Friday, April 6, 2012

The Mars Volta and More Comments on Loud Sound Files

I wrote in an earlier post about the Loudness War. This refers to the idea that sound files are being mastered so that they are too loud, and they lose sound quality as a result. This idea should not be confused with idea of the musical quality of "heaviness." Heavy bands can have well-mastered albums, and non-heavy bands can have albums that are mastered too loud.

The Mars Volta provide an interesting study because they are a heavy band, but they also have very loud sound files. All of their albums, with the possible exception of "Octahedron," suffer sound quality problems as a result. The newest release "Noctourniquet" is the loudest Mars Volta album yet, and is one of the loudest albums I have ever heard by anyone. When I say this, I speaking from an engineering standpoint, not a musical standpoint.

As I wrote earlier, the album "Californication" by the Red Hot Chili Peppers is one of the most poorly-mastered albums ever. And so naturally, I was dismayed to find that "Noctourniquet" is about as loud as "Californication," though to my ears the audio damage is not as apparent on "Noctourniquet." I don't know enough about the science to know why this might be the case, but I do know that the two albums had different mastering engineers. In any case, both mastering jobs are unacceptable, in the absolute sense.

As for the music contained on "Noctourniquet," I think it's quite good. The Mars Volta is one of my favorite bands, and I think they have really pushed the "weirdness" boundaries, while still trying to maintain some level of accessibility. "Noctourniquet" continues that tradition without fail. Because I love this music, I find the production issues particularly frustrating.

So then there are three lessons I can take away from this whole thing:

1. Playing heavy music does not give you license to make your sound files sound terrible. The Mars Volta are a very heavy band. Distortion is part of their musical arsenal. However, the type of distortion resulting from excessive loudness is not in any way a good thing. Of course, if you were to crank the gain on a recording of Bach's Mass in B Minor, it would probably be more a more noticeable degradation than what is currently heard on Mars Volta albums (to my knowledge, no one has tried this yet, thankfully). In either case, it's degradation. I have trouble thinking of any situation where mastering an album too loud would be artistically beneficial.

2. If you take it as a given that your sound files must be excessively loud (of course, this is a ridiculous thing to take as a given), that doesn't mean you shouldn't still work to make things as good as they possibly can. "Noctourniquet" sounds less clipped than "Californication," at least to an untrained ear, even though both albums are about the same loudness. Fake it 'til you make it, I guess. But don't get me wrong, the mastering job on "Noctourniquet" still has major problems, and I certainly don't advocate a policy of "let's crank it as much as we can and then see if we can trick people into thinking that this sound quality isn't actually as poor as it is."

3. Is the end in sight? I'm sure people asked this question back in 1999 with the release of "Californication," but in 13 years we don't seem to have come very far. I think record companies need to make a musical version of a nuclear disarmament treaty. With things as they are, everyone is losing. But there is a natural limit. I'm pretty sure if anyone tried to make an album louder than "Noctourniquet," all listeners would start to notice that something was not right.

It could be that the biggest problem is us. We're the earbud generation. We're the Youtube generation. We listen to music for convenience, not quality, and we keep consuming these albums that have major problems. The only way to turn this around is to educate ourselves and each other about this issue, so that higher-ups in the companies will start to notice. It's all about supply and demand, after all. Unfortunately, however, Warner Bros. Records know that I'll still buy a Mars Volta album whether the volume is cranked or not. I guess I'll just listen angrily.

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