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Why Do All Records Sound the Same? (medium.com)
149 points by wsdan on Jan 12, 2015 | hide | past | web | favorite | 80 comments

So many problems with this article. I recently started recording music after a long break and I love that everything is in the computer now. I had one of the very first Pro tools systems and it cost $12,000 (25MB hard drive). Gear that used to cost hundreds of thousands of dollars is now available with a click. I had always wanted to use great compressors and they are almost all available now as plug-ins. I also took some old tracks and ran them through the Waves maximizers - what a difference. What this means is that anyone with some musical and recording skills can compete against record companies.

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.

Hi, Thanks for reading! I think we agree more than you think. What I wanted to do with the article was explain why music sounds like it does, explaining why the 'rules' are the way they are. I hate it when people imply producers are stupid or lazy or unskilled or uncreative because they're making pop - if it was easy to craft a radio hit that will cut through in 7 seconds in a listening session, we'd all be doing it and living in mansions. What I thought was interesting about the Maroon 5 stuff at the start wasn't that it was lazy, but that it was really hard, boring work that they didn't seem to enjoy very much. That wasn't how I perceived the process of making pop hits. Re: the Beatles today; of course they'd use the latest technology, but they might still have a hard time cutting through in a seven second listening session. Now, as then, there are other ways to be successful beyond pop radio. When I'm talking about Neil Young & Rick Rubin/Johnny Cash, I'm looking at the way studio recording has changed. It's certainly not better or worse, but it is interestingly different.

Thanks for writing the article. I'm in the middle of rediscovering the tools of recording so it made me think about many things.

But auto tune isn't always used as a "special effect" ala "Love After Loss" robo-voice. Most autotune is subtle enhancement to vocal tracks that really don't need it. It will give any singer laser like accuracy, at the expense of removing all character from their voice. How does that not contribute to homogeneity?

Granted, every decade has had its recording trends. I agree that the article misunderstands the pop business.

In the past few years the robo-voice was overused so there was some homogeneity to the vocal sound, although the actual music was still different. Now, that robo-voice is not as popular. As you mention, Autotune's main use is not so much as a creative tool, but as a way to fix problems. Most of the time this is simply to fix otherwise good takes without having to redo them over and over again. The idea is to make edits that are not noticable or as they say "the best edit you can't hear". Simple intro to the plugin here: http://vimeo.com/91670669

My point is, even as a fix-it tool, when over used, it removes natural fluctuations in a persons voice, and creates sameness.

So many problems with this article. ... Pop music, and especially pop music on the radio, has its own rules. It's no use getting upset about them. ...

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?).

I didn't write the post to get points, but to share my insight as a person who could not get access to the tools mentioned in the article in the past, and is currently using them as part of a process of learning to create some modern pop. I disagree with the writer's argument, which is based on a misunderstanding of the pop music market, and the role of technology in that market. The fact that most pop songs played on the radio have their volume maximized is not an issue related to their musicality. All compression does is help you hear the song better, which is especially important for radio play. Some of the other tools that are used in pop music, notably Autotune, are specifically used for that market because the audience wants them. The author lauds bands like The White Stripes for using vintage equipment and for "real" performances, but they are not part of the pop music market. You use the tools that fit the market. That said, even if you find the perfect formula for a pop song, including using a particular technology, people will get tired of the formula very quickly.

BTW, here are some videos that give insight into how a pop vocal is built and some mastering techniques...

[1] https://www.youtube.com/watch?v=9R0q6QKAPmo [2] https://www.youtube.com/watch?v=2V9d6zQzcrg

Nitpicks: "A great deal of quality is lost as those huge files are squished to the CD format, before being further squished into MP3s on your iPod." Not true, AAC files at high bitrates are proven to be indistinguishable from the original. http://xiph.org/~xiphmont/demo/neil-young.html

"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.

The format is not the limitation, but audio engineers (for major studios anyway) tend to crank the volume up on CDs more often than vinyl releases. https://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Loudness_war

The irony is that digital audio has much more dynamic range than vinyl, and yet modern productions use much less of it in order to psychologically sound better / louder.

This is the main point I take from the linked article, although it probably doesn't give enough context for everyone to do the same. One of the big improvements music-lovers were hoping for in move from vinyl to CD was the improved dynamic range on CD. It is indeed ironic that the move to CD/digital provided increased dynamic range, yet the trend of producers has been to use less dynamic range than before.

I was once told that when mastering for vinyl you have to be careful with extremes because it can cause the needle to jump off the record.

That's frequency extremes. So the high and low ends of the frequency range are rolled off. Also wide stereo in the bass region can cause the needle to jump, so either the bass needs to be reduced in volume or made mono/as-close-to-mono as possible.

Dynamic range is less of a problem.

This problem is mentioned in the article.

"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"

My favourite story about file formats and recording; Sufjan Stevens recorded his album Michigan on a little digital 8-track. He hadn't realised that there was a switch to set it to 32khz or 44.1khz. So he recorded the whole album at 32khz, then dumped it into Pro Tools two tracks at a time via the 1/8th inch jack and lined up the tracks by eye. It's not some grungy, lo-fi album, but full of complicated orchestrations and it still sounds great. (source: http://www.tapeop.com/interviews/70/sufjan-stevens/ - paywall)

Just a reminder that Tape Op (the magazine cited above) is free; you just have to register. They even send you their print copy for free, which is wonderful.

Sorry, you're right, I should have made that clear. Unfortunately they don't do the paper edition in Europe any more... That particular article is only available in the $2 digital archive issue. If you like Sufjan Stevens or enjoy reading articles that make your jaw drop, it's definitely worth the money.

You beat me to posting Monty by a few minutes. I agree on the psychological factor and think the article gave unnecessary focus on the tech. Beyond "it is now possible to X" the tech bits were irreverent to, if not detracting from the overall point.

And you should be so lucky as to get even 8 bits of dynamic range out of a LOUDNESS WARS production.

Stuff like this reminds me a lot of sugary simple-carb-laden junk food. The holy grail of popular marketing is to find a way to tap into some kind of simple and probably very evolutionarily ancient "craving" or "desire" pathway in the brain. Seems like they've learned a whole collection of hacks to do this with music, and are now just cranking out manufactured pop music full of those hacks. Combined with repetition in the radio (familiarity, another cognitive bias), they can churn out predictable hits.

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.

Plenty of markets have a similar effect. If you only take a shallow look into the market you will find the junk that is heavily advertised, but there are always experts/aficionados deeply involved in the craft. And this is true in music as well, I don't see why a "movement" is needed.

millercoors : craft beer

Beats by Dre : Beyer Dynamic

Lipton Tea : loose leaf

top 40 : jazz/metal/classical/progressive rock/...

> The question is whether people will ever get smarter and start being picky.

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.

At the same time other factors kicks in. As you get older you have less free time, you may or may not want to discover new things, you just listen to some easy songs on your way to work, and start to like them because they're part of your daily routine.

On the other hand, there's the factor of the hip music (not the top 100) getting box sets twenty years later ... because that's when the music fans have jobs and money.

"Rick Rubin's recordings of Johnny Cash are extraordinarily intimate and affecting. But they don't sound anything like Johnny Cash sitting in your living room playing some songs. They sound like you're perched on Johnny Cash's lap with one ear in his mouth and a stethoscope on his guitar."

This reminds me of this recent popular YouTube mashup: https://www.youtube.com/watch?v=vapt5C3yDeY

6 recent hit country songs combined into one. They blend into each other perfectly.

That seems to be some random guy just reposting. Didn't know youtube had "blogspam" before

Original mashup: https://www.youtube.com/watch?v=FY8SwIvxj8o

That's hilarious, but it sounds like those tunes were pitch shifted into the same key. Nashville producers have more skill than that. Oh, and FL/GA line is frigging awful.

The pitch and tempos are shifted, but more nefariously, the pieces of the songs which don't fit the VI-I-V progression are removed and replaced by pieces of other songs which do fit. It's deliberate and meticulous cherry-picking. The only thing all the songs have in common is that they're in 4/4 and the verses and choruses all start on the VI chord. I should make a table showing the actual chord progressions from each song and how the creator deliberately masked out the parts of each song which are different from the baseline the creator chose.

(replying to self) I charted out the chord progressions of the six songs for comparison:


Please do, that would be an interesting companion piece to this.

That would require you to listen to and chart out these 6 mediocre songs. I wouldn't ask you to do that. You've got a music background, I take it?

I listened to them last night, and started the chart. Should be ready tomorrow. A couple of the songs are actually decent. :)

Please, if you do it, let us know.

And time-stretched.

FL/GA line?

The worst band in that mashup - Florida/Georgia Line. (diatribe about my upbringing in Georgia redacted)

>> "In a very few years, we’ll have 1 terabyte iPods, easily capable of handling thousands of recordings in their original high-definition form."

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.

> This article originally appeared in the March, 2008 edition of Word Magazine.

In my flirtation with being a musician I've learned a fair bit about how to record in a home studio. I think he has simplified a lot of this but considering the audience of this article I get it. The one point I do agree with is that technology isn't the problem.

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" http://m.youtube.com/watch?v=pEdfuX1ni9E The Zodiac:cosmic sounds http://en.m.wikipedia.org/wiki/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.

I often recommend people read the little book "The Manual" by the KLF. http://freshonthenet.co.uk/the-manual-by-the-klf/

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.

> Worse still, the technology behind systems like Waves Ultramaximizer could easily be built into an iPod, automatically remastering all those dull old Neil Young records into BIG LOUD IN-YOUR-FACE BANGERS.

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.

I like music, really like music, but haven't been able to listen to pop music since I discovered Beethoven late one night on a radio while going to sleep.

Now I like, say


It has been mentioned on HN before, but you might still be interested in http://allofbach.com/nl/bwv/bwv-1007/detail/

It's relevant to the discussion, since the masterful recording of these pieces is itself a work of art.

Gee, it can be played that way, too! Well, the interpretation is consistent across the parts!

The cello sound is gorgeous beyond belief: I can't believe it's just performer, rosin, strings, bow, 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!


This is so beautiful; I'd never seen it before, thank you.

“Musicians are inherently lazy,” says John. “If there’s an easier way of doing something than actually playing, they’ll do that"

Musicians sound a lot like developers

We are already starting to win the loudness war now thanks to iTunes SoundCheck. I'm not an iTunes user but as far as I understand it, it causes iTunes to adjust all tunes in a mix to the same perceptual loudness. If everyone adopted this or a similar technology (such as the open ReplayGain) there would be no incentive to master loud any more, for albums at least, because the player will only turn it down again meaning the net result is only loss of quality. Hopefully iTunes support for this tech is a turning point in the loudness war.

That can't actually account for perceived loudness, which modern mastering processes do account for. The absolute amplitude of a song has always been fixed, by the technology delivering the audio. Radio, the primary medium for music discovery throughout most of our lives, has a very hard upper bound (set by both the technology and the FCC), thus a compressor/limiter is employed at the final stage before sending the audio out of the radio station to go up the tower and out over the waves. There has always been that sort of leveling going on.

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.

The main weapons in raising perceived loudness are brickwall limiters such as Waves L3 which raise RMS (root mean square) amplitude while keeping peak levels constant. I think soundcheck is based on RMS, please correct me if I'm wrong - if it were based on peak levels then as you say it would indeed be useless.

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" [1] - 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.

[1] https://www.youtube.com/watch?v=7nlzwDfxVSg

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.

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 agree with most of these points. I should have been clearer in what I meant, RMS is a measure of power and a proxy for perception - according to you, a worse proxy than I thought, so thanks for educating me on that point.

"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.

Though it also has drawbacks, especially when listening to full albums - suddenly the ambient interlude track in the middle of an album is sounding as loud as the loud tracks around it.

Can't it be set to have a single per-album volume setting?

> Hopefully iTunes support for this tech is a turning point in the loudness war.

Don't hold your breath - iTunes has had Sound Check since 2002.

Damn. But I can still hope.

Even twenty years ago when I worked in radio (89-93), the song playlist was determined 2-3 weeks in advance. The station had software that ran on a TRS-80 and I had a printout to follow every shirt.

Mainstream music, sure, but there will always be bands like The Flaming Lips, or My Bloody Valentine releasing records that are completely counter to this approach.

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).

The mainstream is fragmenting now that people can get access to music without it, per Steve Albini's recent update to "The Problem With Music": http://www.theguardian.com/music/2014/nov/17/steve-albinis-k...

Per the article, the "mainstream" is literally music for people who don't like music.

>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.

Did you read the article? Hence me saying "per the article". They specifically look for people who aren't into music to test against.

I see what you mean now. Although "don't like music" is not the same as "aren't into music". This goes back to the definition of what "real" music is. I'm fairly certain suburban moms (one of the suggested demographics in the article) will know quite a lot about radio-friendly music through their kids. In that sense they are an ideal demographic. I also don't see a problem with testing the hooks of songs against the market before making a substantial effort in promoting those songs -- that's common sense.

I started up here, and I ended up here: https://www.youtube.com/watch?v=EOAowiF3y_8

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.

This is why I enjoy listening to records that people like Alan Parsons have engineered (Dark Side of the Moon, Al Stewart's Year of the Cat, as well as his work with The Alan Parsons Project).

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.

Live mics. Live guitars, bass & drums. One take. Play loud. https://www.youtube.com/watch?v=8iaINsgFHVs&spfreload=10

Reminds me of https://www.youtube.com/watch?v=WXzFCS72QIA intro piano glitch. 4 guys in a small room, 4 track recorder, no edit.


Neil Young talks a lot about how important it was to capture early takes. The newness of the music seems to give it a different character. A lot of his recordings have a fair amount of mistakes. Young calls it "rust". Tonight's the Night is a good example of this.

Miles Davis also had the philosophy that first takes produced the most ingenuity in improvisation.

I love all the Beatles songs where you can hear the guitar amps causing the bass drum to rattle a bit. Reminds me of when I played in bands.

More recently, Greg Graffin's folk album "Cold as the Clay" was very deliberately recorded with everyone in one room. It sounds good.

Off topic but thank you for informing me that Greg Graffin made a folk album. Had no idea even though it's apparently not new at all. Just goes to show that for all the access I have to music these days it's still easy to miss something due to just not hearing about it.

Found this video


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:


Hard to pick the best nugget to use as I email this to friends, but I like this: "The Strokes recorded Is This It on an old Apple Mac in Gordon Raphael’s basement studio. But it was mastered by Greg Calbi, who also did Born To Run and Graceland."

Great essay. Really sums up modern commercially recorded music.

You think pop is homogenous, try Country:


This was referenced in earlier posts here but these are also chopped up and edited to fit.

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.

Records? What are records daddy ?

"They used to sell YouTube video soundtracks on big pieces of plastic. I have some in boxes in the attic."

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