A little while back, Pitchfork posted an article written by Jordan Kisner about the “dark art” of mastering music. Unusually, the article lead with a brief overview of what went wrong with the production of Death Magnetic, or rather, what fans perceived had gone wrong. This is unusual because when most conventional outlets talk about mastering, the first rule of the Loudness War is you don’t talk about the Loudness War. Unfortunately, that’s where the positives generally end.

After a cursory explanation of what mastering is, the article gets to this gem:

The mastering engineers I spoke to for this story kept using the same phrase when describing their job: “to make the song competitive in the marketplace.” That is, making the music sound better in audio quality—clearer, louder, more vibrant—than anything else out there. Traditionally, the “marketplace” has been radio, where a well-mastered song hits that sweet spot where you feel immersed in the music but not battered by it. If your song is poorly mastered, the logic goes, people won’t want to buy your album. Worse yet, they might switch stations. And now, the marketplace also includes online streaming, which has raised the popularity of listening to music on headphones or portable devices with lousy speakers—platforms that require their own kind of mastering.

I’m sure that they all told Jordan that their job was making their music “competitive,” and that part is certainly true, but he seems to have missed what “competitive” actually means. “Better” in audio quality has absolutely nothing to do with it. Better is irrelevant. A solid majority of mastering engineers aren’t particularly concerned about fidelity whatsoever. “Competitive” means loud. If your album is quieter than your peers, it’s not competitive. The idea is that if a song is on a playlist with a bunch of other artists, and it’s the loudest, it will grab your attention and make you more interested in that particular artist. Here’s the problem though, everyone knows that trick, and everyone does it. So all of the songs on the playlist are equally loud, and nothing stands out. This is even more true if you happen to use Sound Check or ReplayGain when you listen to music.

The situation is very analogous to the wall of TVs that you’ll see in a typical big box electronics store. Sony, Panasonic, Samsung, LG, etc all have the idea that if their TVs look brighter and more colorful on that wall, they’ll stand out from the pack and thus will be more likely to sell. That might work, except all of the companies know that trick, and they all do it. So all of the TVs on the wall end up with the same eye searing brightness and massively oversaturated, cartoon colors, and none of them stand out. There is one major difference though – when you get the TV home, you can turn off the horrible looking “store display” mode, and switch the TV into a picture mode that’s reasonably accurate. With music, you don’t have that choice. You’re stuck with whatever choices the mastering engineer decided to make.

What’s more, the article implies that Death Magnetic is some sort of horrific outlier, when in reality, hyper loud production to even that insane degree (or beyond) is fairly run of the mill. Metallica fans were just passionate enough about it to complain. Most of the tracks on the new Perturbator album clock in at DR1. Yes, you read that correctly. DR ONE. That’s much louder than Death Magnetic ever got. The new Garbage album Strange Little Birds averages DR4, and yes, that includes the 24/96 HD version. Don’t you just love high-definition audio? The new Exmortus album? DR4. Radiohead was ever so slightly better at DR5. And these are just a few examples from this year. None of the mastering engineers who worked on those put any kind of priority on “better” sound. Volume was the order of the day, loud and proud.

Related Pages:

Everybody Was Pono Fighting

Measuring Dynamic Range

I should also note that portable audio devices and earbuds were not invented in 2008 to coincide with the launch of Spotify, and no, they don’t need special mastering. I started my metal fandom with a Sony Discman and a $10 pair of headphones at a point when albums like Hammer Smashed Face were DR11. That was totally totally normal, and I had absolutely no problem listening to them. No one thought, “Oh I bet most people are likely to be listening to crappy headphones or CD boomboxes, we better master this at DR3!” The delivery format may have changed from CD to digital files and streaming, but the quality of the equipment that most people have is no different today than it was twenty years ago prior to the start of the war. In fact, if you can spare just a few bucks, you can get much better sounding equipment now than you could in the ’90s or even the early ’00s. The idea that cheap audio products “need” smashed mastering is and has always been a complete and utter fallacy in order to cover up the real reasons of ignorance and label politics.

Another common excuse is that modern albums have to be loud in order to compete with noisy listening environments, and this also doesn’t hold up in reality, as our friend Ian Shepherd has demonstrated.

The true shame in all of this is that once upon a time, the zeitgeist of mastering was all about quality and fidelity. When there wasn’t enormous pressure to have the loudest album on the block, you could actually focus on things like the impact of the kick, the reverb and decay of the toms, the weight of the guitars, and the sparkle and shimmer of the cymbals. When bands like Be’lakor release versions of their albums with full dynamics intact, you get a glimpse of how good all music could be, if only we could finally end this madness.