30 September 2008

Lars's Paradox, or, Everything You Know Is Wrong

"Listen, there's nothing up with the audio quality. It's 2008, and that's how we make records... Of course, I've heard that there are a few people complaining. But I've been listening to it the last couple of days in my car, and it sounds fuckin' smokin'."
Look, people. The dude isn't fucking deaf. Rick Rubin is also, contrary to popular opinion, not deaf (he owns a rather nice hifi, in fact). Metallica as a band is not deaf. Vlado Meller is not deaf. Millions of music listeners are not deaf. And now quite a few people are coming out the woodwork and saying that Death Magnetic sounds just fine, thank you very much. They too are not deaf.

To suggest otherwise, or to suggest that something is inherently wrong with the way they are listening, is merely fallacious smearing, and honestly, unintelligent. Continuing to insist that music products like Death Magnetic are not of a sufficiently high quality without further proof - especially in the face of #1 sales - is only going to continue the abject apathy that the rest of the music world seems to treat this whole issue with.

Certainly, Rick Rubin knows exactly what he's doing when he produces records like this, and he is quite certain in his belief that it is towards delivering a superior product, as his interview with Michael Fremer made abundantly clear:
Ultimately, if you listen on a car sound system or in the mainstream place where most people listen to music—cars, boomboxes sound systems you get at (chain stores), and if you “A/B” the less compressed version to the more compressed version, you pick the compressed version... Even in a good car stereo. We do shoot-outs all the time. I master with as many as five different mastering engineers mastering the same album and then we “A/B” them and it’s interesting, Vlado wins nine out of ten times, and he claims it’s not him. He’s got technology in that room that’s a 2 million dollar mastering suite that other people don’t have. All I’ll tell you is that my whole job in life is to A/B things, that’s all I do, and for some reason, I don’t know that what he’s doing is necessarily the best, but I haven’t heard anything to beat it and we try.
That the album distorts needlessly is established beyond a reasonable doubt, thanks to mastering engineer Ted Jensen's comments, and comparisons with the vinyl. I haven't bought the album, but I have listened to the free clips from Metallica's web site, and the YouTube GH3 rips, enough to know that I'd prefer the GH3 versions.

But let's have some perspective here. The truth of the matter is that this is a serious counterexample to the entire narrative of the "loudness war": that, despite diverse objective and subjective evidence that modern hypercompressed mastering styles degrade sound quality and music appreciation, the vast majority of music listeners, at all experience levels, at least continue to buy such purportedly terrible masterings, and may even prefer them to less compressed styles. I am going to call this Lars's Paradox, since Lars Ulrich, belligerent bastard that he is, has managed to wade neck-deep into the middle of this like he always tends to do. But whether due to a similar level of belligerence, or devil's-advocacy, or whatnot, I'm actually going to take his side here for a minute.

I believe any fight against hypercompressed mastering in the "loudness war" will founder until this paradox is resolved. More concretely, and extending to other issues, I am claiming the following:
  • Claims of the hypercompressed style resulting in reduced musical enjoyment are completely unproven except on personal, anecdotal, and therefore meaningless, grounds. Real studies need to be done, in real listening environments, to show that the application of hypercompression is a detriment to popular music and the popular music industry.
  • Objective evidence is inaccurate in arguments regarding mastering. Objective evidence cannot prove statements about enjoyment. Such analyses must be more explicit in their relationship between the music, the dynamic range, and the dissonant distortions if they are to be ultimately taken seriously. Waveform plots, ReplayGain, RMS, and pfpf are all highly deficient in one way or another here.
  • (Lars's Paradox) Evidence suggests that the hypercompressed style is preferred by at a large amount, and probably most, of the popular music listening population. Both audio professions and untrained listeners are making this preference. For the uncompressed styles to be taken more seriously, it must be shown concretely that this preference is based on faulty measurements, or is otherwise false in meaningful and important ways.
As long as these points stand, the argument against hypercompression will remain fundamentally flawed, and popular music will continue to be released in the hypercompressed style. Regardless of how many petitions get signed. Marginal releases like on vinyl and high-res formats obviously don't follow this logic as much, nor does classical and experimental music, etc. By and large, those are not popular genres or (yet) popular formats, and this discussion revolves largely around popular music. But there's simply no hope for popular CD/iTunes releases to follow any different mastering style as long as these issues exist with this whole argument.

(I have my own ideas, revolving mostly around psychoacoustics, for resolving the paradox, but they are as yet unfinished.)

Update, October 1:
Debate on the new JusticeForAudio.org forums.

Update, October 2.

6 comments:

tung said...

Interesting point of view.

I wonder why this Benjamin dude promised the sound would be fixed after the single was released. It must not have turned out the way they wanted.

Richard Tollerton said...

It's unclear just what he meant by that. IIRC, weren't the MP3s just turned down a notch in volume? Maybe they thought the issue was due to >0dbFS peaks in the MP3s or something.

tung said...

Well, someone said yesterday at metallicabb that there was a whining sound in the mp3s and that was an issue that was fixed.

However, now we have a situation where the GH3 version sounds very different (much better IMO) than the CD version, which Lars is defending.. so does that make the GH3 version wrong then? One of them must be what was NOT intended.

Ryan said...

The fact that the majority prefers hypercompression, is that decided by record sales, or the amount of people that are speaking out about this issue? If so, then what choice do people have than to purchase hypercompressed releases? Whilst there are no releases out there that actually contain dynamics, what else can we buy to prove them wrong.

Many factors prove this argument invalid. As Tung mentioned, after the release of The Day That Never Comes, there was a promise made to fix the obvious production issues. To me, this states that there is a problem that is undesirable. This was not fixed, then Lars made the choice to jump in the fire (sorry, bad pun) and say 'This is how we make records in 2008'.

Brickwalling is not an artistic choice, it is a process that pulls the dynamics out of audio, and turns an otherwise great song into mud. 16,000 people so far have spoken their mind about this issue. The rest are either uneducated on what Brickwalling is, dont quite know what that distorting is on their CD, but love the album and dont want to get involved. Simple as that.

Brickwalling is ok, if the audio is brickwalled at a lower volume for artistic purposes (eg, Trent Reznor @ NIN), but at higher volumes just for the purpose of being louder than the last record that was released, this is not constructive, it is not creative, it is a form of destruction. Simple.

2Bdecided said...

Richard,

You claim there's evidence that people prefer hyper compression. I think that's nonsense.

People prefer louder - subjectively, that's well known. A/B two identical recordings, making B just a little bit louder than A, and even very clued up people will describe all kinds of ways in which B was better than A.

If you loudness match the hyper compressed version to a less compressed version, and A/B, then I think you'll find the situation is really quite complicated and subjective - but I'll bet you that any overwhelming preference by the ignorant masses for the hyper compressed version will vanish if it's loudness matched.

As long as the less compressed version jumps above the hyper compressed version such that it sounds more punchy, rather than less professional (i.e. bits sound louder where it feels like they _should_ sound louder - NOT where it sounds like the musicians were idiot and the compressor was correcting their uneven sound!) then the more dynamic version will be preferred.


This has little relevance to real life, because almost no one does loudness match their listening - the hyper compressed version will be louder, and be preferred in A/B.

People talk about long term listening fatigue - that is a factor - but an even simpler factor is that people reach for the volume control, and suddenly the hyper compressed version has no advantage at all!

Richard Tollerton said...

David:

How much literature exists for this preference for dynamic music? I'm honestly not aware of any studies on this that aren't purely anecdotal in nature. If there isn't any, me/you/we should write one up. SRSLY. I have some uncompressed masters kicking around that I've been wanting to experiment with.

"As long as the less compressed version jumps above the hyper compressed version such that it sounds more punchy, rather than less professional (i.e. bits sound louder where it feels like they _should_ sound louder - NOT where it sounds like the musicians were idiot and the compressor was correcting their uneven sound!) then the more dynamic version will be preferred."

This cuts both ways. If the dynamic source drops below the noise floor in a significant frequency band where the hypercompressed source doesn't, people may associate the dynamic version with worse sound. I've listened to fully uncompressed Beethoven symphonies in a loud car ride on occasion, and to be completely honest, it wasn't that enjoyable.

Those two points are the crux of my beef with the way this loudness war thing has been fought. I don't really believe we, as engineers/researchers, actually have an adequate grasp of what's going on in Rick Rubin's ears, or Vlado Meller's ears, when they decide to brickwall something. We have lots of theories and explanations, but few smoking guns. I think that the instincts and experience of many producers and mastering engineers are informing them to hypercompress - not merely out of crass business sense, but out of a realistic evaluation of their own listening experience and the anticipated listener experiences - even though the end result is ultimately still a compromise of artistic expression and of listening value. Overcoming that is not a simple matter of showing a few A/Bs and saying "look at how much better this is!". And until that changes, I fear that the push for more dynamics won't go much farther than it currently has come - lots of education, but no action.

Put another way: we ought to have such absolutely ironclad proof of all of this, that I should be able to walk up to any random offending producer/label exec and say, "look, your professional decisions are absolutely full of shit, and I have the studies to prove that your listening evaluations and focus group surveys are worthless". Said studies, um, aren't quite there yet.

Most specifically: I think we have an astoundingly poor grasp of how low-SNR listening environments affect the perception of music. Explain this - concretely, in psychoacoustical terms, with studies to back up listening evaluations - and the loudness war will be mostly over.