Thursday, July 22, 2010

Newsweek Calls Out R.E.M.'s "iPod Ready" Fables Reissue

I was very surprised to see the so-called "loudness war" get a mention in Newsweek, where Seth Colter Walls criticizes the recent 25th Anniversary deluxe reissue of Fables Of the Reconstruction for having been mastered too loud (Shiny Happy Remaster?). Colter Walls rightly points out that the atmospheric Fables is not the sort of album that particularly lends itself to today's pumped up, super-compressed mastering aesthetic.

Having compared the remaster to my original LP, I agree that the remastering was louder than it should have been, and I definitely preferred the sound of the original LP. (I have never heard the original CD, so I can't offer any insight on that). That said, I also thought the differences I heard were more subtle than is often the case with contemporary remasters, and this album is far from the worst remaster I have heard. As I noted in my original post, "I suspect only the very pickiest of audiophiles would seriously object to the sound quality of the remaster." It seems I was wrong about that, as Colter Walls clearly does not consider himself an audiophile but nonetheless had serious issues with the sound quality of the reissue.

There are a couple things I would take issue with in the article. First, I disagree with the author's contention that recently remastered CDs are typically the safest bet when looking for good sound, and Fables represents something of a special case exception. In general, I have found that the more recent the remaster, the more likely it is to sound bad, although there are enough exceptions that I would hesitate to take things on anything other than a case-by-case basis. Second, I'm not so sure that the increasing loudness of CDs can be so tidily pinned on the iPod. After all, the iPod does feature a "sound check" function that normalizes the volume of all songs on it without effecting dynamic range (although I have no idea how many people use it). Beyond that, the movement toward louder CDs predates the iPod, it's just that we've seen a steadily escalating situation.

For what it's worth, here is my take on why we are seeing louder and louder remasters: There is a strong incentive for labels to produce remasters that sound "different" from what has come before. And making a release 6 or 7 dB louder than previous CD issues will give a lot of people an initial "wow" factor if they don't understand the need to carefully match volume levels in order to make a valid comparison. If you compare the exact same track but only turn the volume up, 9 out of 10 people will immediately say the louder version sounds "better" even if there is no difference at all. So a louder remaster can initially "grab" the listener and give him or her a false sense that what they are hearing is "better," when really it is just louder.

With careful work and using the best current analog-to-digital converters and other equipment it is certainly possible for today's mastering engineers to create remastered CDs that surpass the sound quality of CDs produced ten or twenty years ago. However, if the original CD was well done (not a safe assumption) the improvement in sound tends to be subtle, and not the type that will hit you in the face immediately. To hear the improvement you'll need a decent stereo system and have to know what to listen for. But let's face it, that describes a tiny percentage of the possible market for a reissue like this. It's so much easier for a record company to just to make a remaster louder. Most people (music critics included) will hear that difference instantly and assume it is a change for the better.

In other words, you can fool most of the people all of the time, and the the rest will just complain about it endlessly on blogs and internet discussion boards in such an arrogant and dismissive manner that the rest of the world will assume they are the equivalent of coffee connoisseurs who will only partake of coffee beans that have been crapped out by animals.

That's the unfortunate reality, and I don't see any way around it. I try to educate on my site, but I think that can only help at the margins, and maybe help people who already understand these things to make an informed purchasing decision. So it's good to see the problem being addressed by someone outside the confines of blogs and audio discussion boards, and I hope Colter Walls continues to listen carefully and draw attention to this problem.

It has come to the point with CD reissues where I pretty much just ask myself if I am willing to pay the price of admission for the bonus tracks, because I assume in the end I will not like the remastered sound as much as what came before, especially if I have a decent copy on LP already. The 25th Anniversary reissue of Fables of the Reconstruction is hardly the worst offender in the ongoing loudness war, but there is no doubt in my mind that it would have sounded better had the mastering engineer applied less compression than he did. Perhaps with journalists like Seth Colter Walls drawing more attention to the problem we can have reason to hope for a better sounding deluxe reissue of Lifes Rich Pageant.

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