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Loudness Wars: Return of the Compression
on 27 October 2012
It's quite baffling how studios get away with it in this day and age, yet the persistent efforts to make their albums as loud as is iPod-inducingling possible is frustrating, short changing even.
I need not mention that Graceland is a classic album, because it helped catalyse a faux-world music genre during the 1980's and, in the process, sought to take advantage of the new CD format. As such the original album is mixed beautifully, featuring production techniques that truly test the listeners dynamic range. The end result is an album that never tires; it sounds just as fresh today as what it did years ago.
This is partly the reason why it has been given a '25th Anniversary Edition' release, in order to celebrate its continued appeal. What a massive pity then that Warner Bros. decided to, quite literally, compress the music to death in order to make the recordings louder than they originally were, and in doing so, have squashed those legendary dynamics.
When comparing this release to the original CD from 1984, the results are baffling. Percussion instruments that were once audible are now a feint (or hollow) noise in the background, while the sounds around it are just a mash with little separation. 'I Know What I Know' and 'Gumboots' are the two biggest culprits, with the guitars less prominent in the mix and more subdued, thus making the songs sound less complex. Melodically they are still obvious, but the rhythm is completely altered.
'The Boy in the Bubble' has already been mentioned by another reviewer - the very first 'tom' strike about 8 seconds into the song was almost startling on the original album release as it was so much louder than the accordion. Yet in this edition, it is quite literally the same volume as the accordion before it...
What the hell?
The truth of the matter is that studios subject older albums to this kind of treatment because customers today are perceived as wanting everything loud. Digital mastering allows more control over how loud the final product is, and in order to retain the same volume between releases, old analogue masters such as this need cranking up. Obviously we're all too lazy to just, you know, 'turn up' the volume.
I have no doubt that some will read this review as being pedantic, but comparing the '84 release to this abomination is like night and day, and only serves to demonstrate how compression alters the original creative design. It will allow you to get a feel for what Graceland entails, but please, if you do decide that the album is a keeper, then get the original release and hear for yourself just how lush the recordings are.