Catcall: a victim of the loudness war?

To preface this blog post I want to be extremely clear that this is not Catcall backlash. I think Catherine’s an extraordinarily talented songwriter and Swimming Pool is one of my favourite Sydney songs of the last couple of years.

I’ll also clarify that I’m not a sound engineer and merely have a punter’s knowledge of the below but I think what I’m saying below is correct. I’ll happily take discussion and feedback on board. If you think I’m wrong, do tell me. At any rate this is something that I felt strongly about as I listened to the music, above and beyond any other record I’ve listened to in recent history.

~~~

Catcall’s album was shipped after literally years of anticipation and I congratulate her and her label on shipping the complete work at last. It seems to have got some great reviews and responses to date.

Today I went in for my first listen through of the album. It’s one thing to watch the videos, hear the songs on the radio and catch the hooks floating around the interwebs, but it’s an entirely different matter to sit down in front of your speakers (or headphones), put the album on from start to finish, and digest the detail.

To be honest, I freaked out a bit. For all the detail in the album – liquid guitar lines, woozy atmospheric synths, layers of multitracked voices and economical drum patterns – it’s killed by the fact that the album is so damn loud.

This isn’t a mixing issue (I don’t think), it’s a mastering issue. And it gave me a headache listening through from start to finish and I began to wonder “is it just me? is there something wrong with my gear?” because I found myself wincing on every kick drum and many of the snare hits as they seemed to clip. And the dynamics were relentless. SO LOUD. ALL THE TIME. IT NEVER STOPS. That’s not to say the songs are without dynamics, just the mastering.

Was it just me? Surely it had to be. Would Ivy League Records do this to an album that was supposed to be an intelligent take on retro-referencing pop? It doesn’t deserve to be subjected to the injustices of the mainstream pop music market.

Sidenote: if you haven’t caught up on the Loudness War, read this very insightful take on it and then read the Wikipedia article. I think by-and-large we’re past the worst of this terrible treatment of music – I think? – as most record releases seem to not be so bad in this respect but ultra-loud records still persist in some places, particularly in Top 40 music.

So I decided to fire up “The World Is Ours” and make sure it wasn’t my speakers dying on me or me having a bad day. I kind of hoped it was, to be honest.

Unfortunately, this is what I saw:

I think if you have any passing interest in music you’ll “get” dynamics – music has loud bits and soft bits, and that’s what aides the tension and release that makes songs great. This song has dynamics, but you wouldn’t know it judging from how loud the master is. Which means that even though the tune backs off in the verses and crescendos and climaxes for the chorus, you don’t really get that so much from a loudness point-of-view.

On almost every kick drum, things are insane. It’s so loud from a digital point of view. Not as flattened out as the worst examples, but far from pleasant.

And to zoom further on a transient:

 <– :-O

Typically 2-3 samples at a time, in this case 6, but they definitely all seem to totally max out and it results in the peak being squashed into digital distortion (aka clipping). Even not factoring that, the volume extremity is intense. It just don’t feel right.

Clipping aside: I don’t know if anything can be done about it now, but it just makes me so damn depressed when I really find it an intense and overwhelming battle to listen to something that really wasn’t intended to feel that way at all.

Given independent music isn’t playing the games of Top 40 (the need to be the loudest song on the radio), I’m not sure why we need to play these games. Can’t we just turn it down a notch?

Update #1: there’s been a bit of really interesting discussion about this on my personal Facebook, with many perspectives voiced. worth a read.

Update #2: Sean A Reminder asked a really valid question, which was “what if they want top 40 radio play?” – two things in response to that:
1. is the observation made by Rich in the comments below about how it can actually work against the single’s playback on radio.
2. is the current US #1 single three weeks running (Gotye – Somebody That I Used To Know):

That’s a work of art. Doesn’t appear to have hurt his success either!

11 responses to “Catcall: a victim of the loudness war?

  1. Rich

    Amen joe,
    Loudness war sucks, most engineers hate partaking in it too, it’s something that is pushed by record companies since the day of the cd changer.
    There’s albums I can’t listen to because of the constant over compression. Especially apparent on tracks that are supposed to be dynamic or even acoustic, john mayers heavier things for example is unlistenable to me because of the constant over compressed distortion sound, and that’s an album of acoustic pop and soul white blues! It would be ok on a hard rock album, you know, something that is meant to be loud the whole time. Foy vances album hope however is one of the best mastered acoustic albums I have heard in a long time though, it’s suitabley loud enough for listening on the go, however the quiet parts of the songs are actually significantly quieter than the loud parts of the song, crazy concept I know. It would be worth noting that some have argued with me that it is not actually “distortion” because the wave form is not clipping over its dBFS limit, I would like to say that’s not true, sure the wave form is not hitting over 0dBfs and thus not creating digital distortion in that sense, however I challenge someone to say that the waveform has not been distorted in any way and that a normal kick drum vibrates with a brick wall stop in the skins vibration.

  2. Nathan Salt

    Hey Rich, there may not be distortion per say, but depending on the quality of the DAC that could certainly no like playing back 0dbfs like that, and also intersample distortion

    Totally agree on heavier things, Clarity is a cool song, but so hard to listen to…

  3. Ox

    I just had a recording mastered, and it was returned to me even more smashed and clipped than your example. On having a whinge, I was informed that this is how modern records are mastered. I got it redone.
    I think it’s a real pity that recorded music is moving further and further away from the sound of a live performance. There’s certainly artistic reasons to take advantage of technology to do something that is only possible in the recorded media. But when it becomes the default that “modern” music is meant to sound like it’s being heard on an FM radio that’s turned up too loud so the speakers are dying… we need to take a step back.

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  5. Hey Joe,

    I’m actually studying acoustics for my engineering thesis this year (I hope to graduate from mechatronics at the end of 2012!), so this is quite relevant! Clipping is something that I understand in theory, but I was wondering how can you identify it subjectively when you listen to music? I tried to do this with J-Lo or Swedish House Mafia tracks on Youtube, and I thought I identified this Loudness-war phenomena, but I wasn’t sure that I could hear clipping of the dynamic range. Any tips on what to listen out for in trying to identify clipping, other distortions or degradations of sound? Cheers, Mark from Soma

  6. Teebs

    I may be really late in linking this, but there are two articles that are must reads for this topic, and I believe they are in fact written by an audio engineer:

    The original:
    http://stylusmagazine.com/articles/weekly_article/imperfect-sound-forever.htm

    His later review:
    http://thequietus.com/articles/06872-loudness-wars-dynamic-range-compression-mastering

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