Vinyl vs CD In The Loudness War

AvatarMarc Henshall
Culture & Industry, Tech Talk26 Comments

In my previous post “HMV & The Future of Music Retail?” I briefly highlighted the loudness war and the resurgence of vinyl. I now want to explain exactly what I meant by the growing appeal of vinyl when taking the loudness war into consideration, and why I believe many people choose to buy vinyl over digital alternatives. So here goes:

Many audiophiles have long hailed vinyl for its warmth and character; claiming that digital CD’s sound harsh in comparison to analogue vinyl records. In reality, when making comparisons based purely on specification, modern analogue-to-digital converters coupled with a larger dynamic range in the digital realm means that CD’s are now capable of sounding just as good, if not better. Saying this – and before any vinyl nuts bite my head off – there is a distinct character to vinyl, which some prefer (myself included). However, I believe the quality difference between the two is less about the chosen format, and more a question of mastering technique. This is where the loudness war comes in.

What exactly is the loudness war?

The loudness war is a phenomenon dating back to the release of 7″ singles played on jukeboxes in pubs, clubs, & bars. The jukebox would normally be set to a pre defined volume by the owner, and thus if your records were mastered “hotter” than the others, it would be louder, and subsequently gain more attention – in theory. Back then, however, the physical limitations of vinyl would naturally limit to how loud you could press a record before it would disturb the needle and render the medium un-playable. For this reason, the race for ever louder records never reached extremes during this era.

With the introduction of CD’s, the maximum peak level was no longer limited by the analogue equipment, but was instead encoded digitally with a clearly defined maximum peak amplitude. Once they became the primary consumable medium in the 90’s, louder, hotter masters began to take advantage of the increased dynamic range; with peak levels often hovering around the 0 dB limit and record companies pushing up levels to remain competitive. This in itself isn’t so much of an issue. Where things start to go wrong, is with the advent of the Digital Brickwall Limiter, which is capable of looking ahead to pull down peak levels before they happen. This allowed mastering engineers to have greater control over the loudness of a track; applying heavy amounts of compression to increase lower volumes and reduce louder peaks – essentially allowing them to raise the overall track volume, while never exceeding the 0 dB limit.

One of the first commercial releases to apply this technique was Oasis (What’s The Story) Morning Glory, and for a while, their record was louder than everyone else. But as you can expect, in the name of competition, all other record labels slowly followed suit, and the dynamics in modern records were greatly reduced.

The inevitable result of such competition between record labels to sound louder, is a continual pushing of the boundaries; producing albums with increasing amounts of compression and pushing volume levels to extremes. Only this time, there really is nowhere else to go. 0dB is the absolute limit, and by pushing peak levels beyond this point you create clipping or digital distortion (not a good thing). You would think the concept of digital distortion would be enough to keep record companies from pushing things any further, but sadly, this is not the case. Slowly but surely, over the last 10-15 years, we have seen levels often pushed beyond the point of digital clipping. Some notable examples, which gained public criticism for this are: The Red Hot Chili Peppers – Californication & Metalica’s Death Magnetic. Essentially, it has now become acceptable to release commercial material with substandard quality; not to mention the loss of dynamics, and reduction of punch and clarity that comes from over compression.

Why are record labels happy to substitute quality for volume?

It’s simple really, label executives concerns for commercial competition outweigh their concern for quality. Even worse, many executives simply dismiss the issue, claiming that consumers actually prefer brickwalled albums. The reality is, that because this happened over the course of generations, many people are unaware of the issue; they are simply used to records sound like this. It’s a bit like needing glasess for years and not knowing about it. Until you are diagnosed as short or long sighted, and you put those glasses on for the first time, you simply believe that this is how the world looks.

So how can you open up your ears and hear the full clarity of your favourite albums with all the dynamics and punch…?

Fortunately, there is a loophole – Vinyl (but only in some cases).

As explained earlier, due to the physical limitations of vinyl, there are limits as to how loud you can press a record, and because vinyl is “for audiophiles” – there is less incentive for record companies to compromise the quality of vinyl releases. As a result, many vinyl records are mastered differently to the CD release with more dynamic range and at lower volumes.

You have to be careful though. Some record labels are lazy and use the same master for both formats – lower level for vinyl of course but with the same mastering process. In this instance, there is no advantage to buying a vinyl copy; other than perhaps for character and bigger artwork. If you are considering buying a vinyl copy of your favourite new release for increased dynamic range and clarity, it is well worth doing your research online to check the quality of the mastering. There is a really great dynamic range database at dr.loudness-war.info that covers everything from modern CD’s, remastered back-catalogues and vinyl.

Examples of the Loudness War in Action

The best way to really understand what is happening to our music is to see if for yourself. The following video is a great demonstration of the loudness war:

…and, here is a useful vinyl v’s CD mastering demonstration:

Remastered CD’s: AKA The Biggest Swindle in the Music Business

At the DR Database linked above, you may notice the poor dynamic range of many remastered releases. This is, of course, one of the saddest things about the loudness war. Many remastered editions of back catalogue albums, which previously had good dynamics are remastered in the same atrocious manner as modern releases and then sold to the public as “an improvement”. This cynical and dastardly move from record companies is perhaps the biggest swindle in the history of the music business. They are literally taking the public for fools. The following video provides an excellent example of how many remastered CD’s are often far from an improvement:

Final Word

The irony of the whole situation, of course, is that we have spent the best part of 100 years, slowly perfecting and improving the recording process. Modern recording equipment and techniques allow for crystal clear high definition audio to be captured at the highest standard. It all sounds great from source to mixdown, and yet it’s all ruined at the last stage of the process. My advice, vote with your feet, do your homework, buy the version with largest dynamic range, and beware of remastered CD’s.

If you’d like to take advantage of the better dynamic range found on some vinyl releases and haven’t set yourself up with a decent turntable yet, check out our post covering 5 things you need to get started with vinyl, today.

  • Avatar Anonymous says:

    That database really is deceiving especially for releases in the 80's. One example is the Presto CD by Rush which has one of the highest scores on the site for its original CD release in 1989. It has tons of dynamics however there is literally no bass on the recording. Almost like it was left out. The band went ahead and did a remaster in the past few years but all it did was increase the volume/loudness making it sound brickwalled. An anomaly I'd like to mention is Metallica's Garage Days Re-revisited EP. For a shoddy production, the score is amongst the highest for a metal album in the database. How such a thing can be achieved is truly puzzling considering the original recording is admitted to Metallica's most raw and unpolished to date, Death Magnetic aside.

    • Hi thanks for that insight – some great points. It's not always full proof, but a great guide when looking at re-mastered CD's etc. At the end of the day, an album can have great dynamics and still be poorly recorded.

    • Avatar Chris K-Man (Zickcermacity) says:

      It is indeed a challange to produce a recording that is both open and dynamic and at the same time contain ‘car-trunk-subwoofer’ levels of bottom. Our hearing is simply not as sensitive to low freq. sounds as it is to midrange(1-4kHz). Typically, heaps and gobs of compression, multi-band style, are needed to get the bass content up to that level, and the result is simply not natural. Pull up some recent Drake or Imagine Dragons and you’ll hear what I’m referring to.

  • […] potential in the changing face of music retail, and I also went on to describe the benefits of vinyl in the well documented loudness war. Taking this into consideration, I thought it was worth highlighting the technical differences […]

  • Avatar Evin Tucker says:

    I get tired of digitalheads claiming that CDs have higher fidelity and dynamic range than vinyl. While that may be true in theory, it's not true in practice, and the loudness war is the reason. I have listened to a number of vinyl records that sounded so natural that it almost (not quite) sounded like a live performance in the room. I hear details that I often miss on digital recordings, and I don't have to change the volume as much to hear them because the quality is so good. For example, I was listening to an old LP of gospel music this past weekend, and it almost gave me chills when I heard how pure and natural the vocals sounded. All this isn't to say that vinyl will always sound better, but as long as the loudness war is compressing digital music, vinyl will maintain superior fidelity and dynamic range despite its inherent technical weaknesses.

    • Avatar Chris K-Man (Zickcermacity) says:

      A CD recording of a track could have as much, if not more, dynamics than a vinyl record if the monkeys at the mastering controls left the thing alone!! ?

  • […] on is extremely gratifying, and when mastered correctly, vinyl editions of albums often have greater dynamic range than their CD or digital file […]

  • […] you’ve heard about the resurgence in vinyl records. You might even have heard about the increased dynamic range with which many records are mastered when compared to their digital counterparts. But most of all, […]

  • […] is one curiously obscure loophole – vinyl. Let me explain: Many modern albums are released on vinyl with greater dynamic range when compared to their CD counterparts – meaning that for many releases, the vinyl sounds […]

  • […] – but not always – the vinyl is mastered separately, with greater dynamic range, and subsequently, the vinyl sounds better. The very fact that a vinyl copy of the same album could […]

  • […] http://www.soundmattersblog.com/vinyl-vs-cd-in-the-loudness-war/ to hear the difference between songs originally released with high DR and their remastered versions […]

  • Avatar j7ndominica0 says:

    Great article. Most CDs manufactured before 1994 or so sound anywhere from fine to great, and don’t need an improvement. Very few suffer from high noise floor, which is tackled in a remaster by increasing the overall level including the noise, and possibly applying FFT-based noise reduction, in which case the residual artifacts get amplified. Those CDs that lack treble sound decent enough when turned up. I don’t touch a greatest hits compilation made after the above year with a ten foot pole.

    I believe that the greatly elevated dynamic range of vinyl comes from equalization and associated phase shift, and also low frequency resonance of the pickup and rumble. If I take a clipped CD, and boost the bass with normal EQ, the DR will also increase by almost as many dBs. The DR can be increased even more using direct phase shift, without affecting the frequency response appreciably, such as with the Phase Rotator by Christinan Budde.

    Let’s take a heavily clipped “Holler” by Spice Girls. It has a DR5 on the album, and DR7 on one of the CD single releases. I took the album version and made it DR8 by adding bass, and alternatively into DR13 using phase rotation. Clipping now looks nicely curved. Do any of the versions sound good? Not at all.

    • Avatar Marc Henshall says:

      Hey. Thanks so for your kind words, and sorry for the late reply. I agree; CD’s from 94 and below, in general, sound pretty good. The Red Hot Chili Peppers “Blood Sugar Sex Magik” (1991) sounds amazing on CD. Also the Counting Crows “August and Everything After (1993) sounds great. Those are just two examples, but there’s really no benefit to those albums on Vinyl, the original CD’s were mastered great.

      Interesting findings on the DR ratings. I’m increasingly finding that you can’t always rely on those DR readings (as you’ve suggested). They’re a good guide, but not foolproof. Happy listening 🙂

  • Avatar Tomes Vor says:

    And guess what—when they come out with the new improved remasters of current albums that I already have with increased dynamic range (as they eventually will, once the current vinyl craze is done with), they’re not going to get a penny from me for something they should’ve done right in the first place. F*ck ’em.

  • Avatar kody Loveless says:

    Never realized that CD and vinyls were that different. I guess I just never thought about it. Pretty awesome that the sound can be louder and clearer. I just thought CD were smaller so easier to use for cars and keeping lots of music on them. Thanks for the article. I am going to try out both and see which I like more.
    http://www.aaduplication.com.au/our-services/cd-duplication/

  • […] Henshall, M. (2012). Vinyl vs CD in the Loudness War.  Retrieved 2nd August, 2016, from http://www.soundmattersblog.com/vinyl-vs-cd-in-the-loudness-war/ […]

  • […] dynamikk på vinyl-masterere, såfremt at det var det i miksen, noe det som regel er tilløp til. Vinyl v's CD – Mastering In the Loudness War Men må likevel innrømme at digital avspilling i diverse former, for det meste har overtatt i […]

  • […] the above in mind, I began exploring why some vinyl records have greater dynamic range – rightly concluding that mastering lay at the heart of the issue. And while most of what I […]

  • Avatar Chris K-Man (Zickcermacity) says:

    “. As a result, many vinyl records are mastered differently to the CD release with more dynamic range and at lower volumes.”

    I had a big ‘debate’ about this with mastering engineer Ian Shepherd a few years ago regarding a project he had mastered. Specifically, the digital(CD/download) version registered a Foobar2000 rating of DR9, while a needle drpp of the vinyl clocked in at DR12! Basically that number refers to the average ratio of peaks to average loudness, or, crest factor.

    He insisted that the same master was used for all carriers(digital, vinyl, etc), and that the (rather large! as I pointed out) discrepancy in Dynamic Range values had more to do with the “mechanical issues” associated with pressing to vinyl and playback thereof. I politely agreed to disagree, and Shepherd asked me if I was “calling him a liar”.

    We haven’t spoken much since that exchange, but I could understand a 1-2dB difference between the digital file and the needle drop.

  • […] Henshall, M. (2019). Vinyl v’s CD – Mastering In the Loudness War. Retrieved 22 September 2019, from https://www.yoursoundmatters.com/vinyl-vs-cd-in-the-loudness-war/ […]