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.