As more artists are dabbling into vinyl for the first time, a suggestion: just say no to brickwall limiting. On some music and audiophile boards, one complain that is in common throughout is the cluster of sound that comes from an album that is poorly mixed or mastering. We are in 2010, anyone and everyone can record at home with software that you purchase. You can go the analog route of course, but if you already send out a lot of e-mails and Tweet your life away, then you can create a song or two, or a full album, or a collection of three CD’s worth of music and release it in anyway you want. You can mix it well, master it yourself, and sell it within hours. You can represent yourself with a nice discography in a week’s time.
The attention towards records in the last few years has turned it from something niche to something that’s “cool” to have and listen to, and of course to collect for profit. But even when vinyl was king, there have always been myths and misconceptions about audio and specific formats. When the compact disc made itself known in the early 1980’s, it was primarily for classical music. The first two pop CD’s that received a lot of attention were Michael Jackson‘s Thriller and the soundtrack to Flashdance. When Kiss were going to release an album for the first time on vinyl, critics claimed that the sheer volume of their hard rock and heavy metal would damage stereos around the world. That’s how naive people were, but then again no one really talked about binary code and digital music in the mid-80’s, we were more fascinated with a computerized disc that had no grooves, but somehow played music. Little was known about computing because most people didn’t have computers, very few people said words like “data” and most people avoided the “@” symbol on a typewriter.
Another myth: since compact discs are meant to represent crystal clear sound, anything you program onto a CD will sound crystal clear. When record companies started to reissue older material from their catalog, fans were upset that songs like the garage-rock classic “Louie Louie” didn’t sound like Wang Chung. Fans learned with confusion that whatever was recorded on tape would be duplicated 100 percent on CD. Something recorded with crappy microphones and in a bad room in 1963 would not magically sound like it was recorded in an expensive studio with the most updated digital equipment of the time. In time, reissues would sound better with mastering engineers doing the best they could by tweaking things to sound better than the originals. By the early to mid-90’s, record labels who once thought the CD’s would be a short-lived trend were now releasing box sets and compilations by the boat load.
The mid-90’s also introduced the MP3 digital format, which initially could only be played on a computer through computer speakers. Then the first digital players came. Many MP3 decoders were not done well, and there was a time when an MP3 at 96kbps was considered ideal. At the same time, the CD’s of the 80’s seemed outdated in sound quality and there was a push for music to be louder, which for some meant better. There is a belief amongst some audiophiles that “the listener should be in control of the volume knob, but the record label” but that didn’t stop labels from remastering albums and songs to have them sound as vibrant and loud as new music. Unfortunately, the volume on CD’s became louder, and we’re not talking about bass frequencies on hip-hop and dance tracks. I think it would have been ignored if it wasn’t for the fact that with CD burners, fans were now able to extract songs from CD’s and create their own custom discs. By doing this, one was able to see the volume levels of these songs, and visually see each song by looking at a WAV file. It became obvious to some that there was a trend on a lot of current CD’s, a trend that was not a sonically healthy one.
It’s the phenomenon of what is called “brickwall limiting”. It a way to raise volume levels by digital compression, so anything that may have been in low volume would be boosted with the rest of the sounds in the song, so that they would be somewhat equal in levels. For a brief explanation, click here. Unfortunately, this trend has become an unfortunate method of mixing and releasing music to where everything sounds clustered and too loud. Some producers and engineers like to hear and mix music that has a lot of “peaks and valleys”, so that you can hear the drums sound as powerful as they should, hear the guitars ring if they want it to do that, and the vocals to sound like an actual person is singing it.
Even if you’re not an audiophile, brickwall limiting is of appeal to artists and labels (especially major labels) because it’s a quick remedy to boost volume levels on music that is primarily heard on portable digital players and cheap headphones. By compressing it in such a manner, it can add a level of distortion that can’t be removed unless it’s remixed from the multi-tracks. A perfect example of this is the Metallica album, Death Magnetic. The album leaked on the internet, rabid fans downloaded it and said it sounded horrible. Fans requested that the band release a new version of the album, one that sounded cleaner, yet still retained the band’s trademark sound. Unfortunately that hasn’t happened, but what happened was that the band approved of tracks from the album to be played on a Guitar Hero video game shining the spotlight on the band. Some music fans discovered that it was possible to extract audio from these video games for sound effects, but it also meant being able to obtain these Metallica songs in multi-track form, as designed for Guitar Hero. Someone leaked those tracks on the internet and fans soon discovered that not only were the Guitar Hero mixes made from the multi-tracks, but they sounded a lot better than the official album. When a CD sounds like crap, the mastering engineer can often be the one to blame (and many do). Ted Jensen, mastered Death Magnetic, was quoted as saying “mixes were already brick-walled before they arrived”, which means the songs already were clustered and claustrophonic, and nothing can be done from those mixes to make them sound better. When the Guitar Hero mixes were made, they created them from scratch. (You can read about the Death Magnetic mastering issue here.)
In some instances, an album will be remastered for vinyl by someone and it sounds better than the original first pressing. Red Hot Chili Peppers released Stadium Arcadium in 2006 and while it did sell well and had a number of hits, those with a keen ear felt that the album as mastered by Vlado Meller sounded horrible. Extracting the songs into WAV files proved that it was brickwalled. Months later, the album was to be pressed on vinyl but instead of using the CD master, they would have the album remastered by Steve Hoffman and Kevin Gray, known for their individual and collective mastering work for over 25 years. Even as they were putting together this new remaster, producer Rick Rubin, along with various members of the band, were called into the studio to listen and approve of the mixes. The overall verdict was that it sounded a lot better than what came out on a CD. It is the vinyl version of Stadium Arcadium that has received approval from all parties of interest, but it has not been released in a digital format (although you are able to obtain it in the vast digital underground.)
If these brickwalled albums are being singled out, why hasn’t anything been done? There has been a lot of complaining, but very little significant change. There was once a level of quality control amongst labels, that that arguably started to go away in the late 70’s/early 80’s, as the industry changed from selling records to “selling units”. Even on new releases, be it hip-hop or indie rock, brickwall limiting still plagues endless releases. If you have a good ear, you know it as quick as spotting a vocal with Auto-Tune. A small number of artists will record and mix in analog, and will only be mastered in digital at the last phase of the process. When mastered in digital, artists and producers will insure that it is not brickwalled.
Someone in TapeOp, a magazine catering to home and studio recording,once stated that a helpful tip in the digital era is to record and mix an album as if it was to be on vinyl. When vinyl was the primary means of music distribution, engineers had to deal with the limitations of the format. The compact disc removed many of those limitations when it came to volume, highs and lows, and various frequencies. Keep in mind that when The Beatles recorded “Paperback Writer” in 1966, some engineers at EMI Recording Studios didn’t believe that that much bass guitar could be transferred onto a record. There was a fear that Paul McCartney‘s bass work would cause needles to jump, making records unplayable. McCartney told engineers that it was possible, and his bass experimentation in the studio came from listening to a lot of pop, jazz, and soul from the United States where the bass was in the forefront. Acetates were made for “Paperback Writer”, and upon playing it on a turntable, they discovered that the “high volume of bass” did not make the record skip. It was released, becoming a #1 hit. From that point on, records were mastered differently and every artist, producer, and engineer were pushing the limits, especially as electronics in music were used. Nonetheless, mastering engineers still understood the limits of vinyl but because of this, the end result are records that sound incredible. That comes from not only mastering engineers understanding the technology, but producers and engineers getting the most out of the technology in the studio.
The compact disc broke down those walls, and while the CD has its own limitations too, it was less restrictive. Unfortunately, being less restrictive also has made countless albums in the 90’s and 00’s sound like crap.
I mention all of this because in various forums, blogs, and on Twitter, everyone seems to believe that music sounds better on vinyl. Yes, I love my records, I’m a vinyl junkie for life, but just because something is released on vinyl doesn’t mean it automatically sounds better by default. Yes, vinyl has the warmth, it sounds cool, it sounds great, but don’t get lost in the vinyl myths that exist. If an album is produced, mixed, and mastered well, you will have an incredible listening experience. For years, I have often bought or received a CD and if the album is good, I’ll want it on vinyl. Many younger record buyers are learning about this too, but again, it has more to do with how it’s mixed and mastered, not the format. If you enjoy an album on CD or MP3, and want to know if the vinyl pressing is better, go a Google search. There are fans who are no doubt analyzing the album song by song, note by note. What you should get is the overall sense that the vinyl pressing is top notch and worth… spending on. Any and all albums can be obtained for free, but people want to put their money on music, on art, on something they can hold. If you’re releasing music and want people to keep that record for years, mix and master it properly, or at least well.
(The Brickwall Limiting Is Killing Music T-shirt shown above can be purchased here.)