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Wednesday, June 01, 2011

The Loudness War and Remasters (Rush - Moving Pictures)

Recently I've become fascinated by reading about the alleged "Loudness War" going on in the music industry, whereby every time a label issues a "remaster" they are essentially just making the recording louder and more compressed in addition to supposedly making it sound better.

In addition, I presume, to get suckers like me to buy my favorite albums again and again - the reasons listed for doing so is to actually get the songs to be mixed for the iPod  - as loud as every new recording released today and downloaded from the iTunes Store so you don't have to mess with the volume switch and be audible outdoors with background noise mixed with the Apple ear buds.

I always assumed these remasters were for audiophiles, but apparently that isn't always the case.

One of the remasters I bought recently was Moving Pictures - Deluxe Edition [CD + Blu-ray], which also comes with a 96kHz/24-bit DVD or Blu-ray (two separate versions) so I thought I'd take a look for myself if this was the case.

I took the remastered version of Red Barchetta and compared it to an older version released on the Chronicles and lo and behold, it's louder!

Throwing both versions into Garage Band, it's pretty easy to compare both MP3s side by side as they both play.

Just looking at the volume meters, you can immediately see the difference.   Now if you were born anywhere between 1965 and 1970, you probably spent a good bit of time recording LPs to cassettes, and in doing so, you would have had to fool with the levels so that those meters just barely ever went "into the red", otherwise you would end up with one distorted cassette tape.  Basically you were doing the same thing as any sound engineer: make it as loud as possible without distorting it.

Original on top, remaster on bottom
Well, it turns out digital recordings on CDs and MP3s don't distort at the same frequencies as cassettes so you can indeed make them a little louder, but if you make them too loud, you have to start compressing, which is essentially throwing out the outliers on the highs and the lows.


These two clips are from the same part of the song (where Geddy Lee sings "Wind in my hair shifting and drifting...") and you can see how the signal is made as loud as possible going to the limits of the digital playback range in the remaster, and it gets nowhere close in the original version that was just dumped to CD way back when.

Here are some close ups from a few beats later.


So while I think this remaster sounds pretty darn good, especially the 24 bit versions, it certainly is louder.  The drums do indeed sound a little "punchier" in the original master but with a good pair of headphones I'm not really hearing distortion.

I can't wait to look at a few more of these to see what the differences are.

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