Mastering Is Everything

In earlier rants I said that vinyl is rubbish and that hi res is pointless.

If that’s true, how come vinyl often sounds better than digital, and hi res often sounds better than normal res digital?  The answer lies not in the format, but in the mastering.  Good mastering is much more important than format for sound quality.

Loudness has been a concern for record companies for decades.  Loud music leaps out of the radio (or jukebox) and, so the record companies believe, makes us much more likely to go out and buy it.  It follows that record companies have tried to make their releases as loud as possible; play an early 45, and you’ll often find it’s been cut “hot”.  In other words it’s been mastered as loud as possible, right on the edge of (and sometimes beyond) what the format can cope with.  Fast forward to the digital era and making music loud became much more sophisticated.  It was no longer enough just to crank the volume up as high as possible – digital processing started to be used which reduced the volume of the peaks in volume in order to create space to make everything else louder.  The technique is called compression (or brick-walling for people who don’t like it).  Listen to a compressed recording and it does sound very loud, but it’s also tiring and lacks depth and musicality.  That’s because it has a lower dynamic range – because everything is now loud, there’s not enough difference between the quiet bits and the loud bits.  The most compressed album I own is the Arctic Monkey’s debut – I find it entirely unlistenable, but most CDs released in the last decade or so suffer from it.

Vinyl is much less of a problem because there’s no no point brickwalling vinyl.  Radio stations don’t play vinyl and I don’t remember the last time I saw a vinyl jukebox.  In any case, so few people buy vinyl, it just doesn’t matter to the industry anyway.   This applies to new vinyl, but also if you compare old vinyl to recent CD issues of the same material.

CDs are a moving target – generally the more recent the pressing, the more compressed it will be.  Remastering usually means much more compression.  That means if you want a decent sounding CD copy of an album, it’s usually better to find a very old one.  In the 1980s CDs were usually a straight transfer of the master tape with no compression at all.  Now CDs are mostly worthless, it’s a good time to scour second hand shops for old CD pressings of your favourite music.   If you want a decent digital copy of something more recent, ripping a vinyl copy may well be the way to go.

I’ve also slated high res as being pointless, but like vinyl, it often sounds better.  Again, it’s because of mastering.  Hi-res music is sold in tiny volumes to people who are interested in sound quality.  That means care is more likely to have been taken over the mastering, and in any case brick-walling is pointless because hi-res never gets played on the radio.  So that means a hi-res file may sound better, not because it’s hi-res, but because it’s been mastered more competently.  However, there are exceptions to this – some commercially available hi-res material has been upsampled from “normal” res sources, which is of course a total rip-off, and should be illegal.

All of this means that a lot of music is simply unavailable in decent sound quality.

There’s a useful database of the loudness of many releases here:  You can use it to avoid the real horror stories.

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