By Steven Mulleady, Contributor
Last weekend I was as happy as can be: I got the latest version of The Lamb Lies Down on Broadway on CD because my vinyl’s grooves have worn out. You can imagine how much I know about this album when it comes to lyrics, vocals, and the overall concept—seeing how it’s also a well-known concept album. Now, imagine my displeasure and overall grief when the opening track came on. It was awful. My ears hurt from what came out of my speakers: loud, wimpy sound. The overall punch and dynamic sound of the original LP was gone, and what penetrated my ear cavity was cold, uninteresting, digitally processed shit. The drums were too loud, overpowering the vocals on a large ratio, and it almost sounded like the low end was deliberately turned up, at times clipping the dynamics. Not only was the sound of the instruments changed, but all of the original Enossification on certain vocals and instruments was removed.
This is a prime example of what a remastered CD shouldn’t be. Not only is it heavily modified from the original in how it sounds, but it offers no improvements whatsoever and suffers from an ongoing trend in the music industry dubbed “The Loudness War.” Basically, this war is the ongoing increase of peak levels in CD masters. Once the maximum level of a CD is reached, loudness can be increased still further through signal processing, such as dynamic range compression and equalization. This results in a louder sound, but at the cost of the dynamics within the music due to the increased amounts of compression added to the mix. As Matt Mayfield, an audio engineer, states, “When there is no quiet, there can be no loud.”
This war has culminated in one of the loudest records ever to be produced: Death Magnetic by Metallica, an album so loud and squashed by compression that no person could listen to the full album in one sitting and enjoy it. When you listen to a whole record of music this highly compressed, your ears are fatigued and you don’t get full enjoyment out of it. And you simply cannot turn up your volume to enjoy any punches that you would get out of key snare hits or vocal lines.
Not all remastered albums I’ve heard suffer from this conflict. Most have been created in the framework of the Loudness War, so it’s important to know what you’re getting into. But I’m not against a remastered album in principle. A good remastered album, or release if you will, should be practical and retain the spirit of the original as much as possible. Those in the collections of Kraftwerk, Marillion, Siouxsie & the Banshee’s, The Rolling Stones (the SACD ABKCO ones), and Miles Davis are great. These remastered releases enhance the sound without reducing any of the original dynamics that were present on the original releases. However, these are merely anomalies for the music industry, and were released on independent labels or to limited scale, as they aren’t really marketable or economically viable on a large scale.
And the music industry wonders why we download music.