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#100764 - Wed, 11 Jan 2017 07:25:46 Audio quality - modern recordings and remasters
Giulio Offline
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Registered: Mon, 26 Dec 2016 10:12:21
Posts: 2
Hello again, everyone. I saved this Post, originally made in 2012 (reproduced below), together with some new information after it, as I think that it's important for all music lovers.

***2012 Post***

Further to my previous posts, I’m providing additional supporting information to my argument that the audio quality of new releases and remasterings is being compromised. I’ve also provided some information about Digital-to-Analogue converters in CD players, as well as information on falling sales of CD, possible solutions, and the sound quality of ‘Brilliant’.

A) Mastering compression (AKA ‘the loudness wars’) & audio quality:-

1) ’The Obsession with Compression’ a research project dissertation by Dave Viney, a post-graduate student of audio technology, London College of Music.

http://dl.dropbox.com/u/8441718/DRD/project%20dissertation.pdf (2.89MB)

This a hefty download, At 2.89Mb, so I’ve listed the conclusions of this paper:

Key finding:

• “There is no evidence of any significant correlation between loudness (& implied compression) and commercial success”.

Secondary finding:

• “Recordings with little ‘processing’ & ‘compression’ sound ‘more pleasant’ & ‘above average quality’ and are more commercially successful”.
• “Assessments are highly subjective”.
• “Sales success is closely interlinked with radio & TV airplay”.
• “Loudness profiles (patterns of dynamic change) may be more important than overall (average or maximum) loudness in determining its perceived level”.

2) ‘The Loudness War: Background, Speculation and Recommendations’ by Earl Vickers, ST Microelectronics, Santa Clara, California. This was presented at the 129th annual conference of the Audio Engineering Society in California in November 2010.

http://www.sfxmachine.com/docs/loudnesswar/loudness_war.pdf (840KB)

I’ve included two contributions from the aforementioned presentation, for which the source links (below) may be of interest:-

“In 2001, mastering engineer Bob Speer wrote, “The record labels blame digital downloads, MP3s, CD burners, and others for the lack of CD sales. While there is some truth to their constant whining, they only have themselves to blame for the steady decline in CD sales.

Much of the music being produced today isn’t music at all.... It’s anti-music because the life is being squashed out of it through over-compression during the tracking, mixing, and mastering stages.... It’s no wonder that consumers don’t want to pay for the CDs being produced today. They’re over-priced and they sound bad.”

(Bob Speer, “What Happened to Dynamic Range?”, CD Mastering Services, 2001,http://www.cdmasteringservices.com/dynamicrange.htm , accessed 2010 June 18.)

And also:

“Southall wrote, “Compression will continue to be abused in the pursuit of loudness for as long as the recording industry believes that louder shifts units....Global album sales are falling year-on-year, far less mega-million-selling records are occurring... and I think this is because the clamour to make music louder has made it less loveable, and in the long run lovable sells more”.

(Nick Southall, “Imperfect Sound Forever Revisited,” Stylus (online), 2006 June 12,
http://www.stylusmagazine.com/articles/soulseeking/imperfect-sound-forever-revisited.htm,
accessed 2010 July 17).

Conclusions from the presentation:-

“The industry may have over-extrapolated from studies showing a preference for the louder of two otherwise identical recordings. While listeners do prefer a louder version of the same recording, loudness does not seem to play a significant role when comparing different songs, nor does it appear to be significantly correlated to sales ranking.

In general, content trumps loudness. The ear is more sensitive to things like pitch and rhythm than it is to relatively small differences in loudness. Likewise, the brain is generally more interested in melody, harmony, instrumentation, vocal quality, style, genre, lyrical content, spaciousness, texture, emotion, and other factors than it is in small loudness changes, especially since loudness can easily be adjusted using the volume control. We do not yet have knobs for most of these other factors”.


B) Digital- to-Analogue converters (‘DAC’s)


As mentioned in my previous post, the type of DAC’s in CD players is significant for audio quality. Here are two articles for you:-

1) Soundfountain Audio and Music Bulletin - This article provides a primer for relevant issues affecting DAC’s and should be reasonably accessible, although scratchily written.

http://www.soundfountain.com/amb/noisesheng.html

Key point of the article wrt DAC’s:-

“Many times we have witnessed demonstrations with DA Converters from Audio Research and Threshold at the time. When I asked the demonstrator if it was possible to connect a multi bit DAC, in most cases they were able to produce such a component. For all listeners it was evident that the five times more expensive low bitters could not match the quality of the multi bit DAC”.

2) DAC architecture: multi-bit and single-bit DAC’s, performance factors and comparisons.

http://www.jitter.de/pdfextern/DesignSem5.pdf (566KB)

Summary of conclusion: Multi-Bit DAC’s were evaluated as outperforming Single-Bit DAC’s, especially in low-level signal response (e.g -60dB) and ‘jitter’ tolerance. However, the Single-Bit DAC’s are considerably cheaper to manufacture, as Multi-Bit DAC’s require precise calibration.

Most DAC’s for CD players these days, as well as for various digital audio replay devices use Single-Bit DAC’s. Needless to say, PC’s and video-based technology (e.g LCD and plasma systems) don’t use Multi-Bit DAC’s. Some ‘high-end’ equipment uses various forms of Single-Bit DAC’s.

I’ve never heard a Single-Bit DAC based CD player that was superior to a player containing Multi-Bit DAC’s. Often, the difference was stark and defied belief.


C) Falling sales of CD’s - industry and consultant report.

http://musicindustryblog.wordpress.com/2...-driven-crisis/

The ‘Music Industry Blog’ discusses several points of concern (I’ll summarise):-

• CD sales are falling at an alarming rate – the growth of digital sales amounted to less than half of the amount of decline in sales of the CD.

• The single continues to drag revenue growth down – digital singles sell at three times the rate of digital albums.

• The CD buyer is withering on the vine – fewer traditional ‘high street’ shops to buy from.

• The CD is disappearing from the living room – Television-based systems are used for viewing, rather than for listening.

• ‘Digital Refusniks’ – people who won’t embrace digital purchases.

Suggested solutions in this blog (summarised):-

• Digitize the relationship – establish digital relationships with customers (not on-line physical sales) for a digital platform revenue strategy.

• A format succession strategy needs putting in place – a ‘human needs assessment’ made for a ‘human needs product strategy’ perhaps using some physical accompaniments (e.g artwork) with the digital purchase, to coax customers to the digital format.

• A new beachhead in the living room – a hybrid (digital streaming and CD) player.

• With respect to ‘Digital Refusniks’ “are a challenging and unfashionable demographic and the counter-case for addressing them is that in 10 years or so they’ll have disappeared from the market anyway”. (I thought it was worthwhile quoting this).

http://pfeifferreport.com/trends/Pfeiffer_Music_Rep.pdf (1.8MB)

As this download is 1.8MB, I’ll summarise the recommendations:-

• Reinvent the music store – the store can be a lounge, bar or even a nightclub.

• Make it easy and pleasant to discover music – any CD on any shelf with equipment that enables appreciation of differences between MP3 files and CD’s.

• Don’t fight the on-line world – embrace samples, music listening web sites and even downloads.

• Deliver a unique experience – a place where it’s ‘cool’ to hang out and meet people.

• Make the music store a lifestyle experience - specialist stores for specialised audiences, with add-on sales (e.g merchandise).


D) Falling sales of CD’s – my view.

It is clear that the audio quality of the CD has declined due to unsympathetic mastering, compressing the dynamic range (AKA The ‘Loudness Wars’) of the CD to an extent that it is no longer superior to ‘lossless’ digital formats (Wav, Flac , etc).

The world’s population is increasing, together with the world’s average wealth (Source: Global Wealth Report, Credit Suisse Research Institute, October 2011). The price of CD’s is not a limiting factor, as they are declining.

In recent years, numerous recordings have been re-released, with the marketing slogan: ‘Digitally Remastered’, with heavily compressed dynamic range. There have been numerous instances where I’ve purchased these CD’s, only to be disappointed with the sound quality, as older pressings are as good or superior to the remastered recording.

I’m becoming disinclined to purchase any future remasterings, and I don’t think I’m the only one in this regard.
Consumers aren’t fools. It’s time the music industry treated their customers with some respect.

The International Standards Organisation’s Quality Management Standards (e.g the ISO 9000 series) adopted by modern management systems around the world, require that feedback be sought from customers about the products sold to them, in order to measure the customer’s satisfaction. Which brings me to the next part of this post.


E) Audio Quality of Ultravox’s ‘Brilliant’


Audiophile equipment doesn’t come with bass or treble controls, as these processes introduce distortion to the musical signal, and isn’t representative of the music as recorded by the artist. The same is true of dynamic range compression. Many audiophiles consider that there should be a minimum number of components and processing from the recorded source to the loudspeaker, in order to preserve the integrity of the recorded music.

To those responsible for this effort in the Metropolis mastering studios: please take a CD from the mid-eighties to the mid-nineties and a current release/remaster of the same title. Compare the dynamic range through spectral analysers. But most of all, listen to the difference. Listen to the decay of a cymbal, a piano or violin note. Note the ‘air’ or ‘space’ of instrumentation and the definition of bass lines and drums. Vocals sound more natural.

I had such an experience when listening to the new Ultravox album: Brilliant. I’ve listened to it a dozen times on equipment I’ve described in a previous post. I then listened to a 20 year old CD of Ultravox’s ‘Revelation’. And sonically, it was just that.

From the opening track “I am Alive” the vocals and strings are well defined and vivid. The drums have a real ‘smack’ to them. Listen to the strings closing out the track. There is a sense of space and definition. The music sounds natural and it is a pleasure to listen to. It doesn’t feel contrived or processed. It’s transparent.

Take ‘Satellite’ from ‘Brilliant’ and compare Billy’s strings with those of ‘Revelation’, or Billy’s keyboard solo on “Rise’ (2:25-2.46) with that from ‘Systems of Love’ (3:10-3.40). There is a lack of definition and clarity on the recent recording. I invite you to make the comparisons I’ve just made. However, this is a general issue, not limited to these tracks, or these instruments.

The production and performance may be good, but is diminished by the less-than-sympathetic mastering. The vibrancy and sheer musical sophistication that is Ultravox has been veiled, and amounts to insulting the musical legacy of Ultravox and the intelligence and goodwill of music listeners.


F) Open letter to the music industry – by Dynamic Range Day


http://dynamicrangeday.co.uk/loudness-war-open-letter/

The commonly used term for dynamic range compression, ‘The Loudness Wars’ is a misnomer. The ‘Fidelity Wars’ would be closer to the mark. If the solution to this problem was as trivial as turning up the loudness volume (potential hearing damage aside) I wouldn’t be bothering with this. Dynamic range compression devalues the subtlety and nuances of music. The music is de-natured and veiled.

A danger from this trend is that artists may no longer value these musical qualities, because the mastering makes these harder to discern. This should give contemplation to the proponents of dynamic range compression. Please desist from this aural vandalism.

From 'Nothing but the Marvellous: The Wisdom of Henry Miller' (1991):-

"In the end I think of music as a saving grace for all humanity. As the universal language it transcends the boundaries of nationality, social strata and political ideology. Whether we are educated or uneducated, rich or poor, whether we speak the same tongue or not, we still posses the ability to communicate our feelings to one another through music. The world would be a terrible place without it. A miserable place."

***2017 Update***

I've looked for updates for this topic, but haven't been able to locate any that are worthwhile, so I'll add my own:-

(1) Capsule summary of 'Loudness Wars':-

The Demonstration video in the link below, with corresponding audio is instructive:-

https://redditblog.com/2016/01/07/why-modern-music-sucks-the-loudness-wars/

(2) The mastering of 'Brilliant'.

To those that need convincing that the mastering of 'Brilliant' was substandard for CD (dynamic Range average of just 8) here is a link to the Dynamic Range Database.

http://dr.loudness-war.info/album/list?artist=ultravox&album=

I don't suppose there is any hope that in the future, a CD reissue of Brilliant will match the dynamic range of Vinyl (average of 12). Why should this CD have such a low dynamic range, compared to earlier UV albums??

Please note: the reduced dynamic range of the CD is not inherent to the media. Quite the contrary.

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#100765 - Wed, 11 Jan 2017 10:18:24 Re: Audio quality - modern recordings and remasters [Re: Giulio]
Gwilym Offline
Pass level: Promoter

Registered: Sun, 25 Jun 2006 19:00:00
Posts: 248
Loc: Wales.
What an excellent, comprehensive post. It really is a shame what's happened to the quality of music on CD. Nowadays I refrain from buying them until I've read a few online reviews and consulted the Dynamic Range Database you mentioned which is a very useful resource. And it's not just compression in some cases. You only have to take the 2014 Jarre remasters for instance to hear real sloppiness wedded with harshness. Some of the 1997 editions had their problems but they're head and shoulders above these later ones. That just shouldn't be the case.

I agree that Brilliant's mastering was unsatisfactory too. The songs themselves are excellent but I have to turn down the volume on certain tracks for less uncomfortable listening, but all that really happens then is that certain elements become too quiet while the compressed harshness is still fairly dominant.


Edited by Gwilym (Wed, 11 Jan 2017 19:49:53)

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