Brickwalling Music

As mentioned in the previous post… I thought I’d talk a bit more about the dreaded Loudness Wars™ and the brickwalling of a lot of modern music. I’m not a full-on audiophile and not a sound engineer, or any kind of expert, but I do know what I like and I have a reasonable grasp on this stuff…

The dynamic range of a piece of music (or any audio) is the difference in dBs (decibels) between the quietest sound and the loudest. It hardly need be said that a wider range of difference creates a more dynamic soundscape. Whether or not this is desirable depends on the intent. For a classical symphony, for instance, you’d definitely want a big contrast between the quieter sections and the parts that boom out dramatically… whereas with heavy metal, a big fat wall of noise is pretty much the goal. (Even then, maybe it’s possible to go too far; more on that in a bit.) But with most music, I think most people would agree that something in-between would generally work quite well.

(It’s worth mentioning that compression in sound mastering is not the same as file compression such as you get with MP3s. The latter is, as with picture files like JPEGs, a means of reducing file size by crushing the data while trying to maintain some semblance of integrity.)

Compression of sound, which can be done either in the analogue or digital domain, is a process of reducing the dynamic range of the sound. This may be because you want the sound to go across in a particular context… back in the 1950s and ’60s, a lot of 45″ singles had compressed sound—especially singles released by Motown, for instance—and one reason for it was to get nice, clear reproduction on the AM radio of the period. This process was almost never done on the albums; just the singles that were getting airplay through a medium that was anything but hi-fi quality. Being heard clearly was the objective. It was an ugly, brutal method that did not persist as FM radio prevailed and higher quality (stereo!) broadcasting became the norm.

Johnny Cash Ring of Fire Single
The 1963 single version of Johnny Cash’s “Ring of Fire” was quite compressed—in order to sound good on AM radio.

In the age of CDs, regrettably, the use of highly compressed (and EXTRMELY LOUD) audio slowly became the default approach. It started in the early ’90s, and by 2000 had more-or-less become the norm. There were a number of factors involved. One was that you could, with CD’s different/theoretically superior specs, cut sound that is much louder than you can get on analogue/vinyl; another is that as mobile listening tech became more common and digital-based—such as car CD players and Walkmans, etc—it was noted that more compressed sound (sound with a narrower gap between the quiet and loud bits) was generally heard better this way. In other words, quieter sections of a song played in a car would tend to be inaudible over the car engine—but if that quiet stuff was closer in volume to the rest of the music… you get the picture.

This principle had no value whatsoever for home listening, but what the hey!

Another thing that happened is that some bands became really enamoured with the idea of crushing audio dynamics out of their recordings. One big example would be Oasis. They loved the idea of squashing their sound so that it recreated the feel of being at a particularly noisy gig—deafeningly loud, heart-bursting bass, taking the Wall of Sound idea to its furthest extreme. This thinking actually became quite trendy.

All these factors converged to make the CD a somewhat (IMO) debased medium. Few mainstream artists failed to hop onto this bandwagon. Some took longer than others. While, for instance, David Bowie went full-on LOUD in 1995 with his Outside album, it wasn’t until 1997’s Earthling that he was entirely on-board with crushing the life out of his albums. And for David, there was sadly no turning back. Paul McCartney’s 1997 album, the honestly excellent Flaming Pie, and his 1999 album Run Devil Run, are both quite LOUD, but it wasn’t until 2001’s Driving Rain that he fully embraced the Dark Side.

Flaming Pie
Paul McCartney’s 1997 album, FLAMING PIE, was pretty damn good. It was also pretty damn loud… but not a brickwall.

Others have completely rejected this trend, but they are few in numbers. Kate Bush, stubborn individualist that she is, fleetingly allowed someone else to handle a reissue of Hounds of Love in 1997. The result, typical of its period, was pretty loud and crushed. Since then, all remsaters of her work have been supervised by the lady herself, and retain every ounce of the dynamic range of the original vinyl issues; and her new albums, few as they are, continue to exhibit the same healthy dynamics.

I’d like to illustrate this with some visuals, but first I will point out that ultra-compressed and brickwalled are two different things. Compression, as I said, simply reduces the dynamic range; ultra-compressed would be where the dynamic range is severely reduced, which applies to a hell of a lot of modern mastering. Brickwalled is where not only is the sound ultra-compressed, but it also hits and squashes against the wall of the maximum volume possible. In other words, you can have a track that is ultra-compressed but not necessarily ultra-loud. Brickwalling is when a track is both of those things.

The absolute best example of brickwalling, I think, would be Iggy Pop’s 1997 remaster of 1973’s Raw Power. David Bowie produced the original; Iggy was never happy with the result. When someone foolishly let him loose on the mixing deck, he basically turned everything up to 11 and the result was… um, fucking ridiculous.

Iggy-Raw Power-Search-1997
“Search and Destroy” from RAW POWER (1973)—1997 remaster.

Believe it or not, the above is an actual sound waveform, of track 1 of Raw Power, “Search and Destroy”, as remastered under the Iggster’s supervision in 1997. It absolutely defines brickwalling. It’s as loud as it can possibly be and there isn’t an ounce of breathing-space or dynamics in it. It sounds like it’s emanating from the fiery pits of Hell itself. The dynamic range is 1dB. Now this…

Iggy-Raw Power-Search-2010
“Search and Destroy” from RAW POWER (1973)—2010 remaster of original Bowie mix.

…is the exact same track from a 2010 remaster of David Bowie’s version of the album. The dynamic range is 8dB. This is not a high number, but for a noisy track like this, about appropriate. Compare the two and you have a textbook example of what is and isn’t brickwalling.

It’s worth noting, too, lest you think otherwise, that ultra-compression and brickwalling isn’t limited to CDs. While it is not possible to push this envelope as hard on vinyl, as far as streaming music and HD downloads go, the issue is pretty much identical to CDs.

I’ll post some more waveform examples in the next post, but for now I hope this was at least somewhat interesting!

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