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View Full Version : The Loudness War, or, that's why Icky Thump sounds like crap.



JON9000
03-10-2008, 10:29 AM
So, I got "Icky Thump" back around Christmas on CD. I have a "real" stereo at home to listen to music on, you know, with actual components and speakers you buy in a stereo store.

I put it on, and boy, it sounded great, at first. LOUD, just like Spinal Tap told you, it really does go to 11. But I noticed something ugly- clipping, a distortion that usually occurs when the amplifier cannot deliver the power to drive the speakers because the signal is too demanding. But it was odd... I didn't have it turned up very loudly, and it seemed to clip even when played relatively low.

And for those of you who say Jack White likes distortion and lo-fi recording techniques, I can tell you that this phenomenon is not the same. This record has been mastered to be an assault on the ear drums, and its peaks go above the CD format's abilities.

Anyway, I was curious about this, because I have noticed over the last couple of years that I cannot even listen to most CDs all the way through any more. Anyhoo, I discovered the following:

http://www.youtube.com/watch?v=3Gmex_4hreQ

http://spectrum.ieee.org/aug07/5429

http://www.rollingstone.com/news/story/17777619/the_death_of_high_fidelity/print

This is all particularly galling, because the only reason I buy CDs instead of pulling them from itunes is because I want a higher quality for at home listening. But recordings are now made to be heard over your car engine, or sound fuller on lousy computer speakers, ipods, or shelf systems, making them sound like garbage on a real set up.

Fortunately, all is not lost with "Icky Thump", my local record shop has it on 180g vinyl, and this edition was newly remastered by a fella that refuses to compress the dynamic range of recordings. Lucky for me they purchase cds for resale so I can put it towards the vinyl copy. Being that Mr. White loves vinyl, it wouldn't surprise me if he deliberately made the CD sound like crap.

Jedi_Master_Guyute
03-10-2008, 12:10 PM
This was a problem when Zwan (remember them? :D) released their only disc and people were complaining about the loudness and the distortion. I think Billy and Co said they had turned everything up to make a loud rock n' roll album. It didn't bother me too bad though, luckily. And I have Icky Thump too, but haven't noticed too much. Then again, I just play it on my PC right now, not on an actual stereo.

JON9000
03-10-2008, 12:47 PM
This was a problem when Zwan (remember them? :D) released their only disc and people were complaining about the loudness and the distortion. I think Billy and Co said they had turned everything up to make a loud rock n' roll album. It didn't bother me too bad though, luckily. And I have Icky Thump too, but haven't noticed too much. Then again, I just play it on my PC right now, not on an actual stereo.

I regret to say that I have never heard of Zwan. :( However, nowadays, everything is turned up all the way in every genre. I do know Led Zeppelin, however, and there should be loud parts and quieter parts, not all loud parts like on the "Mothership" recordings.

Did you watch the youtube link?

Exhaust Port
03-10-2008, 01:37 PM
I remember the first "loud" album I came across was "Cowboys from Hell" by Pantera back in '92. I'll agree that the first reaction like mentioned in the video you posted was "wow, this sounds great". As time went on I'll agree that the music sounded a bit muddled in parts. Since then there have been albums that are even worse.

I too stick with CD's rather than buying digitally to maximize the music quality. It's disappointing that the music industry has tried to spice up a few of their albums like this. Why bother? I bought the album because I like the music so there isn't any need to spice it up any.

2-1B
03-10-2008, 08:57 PM
Please do not disgrace the name of Tap by mentioning White Stripes in the same breath. :thumbsup:

El Chuxter
03-10-2008, 09:29 PM
A thread about a White Stripes album pops up, and it takes you ten hours to make a snide comment?

You're slipping, Caesar. :thumbsup:

2-1B
03-10-2008, 10:15 PM
Sorry, I just got back online for the day. I was busy remixing Big Bottom to add a 4th bass line. :thumbsup:

Anyway, people need to stop posting pornographic videos on the interweb and claiming the woman in the video is Meg White. That's not very nice. :cry:

plasticfetish
03-10-2008, 10:43 PM
Being that Mr. White loves vinyl, it wouldn't surprise me if he deliberately made the CD sound like crap.I suppose it all boils down to his loving cash money more than vinyl. ;) Having heard and been impressed by the White Stripes at a little club show years ago, I know how great they can sound live, but Iíve never been impressed by their albums. They donít have the same force.

Funny, this subject really hits home for me. I've been downloading a few things lately that I'd probably never have even bought on CD, but because of the convenience of iTunes, I've gone ahead and got them. Talking about ďclassicĒ rock, the biggest digital failure of late was my download of Band on the Run by Wings. Now, aside from the fact that itís nothing more than a typical McCartney pop album, whatís terrible is how weird the mastering is. Itís not just flat, itís really badly mixed in general, with the bass smothering the vocals... a pretty good example of someone doing the job that just didnít care one way or the other how it sounded.

Reading the mention of bands like Pink Floyd... funny also, because I just downloaded ďPiperĒ and ďRelics.Ē They sound decent enough on the iPod, or even through the Roland monitor speakers that I have hooked up to my computer, but Iím starting to dread how theyíll sound when I get my ďrealĒ stereo hooked up in the living room at some point.

Iíd be curious to see if this want for a better quality recording is what ends up saving the record industry... or at least keeping it from completely tanking. When I get my lovely old Ohm Walsh speakers hooked up to a big watt Sansui or McIntosh receiver, I suspect that Iím not going to want to play any of the CDs that Iíve got piled up.

JON9000
03-11-2008, 12:00 PM
When I get my lovely old Ohm Walsh speakers hooked up to a big watt Sansui or McIntosh receiver, I suspect that Iím not going to want to play any of the CDs that Iíve got piled up.

Prepare yourself. No amount of power can overcome "digital" clipping. No speaker can articulate particular instruments when every frequency is maxed out. If you think CDs are bad, itunes is even worse. The physical properties of vinyl force engineers to work within certain constraints. These constraints can be a problem with full orchestral music, but I think classical has avoided the "loudness war" and thank heaven for that. Can you imagine Siegfried's Funeral March without the quiet drums at the beginning, "Mars" without the quiet strings, or "Carmina Burana" without the quiet choral opening?

Fortunately, if you can afford MacIntosh amps, you can afford a decent vinyl collection! :D

jjreason
03-11-2008, 06:51 PM
I played a few tracks off this album to check and see if I could hear the clipping - but it sounded "fine" to me (well, at least what I'd expect the songs to sound like - no popping noises or weirdness with the levels).

Maybe my stereo is sub-par (15 yr old mid-range Sony receiver and CD player with JPW speakers I got on clearance from my wife's old boss at the stereo store), but I've never had any problems with popping unless I turn up the volume to levels high enough that I can't enjoy it.

Mad Slanted Powers
03-11-2008, 07:37 PM
This was a problem when Zwan (remember them? :D) released their only disc and people were complaining about the loudness and the distortion. I think Billy and Co said they had turned everything up to make a loud rock n' roll album. It didn't bother me too bad though, luckily. And I have Icky Thump too, but haven't noticed too much. Then again, I just play it on my PC right now, not on an actual stereo.
I never had a problem with the loudness or distortion on that one, though I've never played it on a real stereo system, just my computer. I had more of a problem with Machina. That sounded too distorted. I think I may have tried it on my stereo to see if it was better. It was, but not much.

I haven't listened to anything on my stereo system in quite a while, as I left it at my parents' place when I moved out. It's a Fisher that I got for Christmas 1985. The sound kept cutting out. I wasn't sure if it was the speakers or the amplifier. I changed speaker wires and it still did it.

So, most of my listening is done on my computer, and a lot of that is low quality 32kbps files, because that is the rate they need to be to play on my internet station. So, the songs that I buy from iTunes sound pretty good in comparison. Likewise, when I actually put a CD in, it is nice to hear a less muffled version.

A comment on the Youtube video talked about how he thought live music sounded better because he could make out the instruments. That's the opposite of the experience I've had. Maybe it is better in a large outdoor setting or something. I've gone to shows in local bars and I find it hard to make things out. The vocals in particular are overwhelmed, and after a few songs it all sounds kind of mushed together.

JON9000
03-12-2008, 05:25 PM
A comment on the Youtube video talked about how he thought live music sounded better because he could make out the instruments. That's the opposite of the experience I've had. Maybe it is better in a large outdoor setting or something. I've gone to shows in local bars and I find it hard to make things out. The vocals in particular are overwhelmed, and after a few songs it all sounds kind of mushed together.

All of that is very dependent on the type of music and the venue. A 3 piece live acoustic jazz ensemble is a good reference point if the room is properly sound treated. A rock band in a hall can be a dodgy proposition, as the guy on the soundboard could suck, or they just crank the volume so loud it causes your ears to flutter.

Mad Slanted Powers
03-12-2008, 06:25 PM
The club I went to in 2005 and 2006 (which recently closed), often was described as having a great sound system. It had a neat booth with lots of fancy looking equipment, but didn't really sound much better than any other bar in town that I went to in college. If I ever go see a show again, I should look into getting some of those fancy earplugs.

JON9000
03-13-2008, 02:31 PM
I read an old article from 72 reviewing the Led Zeppelin concert in town. Apparently, the reverb was so bad the soundman just cranked up the volume even more to overpower it. Yikes.

Mad Slanted Powers
03-13-2008, 06:59 PM
Last night I played "Icky Thump" on my computer. I think I might hear what you mean. Even this low quality rip was making a sort of vibrating sound with the computer's speakers. It wasn't very loud either. My iTunes volume was all the way up, but my master volume was only about half way. Still, it seemed to be more of a beat and frequency thing. It was mostly the bass drum that was making the rattle. I'm thinking that is probably what the song is supposed to be doing. I can imagine that it's one of those songs that are meant to shake the whole house when it is played on good system.

I just played the actual CD in the computer and I couldn't notice that rattle, but the song was a bit louder and much more clear of course.

JON9000
03-14-2008, 09:26 AM
Having investigated a little more, I think what is going on is not digital clipping, but something called digital "wrapping," although the two are closely related.

http://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Clipping_(audio)

Digital clipping occurs when you increase the loudness then manually clip the loudest parts so the entire signal is within the CD's parameters. Wrapping occurs when you increase the loudness but do not clip, allowing the signal to go beyond the CD's capabilities resulting in distortion.

It makes zero sense from a physical standpoint to allow the signal to overflow beyond what the digital medium can support, because no matter how powerful your amplifier or wonderful your system, you are still going to get bad distortion. It isn't a power problem, it is a signal problem created in the studio.

In other words, if my theory is correct, every copy of Icky Thump is defective.