re:obligatory... (1)

Opportunist (166417) | more than 2 years ago | (#39385487)

While we're at protips, watch your CPU for leaks, it might let the magic smoke escape. Yes, there's magic smoke in every CPU. Proof: If you see it escape, it stops working.

Re:obligatory... (0)

Anonymous Coward | more than 2 years ago | (#39385839)

The magent on top just grabs the 0 bits, which float up despite gravity. You need a second magnet on the bottom for the heavier 1 bits.

Re:obligatory... (0)

Anonymous Coward | more than 2 years ago | (#39385875)

Velocidensity...isn't that a creature from Jurassic Park?

FLAC is for archiving. (-1)

Anonymous Coward | more than 2 years ago | (#39385083)

320kbps should be enough for anyone.

Re:FLAC is for archiving. (1)

cpu6502 (1960974) | more than 2 years ago | (#39385249)

>>>320kbps should be enough for anyone.

I actually use 32k AAC. With the tiny speakers on my player you can't hear any real difference, and it lets me squeeze more songs on the device. CD bought from a store is what I use for archiving.

Re:FLAC is for archiving. (1)

kyrio (1091003) | more than 2 years ago | (#39385787)

Wouldn't it make more sense to use 192kbps files? That way you won't have to put them back on your player every day, just every week or so.

Re:FLAC is for archiving. (1)

MightyYar (622222) | more than 2 years ago | (#39385951)

CD bought from a store is what I use for archiving.

But who wants to re-rip every time they upgrade their gear?

I did most of my ripping prior to FLAC being a realistic option - heck even AAC was still considered synonymous with Apple lock-in - so I used LAME --preset extreme. I figure it's a good bet that MP3 will be supported in damn near everything for as long as it is useful to store your own music.

Musicians demand loudness (5, Interesting)

cpu6502 (1960974) | more than 2 years ago | (#39385179)

I've heard one engineer complain that he mixes the music correctly, with loud and soft passages, but the musicians then demand he make it sound louder. They are not satisfied until the quiet passages are just as loud as the loud passages.

So basically a CD with 90 db range is compressed to about 10 db (plus clipping off the top of the max volume scale).

Re:Musicians demand loudness (5, Interesting)

Ethanol-fueled (1125189) | more than 2 years ago | (#39385271)

I never noticed that back when I actually listened to CD's, until recently when my friend played Metallica's steaming pile of shit album Death Magnetic in his truck.

It sounded so loud and compressed, as if it were all played through a powerful and well designed portable radio with a 1.5" speaker.

Sigh, at least I can still depend on classical music recordings to have that quaint ol' thing called dynamic range.

Re:Musicians demand loudness (5, Interesting)

Anonymous Coward | more than 2 years ago | (#39385317)

Death Magnetic did indeed sound terrible, which is sad since it's Metallica's best album in 15 years. There's a solution though. When the album was released for the Guitar Hero games, they were given the original multi-track mixes, which means that each individual track in the game (vocal, lead, rhythm, bass, drums) was basically the master before the engineers mangled it.

A bunch of fans were then able to take those multi-tracks and mix their own version of the album, and these went out on torrent sites. I downloaded the Deceifer Remaster, and the album sounds absolutely amazing. I deleted the digital download I actually paid for, because it pales in comparison.

Re:Musicians demand loudness (5, Interesting)

CaptainLugnuts (2594663) | more than 2 years ago | (#39385481)

If modern albums had 10db of dynamic range it would be a huge improvement, modern pop has only a couple dB of dynamic range at best. If you look at the waveforms in an editor the songs today are rectangles. Ugh.

10 dB??? (5, Informative)

frank_adrian314159 (469671) | more than 2 years ago | (#39385505)

You should be so lucky. These days most mastering engineers shoot for 4 dB of dynamic range at most because, otherwise, the soft passages will be lost in the car noise.

Re:Musicians demand loudness (5, Insightful)

afeeney (719690) | more than 2 years ago | (#39385571)

It's not just the musicians, it's the listeners, especially because of so many listening through earphones. If you listen to music with dynamic variations in an open area, a room, or through speakers, you pay more attention to the softer passages. If you listen through headphones, as often as not, you turn it up to have a constant volume in your ears.

Some people say that it started with the Wall of Sound, where everybody wanted that massive effect on everything, regardless of whether it was right for the album or song or not, others say that it started later, with boomboxes, but in any case, we've lost one of the most powerful ways to create musical tension and drama. Now there's pretty much only abrupt changes in tempo, which doesn't work for music where you need a constant beat, or suspensions, which only work for a while before they get too self-indulgent.

Hey! Get off my lawn!

Re:Musicians demand loudness (1)

Anonymous Coward | more than 2 years ago | (#39385803)

CD is 16 bit, 1 bit = 6dB, 16bit offers 96dB dynamic range.

Re:Musicians demand loudness (2)

sidthegeek (626567) | more than 2 years ago | (#39385835)

I think it has to do with the fact that music is often listened to through those earbud headphones, which let in a lot of background noise.

Apple has a "lossless AAC format" (2, Informative)

Biff Stu (654099) | more than 2 years ago | (#39385189)

It's also known as ALAC. I don't believe that it's an option for the iTunes store, but if you own a CD and want to get it into your iDevice environment, it's a good option.

Re:Apple has a "lossless AAC format" (1)

Anonymous Coward | more than 2 years ago | (#39385653)

ALAC or FLAC are both lossless. So, if you encode a song that makes heavy use of sound-level compression, it will sound just like playing the CD. The sound-level compression may still make the music sound terrible [wikipedia.org], of course.

I don't think you are confusing data compression (MP3 vs. ALAC) with sound-level compression, but some people discussing on this thread seem to be doing it.

Quality is subjective (0)

JoeMerchant (803320) | more than 2 years ago | (#39385237)

Hendrix liked feedback, and so did his fans. If bubble-gum popping 0.99 single buying kids like it compressed, let 'em have it that way. They can discover "Unplugged, fresh and undistorted" later.

Damn shame what happened to The Red Velvet Car [vh1.com] (compressed into oblivion), but I guess I'm just getting older faster than the target audience the producers of my favorite artists are aiming for.

Re:Quality is subjective (3, Insightful)

Hentes (2461350) | more than 2 years ago | (#39385371)

The problem is not that bad quality records exist, but that good quality records do not.

Re:Quality is subjective (0)

Anonymous Coward | more than 2 years ago | (#39385569)

They exist, but they're generally only the older somewhat more obscure discs that go unharmed in the process. Many of the old jazz albums have escaped the process because the studios are too cheap to re-remaster them for CD.

Trusted Source (3, Interesting)

Linegod (9952) | more than 2 years ago | (#39385241)

Neil Young made the same argument last month in Wired. The interviewer was a douchbag, so I'm not going to link to it, but Neil was right, and first.

Re:Trusted Source (5, Funny)

binarylarry (1338699) | more than 2 years ago | (#39385289)

Right, because this issue JUST STARTED RECENTLY.

Damn those kids and this BRAND NEW PHENOMENON.

You tell em Neil!

Re:Trusted Source (4, Insightful)

yodleboy (982200) | more than 2 years ago | (#39385339)

I was thinking the same thing. The tone of the article is that MP3 or lossy formats are the culprit. This compression for loudness thing started long before digital music became popular and no doubt they are using the same mix regardless of the final format. What's the old saying, Garbage In, Garbage Out?

MP3 Bad, FLAC Good! (2, Insightful)

EdIII (1114411) | more than 2 years ago | (#39385267)

Yeah, yeah, yeah. I know all this.

Problem is where is the support for the alternatives? Hardly any software really supports FLAC at all. I don't use iTunes, but does it support it? I know that Zune does not. Most standalone players don't support it.

Of course, every other technology I use takes advantage of MP3. Asterisk can't use FLAC. Which would be hilarious if it did because the standard codecs are about the worst way to transmit music anyways. A phone call is terrible for quality. Unless you are inside a closed system using HD codecs, forget about it.

I'll pick up and start using FLAC more often when the software and platforms I use actually support it.

Re:MP3 Bad, FLAC Good! (1)

Nerdfest (867930) | more than 2 years ago | (#39385343)

From what I've seen, many standalone players do support FLAC. Last time I checked, I think it may have had more support than AAC, but it's been a couple of years.

Re:MP3 Bad, FLAC Good! (0)

Anonymous Coward | more than 2 years ago | (#39385365)

You had be convinced you weren't trolling until you mentioned the Zune as a thing people bought.

Re:MP3 Bad, FLAC Good! (4, Informative)

cpu6502 (1960974) | more than 2 years ago | (#39385375)

every other technology I use takes advantage of MP3. Asterisk can't use FLAC. Which would be hilarious if it did because the standard codecs are about the worst way to transmit music anyways. A phone call is terrible for quality.

Phone calls don't use MP3. The wired phones are uncompressed 7-bit PCM, while the cell phones use a codec designed specifically for speech and barely stream faster than 4-5 kbit/s. (Yes that's right... 1/10th the speed of a 56k dialup connection.)

Re:MP3 Bad, FLAC Good! (3, Informative)

EdIII (1114411) | more than 2 years ago | (#39385617)

Yes, the connections to the PSTN don't use the MP3 codec, and it would be very strange to use MP3 between phones on a PBX system. However, PBX systems like Asterisk do transcode MP3 files to play as MOH or even system sounds on a channel.

If you build a jukebox system to provide MOH, typically the end user uses MP3's to load their music, not FLAC.

Also, if you are doing anything scripted on a Linux system for dynamic content generation Sox does not fully support FLAC. FFMPEG does have support for it, but I am not sure about any others.

So while it is possible to convert FLAC to MP3, so it can be converted to g729 or whatever codec you prefer it does not make a lot of sense when the codecs actually used for transport to most PSTNs are terrible for music and audio fidelity in general.

Which is kind of my point. Unless you are talking about some in-house conference systems, even MP3 is wasted.

Re:MP3 Bad, FLAC Good! (3, Informative)

MachDelta (704883) | more than 2 years ago | (#39385685)

More research into your platforms? You really have to make it something you look for, rather than something you expect to just appear.

Personally, I use MediaMonkey as a library app and have a Cowon S9 for music/movies on the go (battery life is fantastic with the screen off). They both support FLAC, OGG, and a bunch of other filetypes. Heck even my phone (Galaxy Nexus) supports FLAC and OGG.

Re:MP3 Bad, FLAC Good! (1)

kyrio (1091003) | more than 2 years ago | (#39385871)

Pretty much everything out there supports FLAC. The things that don't support it are the garbage products that you seem to use. FLAC is free, and therefore a really easy way to get more people to use a product without any extra cost added to production.

Try doing some research about the products you waste your money on, maybe you'll find that the trash you've been buying can be replaced with extremely superior products from companies such as Cowon, or even SanDisk.

Then you are going on about software, but software supports any file type, most (MP3, FLAC, OGG) as standard types, and anything less common as a plugin. At the very least, the most mainstream audio software has support, and the best software has standard support for it, like foobar2000.

Also, what are you going on about with phone calls? Voice uses codecs that do under 10kbps, usually around 5kbps. You don't stream music over the phone expecting it to sound like anything more than some fizzes and pops.

Compression and compression (5, Informative)

asdbffg (1902686) | more than 2 years ago | (#39385293)

All this switching back and forth between dynamic range compression and data compression makes my head hurt.

So to clear things up... dynamic range compression is a form of signal processing that is usually used to make the average level of a signal louder, hence the loudness wars.

Data compression probably doesn't need to be explained to this crowd. But you know... MP3s and stuff.

Re:Compression and compression (5, Insightful)

JazzHarper (745403) | more than 2 years ago | (#39385615)

It is unfortunate that the same term is used for two entirely different things. The article does a pretty good job of conflating the two.

Anyway, the loudness war is over. Digital players, as opposed to CD players, now routinely apply SoundCheck (Apple) or ReplayGain to normalize levels from track to track, so mastering a digital track into saturation no longer makes it "louder" than the next track on the player. Most streaming services do the same. The advantage, if there ever was any, is gone.

It's not surprising that there are still some producers who still indulge in mastering at saturated levels. It's also not surprising that RHCP are still turning out such recordings; they were among the worst offenders at the peak of the loudness war, 13 years ago, and they are probably superstitious enough to believe that it still has some benefit.

Call the dynamic range stuff limiting (1)

Sycraft-fu (314770) | more than 2 years ago | (#39385867)

Makes it clearer and a multi-band look-ahead peak limiter is usually what is being used to squash the dynamics out. The Waves L3 would be a good example (http://www.waves.com/content.aspx?id=3173). So for dynamic range, call it dynamic range limiting. For lossy or lossless data compression, call it compression.

Helps keep it straight.

When Experts Attack (3, Funny)

Anonymous Coward | more than 2 years ago | (#39385301)

I am greatly enjoying 'Adopt an Audiophile... And Beat Some Sense Into Him' Month here on Slashdot.

Thanks for the tip (0)

Anonymous Coward | more than 2 years ago | (#39385319)


It matters to a point. (5, Insightful)

Anonymous Coward | more than 2 years ago | (#39385325)

I've been a musician for many years, and I have a nice studio set-up so that I can hear music as clear as possible. Yet I have amassed... umm, through various ways thousands of mp3s as well as flacs and oogs. Do I like the quality of lossless files better, yeah. But does that make me want to get on some flac-only crusade and not listen to mp3s? Not at all. Maybe it's because I'm of that age where I remember scratchy records, or pressing a transistor radio against my ear to hear the latest Jackson-5 or Stevie Wonder cut that was playing on the radio. For me it's the notes, melody, rhythm, lyrics that matter, that's the true musical information. From my music collection I have grown in my musical sensibilities immensely. I don't think it would be possible to have the library I have if everything was lossless just from the standpoint of space and perhaps download time.

So of course, lossless is better than lossy by definition, but mp3s still bring me to where I want to me in terms of getting the music the artist wanted to convey.

Don't buy mp3 (1)

the eric conspiracy (20178) | more than 2 years ago | (#39385327)

It's one thing to encode your music as mp3 so it fits on a portable device, and another altogether to purchase it in that form. Sooner or later you will wish that you had bought the lossless encoding.

Yes, and hearing the difference costs how much? (2, Interesting)

Anonymous Coward | more than 2 years ago | (#39385351)

When I can somehow distinguish between FLAC and 192 mp3 VBR on equipment costing less than 2K, I'll consider it.

Smaller dynamic range = worse hardware? (2, Interesting)

Anonymous Coward | more than 2 years ago | (#39385353)

In addition to the diminished audio fidelity, the other sad part about the loudness wars is that they have likely contributed to the number of lower-quality consumer audio devices in the market these days. A quality recording (that doesn't have its dynamic range hammered into a corner) encourages you to listen at a higher volume overall, but raising the volume on a cheap audio device generally exposes bad quality components and noise in the signal path. If the average person was accustomed to listening to a wider dynamic range, we'd probably see an increase in higher quality parts being used in consumer audio devices.

forget compression (0)

Anonymous Coward | more than 2 years ago | (#39385369)

How about some decent bands? What happened to good music? Don't call me old, I'm still young enough to not remember the great war... of '91. Music seems to be for teens and young adults now.

This guy probably swears by $1000 HDMI cables, too (0)

Anonymous Coward | more than 2 years ago | (#39385373)

Just sayin'

Quality (3, Interesting)

Nerdfest (867930) | more than 2 years ago | (#39385407)

Personally I wouldn't blame the degrading quality of modern music on compression. Even with a high dynamic range, there's a higher ratio of crap out there than during the disco era.. Of course, you may be standing on my lawn.

C64 anyone? (2)

Twinbee (767046) | more than 2 years ago | (#39385439)

Due to the loudness wars, I'm surprised chip music (e.g. C64) hasn't taken off more, considering that the soundwaves always peak at the maximum floor and ceiling levels.

After all, louder is better, so Monty on the Run or R-Type on the radio or TV would be heaven! (Irony being they do beat 99.9% of pop today anyway...)

Re:C64 anyone? (3, Interesting)

cpu6502 (1960974) | more than 2 years ago | (#39385641)

>>>soundwaves always peak at the maximum floor and ceiling levels

Hardly. The C64 has a volume control. 0 to 255 if I recall correctly, so the music could range from soft to loud (not maxed-out like today's CDs). Ditto other "chip music" produced by Atari 800s or Commodore Amigas.

I've tried sharing 64, amiga, and Super Nintendo music on facebook but most people think it sounds like junk. They don't appreciate that electronic sound. (shrug). BTW http://www.lemon64.com/ [lemon64.com] let's you hear 64 music directly over the web.

Re:C64 anyone? (0)

Anonymous Coward | more than 2 years ago | (#39385991)

The C64's SID volume register has 4 bits dedicated to volume control, so there are 16 levels.

Not avoiding MP3s (5, Interesting)

thegarbz (1787294) | more than 2 years ago | (#39385459)

MP3s are still a wonderful compression and it's quite amazing how it has withstood the test of time. Large scale ABX tests have shown people are unable to tell the difference between a 256kbps mp3 and the original lossless recording. Over the past several years I've also noticed a trend for MP3s no longer to be encoded at stupidly low bitrates.

No I won't be avoiding MP3s. I much prefer an MP3 (even at 128kbps) than one of those wonderful "remasters" of an old album. Quite frankly there's nothing masterful about how the loudness war has managed to destroy modern music. The real shame is it doesn't end with the CD master. SACD, DVD-A and I guess now we can include the new supposedly magical itunes format have all tried to tell us the wonders of 24bit music, and yet the dynamic range of music rarely drops below -7dB.

When people download some backyard mp3 digitisation of a Red Hot Chilli Pepper's vinyl release of an album to get better sound quality, or when they download rips of the GuitarHero versions of Metallica songs to get some form of dynamic range you really know the industry has gone to shit.

Mastering Engineer... (1)

coldmist (154493) | more than 2 years ago | (#39385475)

I can't be the only one that tried to read the headline and thought "another screwed up Slashdot title", thinking it was a book title for "Mastering Engineering" or something other than an "audio" mastering engineer?

Couldn't the editors have put 'Audio' at the front of the subject to give it a point of reference?


Finally! Someone who knows something about music! (3, Funny)

Geak (790376) | more than 2 years ago | (#39385491)

The loudness wars have been a complaint of mine for some time now. The example video at the end of the article gives an EXCELLENT explanation. I only wish that more people would complain about this so that the quality of recordings would get better. Unfortunately most of the music of today sounds more like a Stephen Hawking lecture with distorted beeping and buzzing in the background and no actual music. When I was in school - music was part of the curriculum. I don't know if it still is but the kids of today are completely CLUELESS when it comes to music. They only seem to like songs about 'guns, money, drugs, niggas and bitches' because they SEE not HEAR these videos on MTV. They see some gun toting loser driving a ferrari, throwing stacks of cash around, surrounded by half naked crack whores and think - "Man that is the life I want to lead!" Their music tastes follow accordingly. If they actually listened to the lyrics - they might actually be disgusted.

The end of improvement. (4, Interesting)

MpVpRb (1423381) | more than 2 years ago | (#39385499)

When audio recording was first invented, quality was awful, but people loved it, because it was new and exciting, and nothing like it had ever existed before..

Year after year, quality improved.

We expected that someday, recorded music would become indistinguishable from live performance.

Then everything changed.

Convenience became more important than quality.

Storing 5000 mediocre quality recordings on an ipod became the norm.

Combine that with the excessive compression used to fight the loudness war, and it really makes an old-school audiophile sad.

Re:The end of improvement. (1)

solanum (80810) | more than 2 years ago | (#39385941)

I second this. I fairly regularly go to live orchestral performances and frankly a CD on a decent system gives you only a tiny fraction of the live sound (note I'm not talking about amplified concerts here, before the get off my lawn comments start). I hoped that as disks were able to store more and more data we'd get closer and closer to that live sound, but now too few people are interested to make it economically worthwhile.

I don't buy a lot of music (3, Interesting)

Beelzebud (1361137) | more than 2 years ago | (#39385537)

but when I do, I buy the CD and make my own flac set from it. Then I can re-encode that to mp3 for portability, etc.

Re:I don't buy a lot of music (1)

Anonymous Coward | more than 2 years ago | (#39385647)

but when I do, I buy the CD and make my own flac set from it. Then I can re-encode that to mp3 for portability, etc.

Stay thirsty, my friends.

Loudness war (5, Informative)

steveha (103154) | more than 2 years ago | (#39385555)

Wikipedia's article on the "loudness war" does a good job of explaining the problem.

http://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Loudness_war [wikipedia.org]

I used to work for JJ Johnston. He took a popular music track (I won't say which one) and ripped a .wav file from the CD, and then ran a simple Matlab script that tallied how many samples there were of each value. CDs use 16-bit samples, so there were 64K bins in this histogram. You would expect a pretty much Bell-curve shape to the histogram. With this particular song, over half of all samples were either +1 or -1 (i.e., 16-bit sample values of either +32767 or -32768).

That music is so horribly overcompressed that most of the wave forms are sawed-off into square waves [wikipedia.org]. Square waves, in turn, add unpleasant harmonics [diyguitarist.com], which make the music harder to enjoy, and make it louder (in the psychoacoustic meaning of "louder").

I'm hoping that "audiophile" versions of songs become available, not because I think I need all my music in 24-bit 192KHz but because I'm hoping the mix engineers will be allowed to do the mix properly, instead of mixing it far too hot.

I'm sort of afraid to buy remastered versions of old classic rock albums, because I'm worried they will actually sound worse [youtube.com] than the originals!


Re:Loudness war (4, Interesting)

Mr. Underbridge (666784) | more than 2 years ago | (#39385759)

I'm sort of afraid to buy remastered versions of old classic rock albums, because I'm worried they will actually sound worse [youtube.com] than the originals!

They do. I used to use the oscillosope plugin for winamp, and you could directly see the effect of range compression. I think I did a comparison of new vs old versions of the same song, and it wasn't pleasant. For sure, the old, unmastered albums (like Dark Side of the Moon) had interesting structure even visually on the scope. I compared it to a modern album and it looked completely tortured on the scope.

The worst I ever heard was a green day greatest hits album (I know, I know, blank CD), which was so distorted that even as a non-audiophile, I couldn't even listen to it.

I'm sure the nice man means well (0, Troll)

Leo Sasquatch (977162) | more than 2 years ago | (#39385633)

and can probably prove it with an Etch-A-Sketch and 5 minutes of my time, but I can't take any of this stuff seriously. I listen to MP3s and they sound great to me. I listen to them on the bus, on the train, on my bike, in the city, all on standard earbuds, and it all sounds like it's supposed to.

It's just that after reading the absolute pure f**king snake-oil that some of the component manufacturers put out about their products in a vain attempt to justify charging ten grand for a pair of *wires*, as soon as anyone starts getting needlessly technical about audio, it all sounds like yet more snake-oil.

And so I end up grouping terms like lossless and FLAC and AAC with counter-spiral geometry, which is apparently why Audioquest can charge a thousand dollars a foot for a f**king power cable.

Re:I'm sure the nice man means well (0)

cpu6502 (1960974) | more than 2 years ago | (#39385751)

>>> all on standard earbuds

Try playing those same MP3s over a full-sized speaker system, and it will become immediately apparent they are deficient. For earbuds as low as 64k may be okay, but for speakers MP3s don't sound CD quality until they are 256k or higher (IMHO). It's somewhat similar to how I thought DVDs looked almost-perfect on my old analog CRT, but pretty bad on an HD monitor.

Re:I'm sure the nice man means well (4, Insightful)

phantomfive (622387) | more than 2 years ago | (#39386055)

Heh, ironically, just today, my coworker started bragging about how much better his FLAC sounds than MP3s, so we did some blind ABx tests. After one listen, the difference was so obvious that I could almost immediately tell which was which for subsequent tracks. He was right. So there is a difference between some of these things. Some things being snakeoil doesn't mean all things are snakeoil. Loudness is real (the article has a movie to teach you to hear the difference, if you care).

The problem is you're not listening to it, but that doesn't mean the difference isn't there, it means you've closed your eyes. Or ears.

so much good music coming out - last thing I care (1, Interesting)

jaypaulw (889877) | more than 2 years ago | (#39385711)

so much good music coming out - last thing I care about is these sound subtleties.

My favorite music medium to purchase now is this whole thing where you buy the vinyl and get an mp3 download code. I don't even own a record player but i get the tangible product which is undeniably satisfying and then the convenience of digital. It works out to be like $2 more than on itunes or the CD.


MPEG-4 (AAC) Scalable to Lossless (SLS) (2, Interesting)

Anonymous Coward | more than 2 years ago | (#39385749)

An ever better idea would be more support for SLS:


Basically all current decoders can read the SLS files like plain AAC files, and skip over the parts with extra lossless information. Updated decoders can read all the information for full quality.

You can ship one set of files to everyone, and when people sync their portable devices, the SLS parts can be stripped if so-desired (to save on storage) without having to re-encode the files. It's also definable how much loss you can have: so you can choose between the standard AAC quality (e.g., on your phone), fully lossless (one's stereo or headphones), or anywhere in between (for computer speakers, which are often of middling quality).

Software created to win the Loudness War (1)

Anonymous Coward | more than 2 years ago | (#39385791)


Hopefully someone mods this up. There is a software product that's been in existence since 2007 that "UN-compresses" music to regain the frequencies lost due to loudness wars. Check it out: http://PlatinumNotes.com

My teammates and I built it to solve this exact problem. It works on desktop for Windows and Mac.


As a hobbyist sound guy... (5, Interesting)

billcopc (196330) | more than 2 years ago | (#39385881)

Y'know, there's always someone harping all day long about how MP3 takes a steaming liquid crap all over your sound, and I cannot agree with them. I have a mid-range yet respectable sound system, worth maybe $4000 new. I listen to a LOT of music with an unforgiving ear for detail, and what I often joke as "digital audio memory". Anytime I listen to something, I'm comparing it to a very precise memory in my head. If the pitch is off by a hundredth, there's subtle (dynamic) compression, or phasing issues, I know immediately.

Back when we were peddling 112 and 128kbps MP3s (y'know, 15 years ago), it was pretty obvious that our encoders sucked. You could hear the nasty phasing all over the high end. Today, with most dedicated rippers using "LAME -V0" or 256/320kbps CBR, I'll say that it is impossible to tell the difference on 99.9% of all music out there. Yes, you theoretically lose some high-frequency information above 19khz, but hardly any adults can hear those frequencies anyway, as our range of hearing degrades with age. At 32, I have supposedly great hearing, yet I can barely hear 18khz, and 19khz I can't really hear but just "feel" as pressure on my ears canal. The parts MP3 encoders discard, most people can't hear anyway, and even if we could, it's so high in the audio spectrum that it's just headache-inducing whine. In practice, many mastering engineers will filter that out anyway, because those frequencies are nothing but trouble, they can mess with playback on cheap (read: common) stereos, and are basically a waste of signal which could be better allocated to the mids.

The compression artifacts themselves, they are nothing like they were 15 years ago. If you really want to see how much sound is lost from compression, take an uncompressed WAV, convert it to MP3, then back to WAV. Pull a spectrogram for both the original and processed WAVs, and compare these in a graphics editor. If you're lazy, you can grab the screenshots from here [blowfish.be] instead. If you're using photoshop, change the blending mode to "Difference" on one of them. Any coloured pixels are the differences, while black means both images are identical.

So, that's digital compression. The other big thing audiophiles bitch about is dynamic compression, and that is an all-too real problem. This is the "brick wall" sound people often cite as the cancer that's killing music. It is the process by which quiet sounds are made disproportionately loud, resulting in the average signal level being louder across the entire album. Most common audio is stored as 16-bit data, this means there are 65536 different intensities available, from silence to maximum, across what is often quoted as 96dbfs of range. Most modern pop music crunches all the sound into the uppermost 6db, so you're kind-of getting 1/16th of the fidelity (yes my math is flawed). This makes crappy speakers and earbuds sound "better" (still shit), and good speakers sound equally shit. It's the sonic equivalent of turning the brightness and contrast on your TV all the way up, now everyone has bright red skin and look like cartoon characters. If you want a painful example of this distortion, cue up Metallica's Death Magnetic, the official CD or iTunes version. Then go find the Guitar Hero version of the same album on TPB and compare. The pressed version is brickwalled, the Guitar Hero version was mixed much more reasonably, in-line with past Metallica releases. Then if you want to hear the opposite, something with very wide dynamic range, try ZZ Top's Eliminator, or Van Halen's 1984. Björk's albums also tend to have good characteristics. You're looking for quiet sounds amid the louder ones - they might be the little squeaks of guitar strings or drum skins, or the long fade of a cymbal.

Back to our buddy boy Ian Shepherd... one of his recommendations for good dynamic range is Daft Punk's Tron Legacy soundtrack. This is pretty much an admission that the man is completely full of shit. Don't get me wrong, I fuckin' love Daft Punk, but their sound is very punchy like most dance music. If you're looking for subtlety, you're not going to find it there. Try some 80's albums, or if you're that special kind of old hipster, smooth Jazz.

Confused. (0)

Anonymous Coward | more than 2 years ago | (#39385999)

MP3's have little to do with loudness or loudness wars. You can encode a quiet MP3, or one with soft and loud parts. The format has dynamic range.

The loudness wars are about manipulating music in the studio to make it, well, loud. As loud as possible within the number of bits per sample that go onto the CD (without compression!).

Yeah, I'll take his advice.... (1)

Lumpy (12016) | more than 2 years ago | (#39386031)

I have heard some albums mastered by Ian Shepherd. Several sound like crap with all the life compressed out of them. Pros that know what they are doing did stuff like you find on Mobile fidelity Gold masters. use ALL the dynamic range of the CD and make a recording that is BETTER than the Album. I have a copy of Supertramp crime of the century that will show anyone how good a CD can sound and how it can sound BETTER than an album. I have listened to raw tracks at studios on protools in the studio monitors that were incredible before they mashed them down.

99% of all CD's mastered in the past 20 years are utter crap with compression and dynamic range stomed so hard on them that the blood and soul was left on the floor of the sound booth.

Yeah, this man is no "expert" at anything but making a CD sound like shit. Otherwise he and his other "master" sound guys would tell the suits to shove things up their ass and make sure the dynamic range and life of the music was kept intact. Instead they say "yes sir, want me to turn up the autotune on the vocals and final mixdown compressor to 11?"

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