Vinyl vs CD In The Loudness War

Marc HenshallCulture & Industry, Tech Talk25 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.

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