Thursday, November 18, 2010

Let's call a truce in the CD 'Loudness War' [BLOG POST]

Question: Hi Dig,
in your previous blog you talked about the audio expectations of younger metal fans. I was wondering if you've read Alan Wilder's open letter about audio and how it coincides with the decline of the music industry.

Does he talk some sense? From:

Answer: Alan Wilder speaks a lot of sense in that article. The CD 'Loudness war' has been raging for over a decade, and is basically the fault of labels, producers and mastering engineers but mostly its the fault of the artists themselves who became seduced by the idea that maximising the loudness of their CD should be the primary concern, in order to compete with rival acts in their genre.

As home recording software became commonplace,it placed powerful audio EQ, compression and limiting tools into the hands of relatively inexperienced people. DIY musicians took on the role of audio engineer- and so during the late 90's and throughout the 00's digital compression of the audio at the mastering stage became a crude way to 'improve' the audio experience of the listener, by simply making the music sound louder, sacrificing any punch or dynamics the music may have had previously.

To the human ear, louder sounds grab the listeners attention quickly, and louder does sound better on first listen- so for many years this was ALL that mattered to the people involved in any project. I'm glad to report that is not the case anymore.

Heres a great video explaining the 'loudness war':

If loudness was all that mattered to fans then the audience at live metal concerts would surely congregate in front of the speaker stacks at the sides of the stage- plainly that doesn't happen because it would be ridiculous.

As more fans start to collect vinyl again, there has been a gradual realisation that newer CDs somehow aren't as satisfying to listen to as the same album on an old analogue LP. This is because at some stage in the 90s/00s the Cd was re-issued, compressed and re-mastered to give maximum volume. It seems the people that have been arguing for years that vinyl is sonically best, were actually right all along.

To be honest the loudness war is over mainly because people don't consume their music on CDs anymore-- sites like iTunes, YouTube and Spotify as well as the iPod in shuffle mode all come with automatic volume equalisation as standard - this is so that listeners receive tracks at a constant volume level and can enjoy the experience better. Nobody wants to get sued because of a blast of volume in the headphones from an overly loud track causing hearing damage. This pretty much negates the whole point of making the CD louder in the first place.

Earache succumbed to the loudness war itself with many of our Cds released during the late 90's being maximised to insane loudness levels- nowadays this is called 'brickwalling' meaning the waveform has no dynamics visible at all- its a sheer wall of sound. The albums this applied to were mostly of the Industrial/Gabba variety like say Ultraviolence and The Berzerker where the music was created digitally in the first place.

Shocker by Johnny Violent is mastered at a ear-shattering level of +5 dB when the recommended standard for Cd is -2 dB. I remember the artist actually asking the mastering engineer to make it so. Listening to the track now reveals the only shocking thing is the complete lack of dynamics-the gabba drums hit like cotton-wool and even incidental noises are as loud as the overall track, every sound is competing to become the 'lead instrument'. It's an audio nightmare.

Even major rock bands have even succumbed- when Metallica's Death Magnetic came out a whole host of fans complained about the audio clipping and being un-necessarily loud. This was evident when the Guitar Hero version came out, and the files used were the un-compressed originals. The Guitar hero version is more lively, punchy and dynamic and a better listening experience over time.

Nowadays Earache is totally in favour of campaigns like TURN ME UP which aim to bring back the dynamics into music. Earache goes as far as making two mastering sessions for each album now- one where the music is preserved so that it is highly dynamic and specifically made for the vinyl LP release, and another separate one with a tad of compression to make the CD edition.

As the Turn Me Up campaign says- if you want it louder, simply turn it up! Remember, the volume knob is in your hands! (ooer).

Monday, November 08, 2010

Why exactly do labels re-issue albums with extra stuff ?

Question: Just want to say thanks for all the tremendous reissues you've put out lately - the first two Brutal Truth albums and Godflesh's 'Streetcleaner', to name but a few. Will Napalm Death's 'From Enslavement...' be remastered and reissued in the near future? This is one classic that more than deserves the re-release treatment. Thanks. From:

Answer: Glad you appreciate them, and yes there are vague plans afoot to re-issue FETO at some stage in the future, we haven't yet worked out what extras to include with this classic yet.

Even though you are in favour of our re-issues, the question has prompted me to blog instead about the reasons why labels like us actually bother to do them, because for every fan like yourself, there is, sadly, a chorus of disapproving folk who actively dislike them. The complaints can be see pouring onto the artists forum or facebook whenever the news of a dreaded re-issue is announced.

Generally the criticism is that they are unnecessary for the genuine fan of the band, who will already have the album in question probably in its original format. Therefore re-issues, in their view, are simply a means to force the genuine fan into buying the same product again,for the extra stuff, which is in their view milking their support of the band. Some fans go as far as to state its a borderline rip off tactic by labels.

I understand this frustration, hence Earache always try to pack a bonus disc or bonus DVD into the package to offer value for money, as well as things like guitar picks, patches and sticker sheets, and we started to refer to them as 'Redux' editions to highlight that they come with many added extras. Evile's redux edition also comes with a chance to win one of Matt Drake's guitars!

The truth is that re-issues offer labels a quick and relatively risk-free boost to their income. They do pretty good business, and we don't really know why- maybe its because the casual fan always wants great value before they spend their hard earned money, which is fair enough. In our experience, the diehard fan buys it for the music, the casual fan waits for a 2xCD great value package to appear. Over the course of an album's release cycle, we try to cater to both.

Actually there are 2 distinct types of re-issues on Earache, and the motivation to do them is different in each case. 1) Numerous old 'classic' bands from Earache's early period have reformed recently - Sleep, Brutal Truth, Godflesh, Carcass, At The Gates etc - mostly they have reactivated themselves as headliners to take advantage of the lucrative modern-day touring circuit which rewards bands now much more than when the bands split up.Consequently their back catalog deserves an audio spring clean and EQ boost to suit the tastes of the modern metal audiences for whom every extreme metal band nowadays must boast a crushingly loud production to be taken seriously and 2) upcoming bands - say Evile, Municipal Waste- who simply need a boost of sales to give their career a shot in the arm.

In the case of newer bands, most of the music business still ranks and rates bands on the number of CDs sold via ye olde recorde shoppes, known in the USA as Soundscan. A cleverly-timed re-issue (say round a highly visible tour supporting a major act) can give a newbie band a much needed spike in Soundscan numbers. The aim is to persuade fans to make a purchase, this will make agents, promotors and festival organisers take notice of a new act.

Earache has many 'classic' albums by bands which are now considered festival headliner status in the scene. Sadly, most were released 20+ years ago, but despite the legendary status of the recording, sonically, the albums themselves are showing their age. Recorded and mastered back in the early 90s, it was an analogue world back then and most of the titles sound terribly quiet, and in some cases actually weak. Grindcore & Death Metal is not supposed to sound weak. Modern-day grind and Death metal acts have had the benefit of pro-tooled, digital recordings which are pristine and crushing in comparison to the old schoolers efforts. The re-issues allow us to bring them up to scratch.

One of the main reasons we do them is because we noticed fans have originally picked up on the old Earache bands via traded files, or rips from friends and cannot obtain the album, because the originals go for silly money on Ebay. The Re-issue gets the release back into general circulation again, and the bonus content gives fans the impetus to finally make a purchase on CD to add to their metal collection.

The attitude of the buyers at the high street retail chains is the main problem that all 20+ year old releases suffer from. They deem those albums as ancient back catalog stock and if it makes it into a store at all, the CD will be tucked away in a dark corner at the back. Bizarrely their attitude changes towards a new edition- the exact same album that was ignored for years, the redux version will suddenly now feature on the front line in record shops, and this extra visibility in stores has a massive effect on sales.

The bottom line is- its thanks to fans like yourself who look out for these releases that Earache can sell 10,000 copies each time we do a re-issue - which is a significant number during the current slow-down and recession. Thank you for your business, dude!

Heres reactivated At The Gates headlining Wacken 2008: