NEWS: Backlash against 'too loud' albums

You know those people who're always grizzling on about how modern albums sound rubbish, and that they're nothing but noise? Seems they may have a point: an article in The Times recently talked to some producers of classic albums who bemoaned the current use of compression and boosted levels in the quest for impact.

It seems some modern albums not only sound horrid when played on a decent hi-fi system, but could actually be bad for you; the lack of dynamics, the clipping and the distortion can make some listeners feel nauseous. And it's not the fault of the bands: the compression is usually applied at the very last stage before mastering, the intention being to make the music sound more exciting when played over the radio or heard in-store.

It's all done with peak limiting, which is also designed to make tracks 'cut through' better against road noise in cars or when played on the jukebox in noisy pubs. This technology was originally designed to ensure the stylus stayed in the grooves of LPs when huge dynamic shifts occurred - the classic example being the cannon on Tchaikovsky's '1812' Overture! - but now it's increasingly used to change loud and soft parts of a track to a similar level.

One of the most notorious examples of this trend is Red Hot Chili Peppers' Californication disc (above), the subject of a long-running online petition calling on the band and Warner Bros to remaster it into a more listenable state.

Peter Mew, senior mastering engineer at Abbey Road, worked on classic David Bowie albums such as Ziggy Stardust and Aladdin Sane, as well as with artists such as Deep Purple, Free and Hawkwind. He told The Times, 'Record companies are competing in an arms race to make their album sound the "loudest". The quieter parts are becoming louder and the loudest parts are just becoming a buzz.'

He went on: 'The CDs induce a sense of fatigue in the listeners. It becomes psychologically tiring and almost impossible to listen to.'

His views are supported by Geoff Emerick, who worked on The Beatles' Sgt Pepper and has recently been re-recording the songs from that album on the original four-track equipment with artists such as Travis, Kaiser Chiefs (below), The Killers and Razorlight.

Emerick told the paper: 'A lot of what is released today is basically a scrunched-up mess. Whole layers of sound are missing. It is because record companies don’t trust the listener to decide themselves if they want to turn the volume up.'

So do you have any unlistenable CDs? The ones that drive your system mad and make you feel rough? Let us know - post a comment below…

Andrew has written about audio and video products for the past 20+ years, and been a consumer journalist for more than 30 years, starting his career on camera magazines. Andrew has contributed to titles including What Hi-Fi?, GramophoneJazzwise and Hi-Fi CriticHi-Fi News & Record Review and Hi-Fi Choice. I’ve also written for a number of non-specialist and overseas magazines.