The Loudness War
Clarity is now something sorely lacking from modern CD releases. I am referring to the so-called Loudness War now prevalent in modern CD mastering. It's a disgrace, pure and simple. Don't let anyone tell you that all CDs pressed in the '80s are inferior in sound quality. Granted, some are. Mastering processes have come a long way since the dawn of the CD era. However, the mastering skills of engineers seem to be faltering. A large proportion of every new CD release and reissue as of 2006 is now mastered well and truly in the red, ruining the music completely. Read the Wikipedia article for more information on this. What follows now is a personal rant, fuelled by my anger at how some of my favourite artists are having their music destroyed in the quest for ever louder outputs. It's not just the presence of so much clipping that's alarming. It's the fact that the music we're now buying on CD is heavily compressed, which surely is diabolical. I am not criticising the music itself here, just the process by which it ends up digitised on the CD. I'm happy to hear from you if you have any comments.
A favourite band of mine, it has to be said. Having begun the process of buying all their albums on CD in the late '90s (to replace the ones I have on vinyl) I noticed that these original '80s CD releases boasted a "digitally mastered" (purely marketing, I know - all CDs are digitally mastered!) claim on the sleeves and indeed, they sounded crisp and clear. Wonderful. So, by 2005 I had finished buying them all (since there's many DM albums out there, I paced myself to ease the strain on my bank account). Literally two weeks later I hear that Depeche Mode are to be treated to a complete reissue program: all their albums remastered (again). I was annoyed. Does this mean I have to buy them all again? No, it certainly does not. For a start, there is nothing wrong with the original CDs that were released in the '80s and '90s. They're fine! The sound quality is wonderful; faultless. Listen to the original CDs of Music For The Masses or Violator and point out one single flaw in the sound. You won't be able to, because there aren't any. The original Depeche Mode CDs are among the best I've ever heard. They're so detailed and perfectly mastered. So, why do record companies insist on "remastering" over and over? Easy, they're greedy. Once wasn't enough it seems. Expect a new remaster every twenty years, regardless of whatever audio format is currently popular. Don't buy into it anymore. It's a shame that the original CDs (which will now trickle out of circulation) can't sit happily next to their newer brothers. Poor mastering is now taking its horrid toil on fresh albums. This brings me back to Playing The Angel. In a pointless quest for ultimate volume, clipping is littered throughout Depeche Mode's latest album, and the two "remastered" Singles sets are also dire in terms of sound quality. Avoid the new CDs. Avoid the CD version of Playing The Angel. Try and pick up the vinyl version and do your own digital transfer.
See for yourself
Here is track two (The Things You Said) from the 1987 CD release of Music For The Masses, one of my favourite DM songs:
[Click to expand.]
As you can see, there's plenty of headroom and dynamic range. You can discern all the detail in the recording with crystal clarity, which is what the compact disc was designed for. There's audible space between the peaks and troughs, and there's not a single trace of clipping or distortion. This CD sounds excellent, and if you already own it, hang onto it and don't bother buying the new one. You may even find this older version a lot cheaper now that it's been replaced. Now, let's see what "Precious" from Playing The Angel looks like:
[Click to expand.]
Just look how bad it is. You can't even see any of the peaks. The entire song (and album) is so heavily compressed that it's just one stream of noise. There's no detail audible in the recording. The waveform is totally distorted and clipped. It sounds terrible. So why was this monstrosity released to the general public? The technology has improved in twenty years, but the techniques have regressed it seems. Whoever mastered this album: you've ruined it for me. I can't listen to it without wincing. It may sound passable on a boombox or transister radio, but any reasonable stereo system gets massacred by this atrocious recording. Who ever mastered the Playing The Angel CD: you should be well and truly ashamed of yourself.
Look at the waveform for the first track on the album (A Pain That I'm Used To). Even the first sample seems to be clipped beyond belief, even though its output lies below the rest of the song. This is either very shoddy work or intentional bad sound. Now, compare it with this: the waveform of the same song from the vinyl version.
Depeche Mode's discography
Every single original CD issue of Depeche Mode's albums from Speak & Spell right through to Songs Of Faith And Devotion are fine sound-quality wise, thankfully, and pretty consistent in their volumes (the only possible exception is the quiet-sounding Black Celebration, although this could just be the dated production and not any mastering issues - if you must pick up a DM remaster, get that one). The rot sets in with 1997's Ultra, which is mastered far too loud and is just as bad as PTA. Exciter is also much the same. The two Singles sets from 1998 are also too loud, and the 81 ---> 85 collection is inferior in sound quality to the original vinyl and CD from the mid '80s.
A note on vinyls: After trading in my CD copies of Ultra, Exciter and Playing The Angel, I proceeded to purchase all three on vinyl (quite an expensive undertaking!) and make my own rips, and I advise you all to do the same. Ultra especially sounds far better. I also, in protest, traded in my CD copies of both Singles compilations.
Wire's first three albums, Pink Flag, Chairs Missing and 154 were issued in the mid '90s on CD. They sound great, they were digitally remastered from original tapes and lovely bonus tracks were added. Great. I have them all and can attest to this. So, come 2005, why are they all reissued with a new claim of "digitally remastered" and now lacking the bonus tracks? Who knows. Once again, the original CDs are fine.
It really does pain me to write anything negative about the wonderful Cocteaus. However, some of their new remastered material also sounds too loud. It's even more confusing since Robin Guthrie apparently did it himself, although since all the remasters seem to vary in quality I do wonder whether he had anything to do with the bad ones. Victorialand, for example, sounds better than the rest and holds up pretty well. The remaster of Blue Bell Knoll, however, is a 40 minute stream of loudness-based mastering. Loudness does NOT equal quality. If I want loudness, I will turn the volume up on my amplifier. I want dynamic range. I want headroom. I want space for the music to breathe, I want to hear subtlety. I want to hear every single minor detail that was recorded all those years ago. If I wanted a noise onslaught I would not choose to listen to the Cocteau Twins. What further upsets me is I started to purchase the remasters even though I own the originals. This was especially the case with Head Over Heels. I own the original vinyl and the original CD, both from 1983. The vinyl is slightly superior in sound to the CD. The CD has some flaws in the sound, like muffling and the like, on the first two songs (it's very minor, only people like me would notice it), as though it had been mastered from a 3rd generation copy of the master tape (original CDs in the early days of the format were often not mastered from the master tape; vinyls usually always were). I purchased the CD remaster of the same album (now my third copy), hoping finally to hear this wonderful work in superior digital clarity. And guess what? It sounded identical to the original CD in every way except it was mastered much louder. The same minor tape flaws in the music were still present. At this point I gave up. You have to just live with inferior sounding CDs, and if artists themselves are supporting this process, it's here to stay.
The good, the bad, and the so-so:
- Garlands: To be honest, I've not heard this remaster since I gave up buying them by the time I got to it. If it's anything like Blue Bell Knoll, steer well clear. Oh, and they also decided to remove six bonus tracks for the reissue that were present on the original Canadian and UK CDs. Two of these tracks are quite rare; no doubt the record company would like to offer them again in the future on a rarities collection. It's more money for them, right?
- Head Over Heels: The first of three relatively decent remasters, although the levels are creeping up. The remaster is no better than the original CD and still inferior to the vinyl.
- Treasure: Much the same as HOH. Louder than the original but by no means any better.
- Victorialand: A good enough remaster, although the actual sound quality is once again no better than the original CD (which itself is flawless). It's just louder.
- Blue Bell Knoll: Far too loud throughout. The average levels are far too high, and clipping is only narrowly avoided. Compression has obviously been used to boost the output, the waveform is totally consistent around the peak levels. What a shame to massacre such a classic record in this way. This is the worst CT remaster. The only redeeming feature is the presence of CD text information, although it is all in capitals-- perhaps so it matches the unrelenting din of the sound?
- Heaven Or Las Vegas: As bad as Blue Bell Knoll. Avoid.
- Four-Calendar Café/Milk & Kisses: These aren't even that old, so why bother "remastering" them? Needless to say I won't be buying these.
- Lullabies to Violaine: Many songs are evidently mastered too loud. There's less discernable detail in the recordings due to the boosted volumes. The waveforms reveal no detail or variation. The whole thing has been brick-walled to sit consistently at the peaks.
- BBC Sessions: Unfortunately the excellent radio sessions haven't escaped brick-walling. The sound has a hard limit at the maximum loudness point, and there is obviously compression utilised to (artifically) keep it there. Still not as bad as Blue Bell Knoll, however.
My advice to fellow and potential Cocteau Twins fans is to try and avoid the remasters at all costs, even though the Lullabies to Violaine set is beautifully packaged. The poor remastering is an insult to the songs, and is in all cases inferior to the sound from the original vinyl and CD editions. Try and pick up the original CDs; chances are they'll be a lot cheaper now anyway, and since the remasters don't contain any bonus tracks (and do in fact omit bonus tracks in some cases) you aren't missing anything. The trio of Head Over Heels/Treasure/Victorialand are the best of a bad bunch, and although they aren't any better than the originals they're superior to Blue Bell Knoll and Heaven Or Las Vegas. Try and avoid the latter two more than any others. Annoyingly, the remasters appear to have the same catalogue numbers as the originals. There is, luckily, one certain way to detect a remaster: the web address www.4ad.com will be present somewhere on the artwork.
(Personally I've now traded in all my remasters and am happy with the original CD and EP releases.)
1999 saw the reissuing of The Clash's entire catalogue in digitally remastered form. The original CDs from the '80s, as every Clash fan will agree, sounded pretty bad and far inferior to the vinyl versions. The Clash remasters aren't too bad, and although they're definitely 'loud', at least they're not clipped.
The original CDs are still in print. Grab them while you can, for it probably won't be too long before this great band have their songs abused for the sake of loudness. The 2001 "Very Best Of" painted a very vulgar picture indeed. It claimed to be digitally remastered, and sounded no better than the originals. Just louder.
As with The Smiths, the original (Factory/CentreDate/London) CDs are still in print and although a tad ropey in places, are still fine. The 1997 boxset, Heart & Soul, is remastered although thankfully they did an excellent job. That's not the case with the 1995 compilation Permanent, which I advise you to avoid. Check out these readings for three different Joy Division CDs:
- Love Will Tear Us Apart ('Substance', 1988).
- Love Will Tear Us Apart ('Heart & Soul', 1997).
- Love Will Tear Us Apart ('Permanent', 1995).
The rest of the original CDs are mastered in line with the Substance album. The boxset, which contains almost every single Joy Division recording, is mastered louder, but still avoids clipping and distortion, and I can heartily recommend it. There is simply no need to then render pointless the whole remastering process by boosting the output artifically using compression; 'Permanent' is a perfect example of this. As you can see, it clips quite frequently throughout, and when compared to other Joy Division CDs it is obviously a great deal louder. Notice how the waveform is so obviously distorted. Love Will Tear Us Apart is a beautiful song, but not when this is done to it.
Update: So 2007 will indeed see the remastering of Joy Division's albums. I am full of trepidation...
As with Joy Division, the original (Factory/CentreDate/London) CDs of New Order's albums and compilations from 1981's Movement to 1993's Republic are all mastered perfectly well. Technique and Republic are mastered louder than the earlier albums, but they're still perfectly fine. Unfortunately, as with Depeche Mode, the latest albums are mastered far too loud. Get Ready (2001) and Waiting For The Sirens' Call (2005) as well as all of the many compilations released since 1994 (The Best Of, Retro, International, Singles, etc) are mastered with only loudness in mind, and while they manage to still sound decent enough, it's still compromising sonic detail and clarity for the sake of sheer output. Compare waveforms of 'Thieves Like Us' (my favourite New Order track) from 1987's Substance and 2002's International. The latter is just a solid block, devoid of any dynamic range. If they ever begin to reissue New Order's classic albums, stick to the originals; there's nothing wrong with them.
Simon Heyworth at Super Audio Mastering is responsible for OMD and the Human League's remastered series. They sound quite good, almost as if this kind of 'loudness-to-the-limit' mastering suits electronic music. However, I still see no point. The remasters do indeed sound great to most ears, but there's still distortion and clipping present. Remastering shouldn't have to entail also boosting everything almost to the red (or in some cases, well and truly into it). Surely remastering from the original master tapes and mastering with today's technology should be enough to achieve an excellent sound? Just take a listen to Talk Talk's remasters. They're awesome, and thankfully, not mastered with loudness in mind (I'm pretty sure there'd have been an uproar if Spirit Of Eden had been ruined).
Simon Heyworth is also responsible for Depeche Mode's remasters (and their superfluous new 'Best Of'), and whilst the quality is comparable to his other work I do wonder if he too has been told to simply "make them louder". The Depeche Mode remasters don't significantly improve on the (already perfect) originals, and the Best Of definitely is too loud, although thankfully not as loud as the monstrosity that is Playing The Angel. What's strange about it all is that Depeche Mode now have three sets of releases with different mastering levels: the original albums, the Singles collections & Playing The Angel, and the new remasters and Best Of. How annoying!
 I read somewhere that the band decided to go ahead with the remaster for Dazzle Ships in 2006 because the original CD from 1983 needed improving on. I was baffled by this; I have that original CD and it sounds fantastic. The echo of the voices on "ABC Auto Industry" is captured so perfectly. Then again, the bonus tracks would be welcome additions and record companies can't resist another reissue.
Despite some claims that the 1999 24-bit remasters still utilise compression, I've come to the conclusion that I (personally) think they're faithful to the originals in that there's no loudness-based mastering. The waveforms look entirely natural and the mastering process used seems to take advantage of the full dynmaic range of the compact disc without straying into the realms of clipping and distortion. Bowie's remasters are among the best ones out there.
The Doors 40th Anniversary re-issues
These are great. This is how remasters should be done!
Other remasters I haven't heard
As I write this, The Cure and Siouxsie & The Banshees are also having their albums remastered and reissued. In the case of the 'Banshees, some of the early CDs could do with a clean up, but no doubt they'll end up sounding very loud. The Cure's original CDs are faultless. I love the sound of the original early '80s CDs; Seventeen Seconds and Faith are wonderful, even if they are really old and "quiet" alongside newer CDs. No doubt The Cure's remasters are inferior to the originals, but I could be wrong. Bloodflowers (2000) was mastered pretty well for a modern album, so who knows? Then again, I own all the original CDs, and I'm perfectly happy with the sound, so I won't be touching the remasters. Oh, and if they massacre Disintegration I might just give up on life and find a cave somewhere to live in with the original 1989 CD. Its perfection already: don't mess with it!