Moby: Sound of Mind

The loudness wars are over. The valiant but hopelessly outnumbered forces that stood against squashing the dynamics and life out of recordings, all in the name of almighty loudness, have been vanquished. Scattered across the smoking battlefield are the lifeless bodies of thousands of disappointed listeners, many so young they will never now know what it's like to hear a natural, uncompressed recording.

Moby, a wily survivor, has come to terms with the victorious barbarian hordes.

"Subjectively, I don't listen to anything that has been mastered in the last 10 years. And I don't criticize the mastering engineers—they are just being told what to do by the producers, who are trying to make the record companies happy and trying to make things that will get played on the radio.

"I understand why they do it, because every musician has had that experience where you make a record, you mix it, you master it—and then you play it up against someone else's record, and their record just sounds so much louder and more dynamic, and you become sort of envious. And so then it's this escalating process where the next time you make a record, maybe you, like, put a few more things on the master bus in Pro Tools—some more limiting, so you get some more gain. Then, when you master, you have the conversation with the mastering engineer, where you say to them, 'Okay, I don't want to have an overly compressed, overly loud record.' But then, when they master it in a way that's not overly compressed or overly loud, you get scared and go back to them and see if you can find a happy medium—which escalates this process of louder and louder and louder."

It's hard to find a single rock album of the past decade that was not recorded and mastered too loud. The loudness apocalypse fits into the questioning, mournful world portrayed in Everything Was Beautiful, and Nothing Hurt, the latest record from this onetime punk-rock musician and star of electronic music. I knew that Moby, aka Richard Melville Hall (allegedly, a distant relative of novelist Herman Melville), who has built his career on sounds in service of a sound, would be that rare musician who could speak intelligently on the subject of sound. "It's been great. It's so rare that I get to get down in the weeds on the subject of sound," he said later as we wrapped up our phone call.


So aren't the musicians making the music, recording albums with their names on the cover, ultimately responsible for not demanding their records sound better? Aren't they the only sure antidote to the plague of squashed flat LOUD records?

"It's funny, because musicians will always give lip service to great-sounding records, but then they don't avail themselves of that technology or that approach. You'll have some rock guy in 2018 talking about Led Zeppelin, but then you go back and listen to Led Zeppelin IV and there's so much space. Even the loud songs aren't that loud. There is so much dynamic range and nuance.

"Unfortunately, the first thing you lose when you start mixing and mastering incredibly loud is space. Any natural reverb, any other reverb—it's just gone. I'd much rather listen to John Coltrane or Roberta Flack and hear a quiet recording, beautifully mixed, tastefully mastered, that has actual space in it.

"It used to be really challenging to make an incredibly loud recording. There were physical limitations. Vinyl couldn't do it, or else the needle would pop out of the groove. I remember mastering to vinyl in the early '90s, and we mastered something way too loud, and every time you tried to play it, the kick drum would knock the needle out of the groove. So, by definition, it had to be quieter. In ye olden days of mixing on mixing desks, you had to have very sophisticated outboard gear—limiters and compressors—and know exactly how to use them to mix in a way that would be really loud. The same thing was true for the mastering engineers. And now it's a plug-in.

"I remember talking about this with Ted Jensen." (Jensen was the mastering engineer for several Moby albums.) "He'd been given an album, and he said to me, 'There's nothing I can do with it. They've handed me the loudest recording I've ever heard, and I can't add even 1dB of high end to it, 'cause there just ain't room for it.'

"All of this is my super-long-winded way of saying I do my best to stay on the quiet side, because every single piece of music that I love was mastered fairly quietly, whether that's Crosby, Stills, Nash & Young, or even old hip-hop and punk rock. Go listen to the first Clash album, and it's mastered the way you would master a Creedence Clearwater Revival album."

But hold on—Moby has made a lot of dance records, long single tracks often filled with repetition and overwhelming rhythms, that are meant to be played in dance clubs, environments known more for volume than for dynamic range. So he has deliberately made bad-sounding records?


"When I mix and master, I ask myself one question: Where is the music going to be played and heard? When I make an album, I mix it and master it in a way so it can be listened to at home. And that means letting it be on the quieter side.

"If I do a remix that I want someone to play in a nightclub, sadly, I know that it has to be as loud and limited and compressed as everything else being played in the nightclub, or the deejay . . . it's not that they won't play it, they actually can't. When you're a deejay and you play 12 records that are the loudest things you've ever heard, and then you try and play something that's not loud, the audience loses interest. They've become so accustomed to a certain level of volume and compression that if you play something that doesn't do that, it just doesn't work. I do occasionally mix and master really loud, but only if it's a remix, not something that I would want someone to listen to at home."

Of his 15 albums, which ones still sound best to their maker?

"I don't think any of them are very good-sounding, to be honest with you, but it might be the albums Wait for Me [2009] or Destroyed [2011], because I mixed both of those in New York, on a Neve desk that had been taken from Abbey Road [Studios]. Ken Thomas, who mixed Sigur Rós and a bunch of things, helped me mix them. By many people's standard they are not great-sounding records because they're not that loud, and they have flaws and noise, but to me there's an organic quality that I really like.


dalethorn's picture

This article rings loud and true today, given our push for more excesses disguised as personal and collective freedoms. Musically speaking, I think of the Disco days, when the music was beginning to mature and creative souls discovered their own place in the genre. Then it came to an astonishingly quick end - dance venues closed everywhere, radio play switched to other genres - just gone. And it wasn't until 20 or so years later that I stumbled across an explanation that I felt was very revealing: Liner notes to a Rhino Records Disco compilation stated "It was basically shut down because the entertainment industry felt that Disco was being taken over disproportionately by Gays, Blacks, and Women" (quote approximate).

While that might sound different than the Loudness issues, it isn't so different. "They" - the gods of the music industry - just don't like good sound. They don't like it because they don't like the people who make it, they don't like audiophiles, and they don't like criticism that gets in the way of their business.

I ran into this sort of thing when I first explored working in an audio store. They (many They's actually) told me that they didn't want audiophiles as salespeople, because audiophiles would chat too much with the customers rather than closing sales.

crenca's picture

...and this whole time I thought it was a Marxist (left wing) plot. Oh well, it had to be one or the other ;)

dalethorn's picture

I don't have any idea what the hell you're talking about. Money talks, unless you know of some special brand of currency that overrules ordinary money.

Indydan's picture

Dale. I thought posts about politics and social issues (sexual orientation, race, etc.) were not allowed on Stereophile.

dalethorn's picture

Indydan (your fake name) - you're .... mistaken!

crenca's picture

Interesting as I have not read a modern Electronica/IDM/fill_in_the_blank speak to this, but he does not say anything that we have not already heard before about the pressures, the fact that most artists are not really interested in good sound, etc.

tonykaz's picture

all those Cars on the expressways are "everyday" people's "High-End" listening rooms, they're noisy, probably 70db ambient with the windows up, much louder with the windows down. Lady GaGa's Telephone Song has got to be LOUD, for gods sake, why wasn't there an Audiophile version released ?, that's the question, isn't it?

I can get a Reference Recording/Doug MacLeod that's pretty much loaded with Dynamic Bursts.

I purchase/collect my music for Sonic Qualities , if something sounds not-so-good it doesn't get played. ( like Fusion Jazz )

Sometimes, music is so dam well performed that it's magnetically addictive even though I wouldn't normally want to listen to that sort of thing : ( Ballake Sissoko & Vincent Segal Chamber Music )

In summary, it's the noisy Cars needing noisy music. I can't blame the music producers trying to satisfy a need, can I or we ?

My Company makes Cars, Mea-Copa.

On the other hand, we Audiophiles collect beautiful music, it's rare and we cherish it, we search it out, we pay generous amounts for it, we spend our money on gear able to play it beautifully.

We are Audiophiles & Stereophiles

We love our beautiful music

Tony in Michigan

fetuso's picture

Radio stations have their own DR compressors and don't need any studio help for loudness.

dce22's picture

This nonsense that you need your record to be loud so it stand out on the radio is just that nonsense, the more dynamic record gonna sounds louder when it goes thru the broadcasting processor.

These procesors are sophisticated loudness making machines, the new ones even have unmastering process then to remaster it again according to the radio program director taste.

Examples are from 20 years old optimod on medium-rock setting

This is a example of dynamic 80 rock the same processor little more juice


crenca's picture

"Lady GaGa's Telephone Song has got to be LOUD, for gods sake, why wasn't there an Audiophile version released ?, that's the question, isn't it?"

I assume the reason is because studios are either unaware of the demand for a differently mastered "audiophile" release, or don't think there is enough demand to $justify$ it.

Yet, they are willing to at least batch process several thousand albums for Tidal to give us MQA. Nobody believes that these batched processed albums took anywhere near the time and money an actual second "audiophile" release of an album would, but still they are at least aware of the audiophile (i.e. the demand).

So why not a second audiophile mastering/release? Why the willingness to go through the motion with a trivial SQ tweak like MQA instead of giving us something we can all actually use and would pay good money for like a decently mastered 16/44? What is MQA giving them that an Audiophile release does not? DRM & IP protected format safety? Yes, but is that all there is to it? Did they really buy into the sales job of Bob S and company about a reformation, a literal revolution of the entire recording/mastering/delivery/consumer chain? Possibly as publications such as this one did (though they are now pulling back) but one would think the labels are little more experienced and wiser.

In the end, I wonder how much real Audiophile interest there is in Lady Gaga and Moby. As is typical, I am mostly interested in classical and jazz, though I have made some purchases of the better sounding Electronica. Those who listen and purchase this music are overwhelmingly in the car, or on the dance floor. I suspect the answer to your very good question is that the demand is simply not there.

NeilS's picture

I don't know anything about the economics of multiple audiophile mastering/releases of new material, or whether or not more dynamic masters of albums originally released during the Loudness Wars exist (I hope so but kind of suspect not, perhaps for similar reasons that films aren't generally shot in more than one version).

But it does seem much more likely to me that in their vaults the labels still have the old masters (pun intended) - music released on CD during the 1980s and early 1990s that typically had a much wider dynamic range. Much of this music has been subsequently remastered and reissued during the Loudness Wars. To me the remasters generally sound like travesties of the originals, like remastering the frescos in the Sistine Chapel with Day-Glo so they can be seen easier in dim light.

Could it be that sooner or later the labels will again find a way to try to monetize their back catalog, perhaps this time as an MQA-free Original Masters streaming option targeted to the micromarket of audiophiles and which could command a premium price?

Perhaps not too long from now in practical terms it could well be the only way for such people who aren't lucky enough to have the old CDs to hear how music sounded before the Loudness Wars - classic albums like Brothers In Arms, Thriller, Jimi Hendrix Plays Monterey, Workingman's Dead, Back In Black, Bitches Brew, Exile on Main Street, It's Too Late To Stop Now, Stop Making Sense, Traveling Wilburys, Vol.1 etc.

Ladyfingers's picture

Not on your latest album, Moby, you hypocrite. DR6 is utterly brickwalled.

Joe8423's picture

Why not master it a few different ways? I would think it could have the potential to boost physical media sales if when you bought an album you got a few different sounding versions of it. Have a default version that is intended to maximize sales but add in a flat/minimally processed version for people who prefer that. There is so much space on a blu ray, there's no reason to be limited to an hour or two of content.

georgehifi's picture

No it's not, my 22year old son, can hear the difference, and now is a anti compression advocate.

All you have to keep saying is,
"No natural sounds in life are compressed, so why do it to our music"???

Cheers George