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Don’t Blame the Format for Bad Sound, Blame the Suits

With "the loudness wars" still dominating the mastering techniques of many popular recordings, installers may want to check out these releases vinyl versions as they may feature less compression than CDs. The differences in mastering will produce a more dynamic listening experience.


The British mastering engineer Ian Shepherd made a comparison of the mastering differences on the new Red Hot Chili Peppers’ album I’m with you and found the CD produced a smaller dynamic range than the vinyl version.

Within the recording community, and to a lesser extent the audiophile community, the “loudness wars” have been a prime topic of conversation for a number of years.

Summing up these respective communities thoughts on the hyper amounts of compression prevalent on today’s popular recordings, audiophiles claim the loudness wars are robbing the public of experiencing the full potential of recorded music. Meanwhile, the recording community has tried to distance itself from the practice by saying it has no choice in how music is mixed and mastered, because it’s the record labels that are calling the shots.

A recent blog by the British mastering engineer Ian Shepherd, owner of Mastering Media, says that with the release of the latest Red Hot Chili Peppers’ (RHCP) album the music industry may be handling the format of vinyl differently than the more popular CD format.

According to Shepherd, who posted his comparative analysis of the song "Monarchy of Roses" from the RHCP’s I’m with You album using a clip from the track taken from the vinyl and CD releases as the basis of his opinion, it’s the mastering process and not the format that’s to blame for the loudness wars controversy.

Shepherd points out the Chili Peppers and their producer Rick Rubin were early loudness war offenders, and he also suggests as a conspiracy theory that perhaps the vinyl version, which was released a few months after the CD’s release, was mastered with more dynamic range to quiet critics who complained the album was too compressed.

This isn’t the first time the veteran engineer has spoken out against the practice of squashing down popular recordings. A few years ago Shepherd made waves with his criticism of Metallica’s Death Magnetic album by pointing out that the Guitar Hero version of the record actually sounded better than the CD version because it was mastered with less compression.

You may be asking, what does mastering have to do with selling and installing electronics systems? What this means is that electronics professionals may want to think about their choice of content before blindly throwing on a demonstration CD for a client. A CD that’s been mastered with a lot of compression won’t sound good on a revealing system, and that mastering will prevent someone from experiencing the thump of a kick drum or the impact of a double bass solo. Put more simply, tons of mastering compression basically defeats the entire purpose of demoing a system. Installers willing to install a turntable into their demo systems however may be able to accomplish the goal of impressing their clients with a piece of music, albeit on vinyl.

Thankfully with vinyl sales surging to 20-year highs there’s plenty of new music available to satisfy the tastes of a range of consumers, and if installers want to, they can even explain how they have the ability to integrate the best of analog and the best of today’s digital media into a single system to meet the needs of a diverse household.

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Article Topics

Blogs · Audio · Demo · Home Theater · Ian Shepherd · Loudness Wars · · All topics

About the Author

Robert Archer, Senior Editor, CE Pro
Bob is an audio enthusiast who has written about consumer electronics for various publications within Massachusetts before joining the staff of CE Pro in 2000. Bob is THX Level I certified, and he's also taken classes from the Imaging Science Foundation (ISF) and Home Acoustics Alliance (HAA). In addition, he's studied guitar and music theory at Sarrin Music Studios in Wakefield, Mass.

6 Comments (displayed in order by date/time)

Posted by Moviegeek  on  11/29  at  01:12 PM

I agree, the perfect example is Dire Straits “Brother in Arms”. I own the CD and LP, the mastering on the CD is autrocious while the LP is excellent.

Posted by Robert Archer  on  11/29  at  01:58 PM

This trend doesn’t always work out that the vinyl version is more dynamic and less compressed, but it’s certainly worth a look. I found with Rush’s Signals album that the CD was a dense recording to begin with with all of the synthesizers, multitracked guitars, bass and drums and to make it worse was massively compressed in the mastering stage. I thought the vinyl version would be more dynamic, but I was wrong, it’s just as squashed as the CD.
There is a notion that part of the reason that vinyl is generally more dynamic is that there’s only so much compression that can be done within the parameters of the format and that limits the amount of compression that can be used.

Posted by Jim  on  11/30  at  01:58 AM

Rush’s Vapor Trails is a much worse recording/mastering job unfortunately. And it’s a shame as the songs are great, but it’s very hard to listen to because of the compression and distortion.

Posted by paulcunningham  on  12/01  at  09:55 AM

Yep, same thing with Death Magnetic. I picked up the CD and it sounded so bad I thought it was defective; I listened to it on vinyl and it was identical. Crying shame as it’s their best album in 20 years.

Posted by John Nemesh  on  12/01  at  07:06 PM

Try listening to the Beatles on vinyl!  A Hard Day’s Night sounds TOTALLY different…the cowbell (insert “more cowbell” joke here) is VERY forward and discernible on vinyl…you can barely hear it on CD!  For an extra treat, try and get their mono albums…it will change your world if you are a fan of the Fab Four!

Posted by Jason Knott  on  12/02  at  09:46 AM

@John Nemesh—I recall an interview years ago with Paul McCartney asking him how he felt about The Beatles recordings being digitally remastered and re-released. He said he “hated it,” primarily because he said he “could hear every mistake they made.”

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