It seems to me that the writer of the article just doesn't like pop music, and doesn't understand the business of pop music. Pop music, and especially pop music on the radio, has its own rules. It's no use getting upset about them. There's a lot of skill in engineering recordings that work on the radio. And Autotune is great. It's like getting upset that a movie director uses special effects. Good music always transcends the technology. Do you care that Gravity wasn't actually filmed in space?
If you want your music to sound like it was recorded in the sixties you can do so either by getting the vintage equipment or using vintage-style plug ins. But if the Beatles were around today they would be using all of the latest techniques, just like they were at the forefront of recording technology back then.
Meanwhile, my ten-year-old daughter just bought a record player and Taylor Swift on vinyl.
Granted, every decade has had its recording trends. I agree that the article misunderstands the pop business.
So many problem with post... And if I was following your style, I'd not make any of them clear but just pop a bit of authority, a bit of folksy wisdom and get some factual points.
But I'll just mention - do any of your arguments imply that modern pop hits don't sound the same? Perhaps if everyone possessing the technology to create a song that satisfies the formula perhaps makes even more music satisfying the formula appear? That naturally creating the absolute winning track involves a lot of skill even if it all sounds the same (except to the connoisseur, perhaps?).
BTW, here are some videos that give insight into how a pop vocal is built and some mastering techniques...
"Every part of the signal chain—from earbuds to digital/audio converters—is improving and getting cheaper." Like other technologies, digital audio had rapid improvements in the first 10 years but has mostly leveled off as we have reached the limits of physics, signals and sampling. Good audio equipment is still expensive and power hungry in every part of the chain.
Technology won't save what are fundamentally psychological issues. We respond emotionally to louder signals. We like songs that sound similar but not identical to things we've heard before. We listen to things that our friends like. All of this points to why top 40 songs sound the same, but "all records" is pretty broad. There has never been a better time to create something new in music, and yet we lean heavily on what has worked before -- in songwriting, in arrangement, in production -- so that others will like and identify with the creative output.
Dynamic range is less of a problem.
"Mastering engineer Bob Ludwig created ultra-loud master of Led Zeppelin II, but his version was pulled when it skipped on a record player owned by Atlantic boss Ahmet Ertegün’s daughter"
The question is whether people will ever get smarter and start being picky. We've seen a bit of this in food. The whole/natural/craft/whatever foods movement contains a fair amount of superstitious nonsense, but at its core it's ultimately about consumers being a lot pickier about what they eat. I think the overall effect is good -- people eating healthier food and deliberately turning down addictive nutritionally devoid junk. Maybe we'll eventually get an equivalent movement in music.
millercoors : craft beer
Beats by Dre : Beyer Dynamic
Lipton Tea : loose leaf
top 40 : jazz/metal/classical/progressive rock/...
The market for music is typically youth. So people probably do get smarter, start being picky, and stop being youth. But there's always another generation right behind.
6 recent hit country songs combined into one. They blend into each other perfectly.
I doubt it. I think we'll be lucky if Apple has increased the maximum configuration to 256GB in a few years. The other issue is that people have moved to streaming and the connections aren't good enough to stream high-quality audio. I signed up for Tidal (lossless Spotify) and even on a decent internet connection it had to buffer and the experience wasn't good enough for me to stick around.
I use Logic, Sonar, Reason and FL Studio quite extensively depending on the project and really have very little problem sounding like it was recorded in the 1960s or 70s. Technology is good enough that all but the most trained ear won't notice whether you used a real Fairchild compressor or the UAD dsp version.(or substitute your favorite vintage compressor/effect/synthesizer/amp vs software)
However most people don't want the whole record to sound that way. It's great for setting a mood, but the average pop listener wants loud repetitive and catchy hooks. Experimenting is for the established "wealthy" and "bored" artists that need to find long term relevance.
In general the labels don't subsidize the breadth of records that they used to. One of the best ways to make the point that the industry is the problem is to thumb through my dads collection of vinyl. Some notable records he owns that would never be produced today are "Big Sounds of the drags"
The Zodiac:cosmic sounds
I have a ton of old vinyl from people who are not attractive enough to make a record today. Like it or not the recording industry is about image, marketing and recipes more than music.
I don't think this is a revelation to anyone and it may not even be wrong. I think what many musicians get wrong is that they think they can try to latch on to the old business model and "make it"- becoming rich in a few years. These days that is .01% of artists.
However if you think of a record as marketing and look for other ways to monetize your band and its brand you can get by in the middle class. Even in the hey day it wasn't a golden ticket for most artists.
Really there has always been a problem with the record industry in some form or fashion, but since power is shifting towards artists and home studios labels are much more risk averse. No matter how good you are, it's a risky profession.
It was written by them after they made their first number 1 hit single, back in 1988. They went ahead and had a few number ones since. That was over 25 years ago. It's a good overview of the chart music industry and much of the book is still relevant even now, and they were even able to predict that a lot of the studio work should be possible to do in the bedroom in the future.
I believe Museum of Techno has done some work on this problem.
Loudness wars is the sound of the genre, to be fair. But not everything is ear-bashing techno.
Now I like, say
It's relevant to the discussion, since the masterful recording of these pieces is itself a work of art.
The cello sound is gorgeous beyond belief:
I can't believe it's just performer, rosin, strings,
and room and
also has to be one totally gorgeous cello. Beyond
belief sound! Don't dare move the sound post or
change the bridge!
Musicians sound a lot like developers
Modern tools provide an entirely new dimension in the form of multi-band compression, digital phase alignment, etc. It is now possible (and being done in nearly every genre) to make a recording perceptively louder than other recordings by maximizing amplitude in specific bands (those humans are most sensitive to), reduce phase cancellation between speakers, and hype the sound (boosting high and low frequencies, which tricks the ear into hearing it in the same way as louder music...but also causes listener fatigue faster), often all at once.
Amplitude compression, even when it's smart enough to recognize that there's more activity across a broader spectrum as provided by SoundCheck, does nothing to restore the damage to dynamic range, natural frequency response curves, and "real" sounding recorded music. The music is broken by these processes...the listener has no power to fix it, other than to not buy it, and choose music that hasn't been mutilated in such a way.
I don't know how much or whether the other technologies you mention really help to boost perceived loudness much beyond what is measured by RMS. Multiband compression raises RMS. Boosting high and low frequencies (aka "bare fat bass and mad amounts of high end"  - beyond what is wanted for a good sound) could be defeated by measuring RMS based on equal loudness/frequency curves. I've never really used the other things you mention but whatever they are they can be defeated by technology that measures their effect in the listener device. That's if they can cheat RMS anyway - I'm not sure they can but if you do have data on that I'd be interested to see it.
As you say, sound quality is still lost, but if normalization (over the album length where necessary, of course) becomes the defacto standard in playback technology then the incentive for making bad quality/loudness tradeoffs in album mastering is gone. The standard if adopted would restore the dynamic range by taking away the engineers' incentive to compromise it. The engineers would doubtless breathe a sigh of relief as most of them are more bothered about this than we are.
Analog radio would still be mastered stupidly loud. I would assume final stage compression in radio broadcast is keyed on peak not RMS level, again please correct me if I'm wrong. But it's a dying medium anyway.
RMS is a measure of power, not of perception. You don't have to defeat RMS to defeat perceived loudness.
But, you're right that a playback device could take measures to defeat the perceived loudness baked in (though they'd get quite complex, as the tools for baking it in are extremely complex these days, and I don't actually understand half of them, despite having studied audio in college and worked in the industry). I don't know if it would actually improve listener experience to do so, though. Ending the "Oh shit that's loud!" and "Why is this song so quiet?" problem would be positive for listeners, of course. But, at what cost?
"Analog radio would still be mastered stupidly loud. I would assume final stage compression in radio broadcast is keyed on peak not RMS level, again please correct me if I'm wrong. But it's a dying medium anyway."
Analog radio (and digital broadcast radio, as they still compress, despite some of the technical reasons for doing so being gone, inertia is strong in broadcast; I have noticed that Pandora and Spotify do not do any sort of compression, however, which is nice...but also annoying when the playlist has new and old music as the difference can be massive and unnerving) was among the earliest adopters of various technology to make music perceptively louder. Aural Exciters (a very early salvo in the loudness war) were available in a broadcast targeted version from very early on, etc.
I haven't been in the broadcast industry in a long time, and I worked in television rather than radio (though the station I worked for shared a tower with several radio stations and another TV station), but I'm reasonably confident radio stations in major markets still tend to have the most modern "make it loud!" devices available. Loudness=listeners in radio. That's why the loudness wars are happening.
"I don't know if it would actually improve listener experience to do so, though" - except inasmuch as it would remove the incentive to master albums too loud. And if it were the default in all playback devices (digital radio, codecs) it would also remove the incentive in broadcast. The only catch is it relies on the broadcaster not owning the means of playback, which with internet radio they sometimes do. But if it's someone like Spotify they are in a position to prioritize sound quality - are people really going to leave Spotify because it's too quiet when the thing has a volume control you can just turn up if you want? It's not like surfing analog radio channels used to be.
Don't hold your breath - iTunes has had Sound Check since 2002.
I would argue that any 'true artist' - aka one that is consumed with the perfection of their art - is not going to be swayed to produce a 'hit' no matter what the studio wants (they simply won't sign with a big label to begin with, I know plenty of musicians that feel this way and are happy on an indie label).
Per the article, the "mainstream" is literally music for people who don't like music.
No doubt your parents thought the same about your music choices.
The lead up is a little long, but when the music finally starts it's bliss.
I say, lament all you want. That's fine, some of it is cheap entertainment. But here's the thing, some artists will strive to create at that level, because that level is there, and it's never been more accessible. My takeaway is that the tools have never been greater. The level of access to other people, to grow organically, if not virally, has never been better.
Has this resulted in us discovering greater artists and getting better music created? That would be an interesting article.
@sparkzilla - 'What this means is that anyone with some musical and recording skills can compete against record companies.'
Yes. It's not about being a 'fair fight' but there is a fight there.
@dankoss - 'There has never been a better time to create something new in music'
Totally agree. Let's hear it. Seriously, the response is, bring it. Great music will always draw an audience.
Also good are those remasters reissued by Mobile Fidelity Sound Labs. www.mofi.com
I'd probably enjoy modern pop music (even teen hits like Meghan Trainor) if it didn't all sound the same.
Miles Davis also had the philosophy that first takes produced the most ingenuity in improvisation.
More recently, Greg Graffin's folk album "Cold as the Clay" was very deliberately recorded with everyone in one room. It sounds good.
introducing the Google Radio Automation suite which seems to be what came after the SS32 thing mentioned in the article. Seems like Google got out of that business in 2009:
Great essay. Really sums up modern commercially recorded music.
And besides, this is also pop. The original article mostly discusses pop rock (compared to rock music generally created for other markets than top 40 pop) but country follows the same industry trends. There's country music that's meant to get on the radio and sell hit records and there's country music that is going for something different.
Just as you have a Maroon 5 for every White Stripes, you have an Old 97's or Eddie Spaghetti for every band on this list of 6 nearly identical songs.