Staff Top 10
Top Ten Worst Sounding Records, 1997-Present

By: Nick Southall

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Posted 11/20/2006 - 07:37:25 AM by meatbreak:
 This is pretty interesting. Like you say, I don't agree with some of your interpretations of the albums and what they are trying to achiece, but for sound analysis, you've opened up a nice topic of discussion well. Wasn't there a Soulseeking feature on a similar things a few months back where someone was bemoaning the loudness that all modern records are recorded at. That was a good read too. Some who cares should link it up to this.
Posted 11/20/2006 - 08:40:10 AM by raskolnikov:
 Now this is a much better article than Southie's earlier moanings about the rise over-compression and hyper-loud mastering levels in the last few years. Most bands really do not know how to make a record sound good after they've laid down their tracks, and oftentimes the bigger the band the worse their sound is on disc. With that said, I must take issue with the inclusion of Radiohead's Kid A album on this list. I'm not a fan of their music at all really, but their records are fairly unique among pop acts in that they are actually interesting sonically. Kid A in particular is a great sounding release, rewarding the dunderheads who worship this band with a truly compelling sonic landscape. One of the beautiful things about mixing is the control it allows the individual to process and reshape existing information, and Radiohead's mixes are excellent--they are three-dimensional, churning, shifting, and challenging. Their ambition in the studio alone should disqualify them from this list, as they spend a lot more time than most bands thinking about sound. Cholos like Oasis and Bloc Party are clueless thickheads in comparison to Radiohead, and they are entirely deserving of inclusion on this list. Any original compact disc issue of music recorded before 1990 should also be added to this list, as those discs are unlistenable, flat, and poorly mastered.
Posted 11/20/2006 - 09:35:16 AM by DrSardonicus:
 Thanks for this - any attempt to stem the tide of overmodulated digital recording and mastering is welcome. Whoever started the "conventional wisdom" that digitally-clipped, dynamics-free sound is helpful to get your song on the radio (where, oh, by the way, it will get horribly compressed *again*), or peoples' iPods (where, among other things, mindless compression yields hearing loss), needs to be pilloried. The weird thing is that even people with generally reliable taste (as opposed to Oasis) have fallen prey to this trend: Elvis Costello's When I was Cruel is a great set of songs, but is earsplittingly unlistenable. Neil Young's Living With War features all the feedback and grunge of his best recordings, with none of the dynamics that make that sound powerful. Play Los Lobos' Kiko (1992), then Good Morning Aztlan (2002) - same basic approach and arguably an even better set of songs, ruined by redline production and mastering. And it would have been ballsy to include the last couple of U2 albums here: Eno/Flood/Lanois are as guilty as anybody for starting this trend.
Posted 11/20/2006 - 10:00:01 AM by truk2112:
 "You do the best you can, you fight technology in all kinds of ways, but I don't know anybody who's made a record that sounds decent in the past 20 years, really." - Bob Dylan
Posted 11/20/2006 - 10:09:45 AM by :
 rask, don't you think Kid A sounds kind of like all the instruments were fed through guitar amps, though? like justin timberlake's voice was in Sexy Back. that weird distortion and the way the entire dynamic range is pushed up into a one-dimensional foreground. i don't think Kid A sounds horrible (i think the songs suck and thom yorke's voice is awful), but i can hear the "electronic music for guitar fans" idea. i hate that idea. didn't Guthrie remaster most of the CT albums recently because of the whole "early compact discs sucked" thing?
Posted 11/20/2006 - 10:57:54 AM by meatbreak:
 What's so wrong with feeding electronics through guitar amps? It always seems to produce an added depth of tone for me - what do you hear? Can't really make them sound any more sterile can it? I tell you, my Roland R8 drum machine through my 200W Fender Bassman bass amp can't make a much better sound in my opinion. that's classic equipment kids. I agree with Rask on this one completely (except it being a better article than previous....I'm not so sure of that).
Posted 11/20/2006 - 11:04:21 AM by :
 hmmm. nothing wrong with it, just produces certain results. if you like the bassman amp, try a fender twin reverb. i want every vox guitar amp that was ever made, for the same reasons, to run all my equipment through. i also want an analog emulator and a tape echo that works more reliably. i think the issue is that because the frequency range guitar amps are supposed to best pick up is very different from, say, that of a digital synth, digital synths are going to distort oddly when run through a guitar amp. at least mine does. sometimes it sounds good, sometimes it doesn't. isn't johnny greenwood all about analog equipment or am i mistaken?
Posted 11/20/2006 - 11:08:40 AM by meatbreak:
 No, he's not. All hail the kaos pad! But yeah, you're right about frequency range of synths being higher - that is one thing electronics do better which you need digital equipment to achieve. But steering this back to the article, it doesn't mean that they need to be cranked up and badly eq'd so they bleed over and smother everything else- or give off some weird resonance. Incidentally, has anyone listened to Kid A on very good headphones and heard them all making sheep noises in the background? Made me smile anyway.
Posted 11/20/2006 - 11:11:42 AM by lambey:
 I have enjoyed readin Nick's comments on the loudness of records, and enjoyed this article as well. I can't remember if you've done this, I know you've mentioned The Drift before, but it would be good to have a top 10 or 20 of great sounding records. That would be lovely, if just before Christmas.
Posted 11/20/2006 - 11:20:30 AM by NickSouthall:
 Rest assured that the counterpart top ten to this article is just having Is dotted and Ts crossed. I'm unsure with scheduling at the moment but it could well be up before the week is out. Is The Drift in there? That'd be telling.
Posted 11/20/2006 - 11:23:43 AM by meatbreak:
 You better have Hvis Lysett Tar Oss in there Nick, that is one lush, icy album!
Posted 11/20/2006 - 11:24:59 AM by sovietpanda:
 I take issue with the inclusion of the Arcade Fire and Phoenix records. Yes, if you plug "Power Out" into Garage Band it'll be flat the whole way through, but the rest of the record is not like that. And the "unrealistic" sound of the Phoenix record is part of what makes it so interesting to me and helps set it apart as their best work yet. Alphabetical seemed to rely entirely on the r&b; production you spoke of to sound interesting.
Posted 11/20/2006 - 11:44:02 AM by :
 I would also be interested in Nick's take on the top whichever "best remastered albums." I think that would say a lot about his ear and his subjects and there would be a lot of interesting disagreement to be had about it.
Posted 11/20/2006 - 12:12:08 PM by oliverpattison:
 I'll first address Bob Dylan being a negative old bastard: he obviously hasn't heard anything put out by Constellation Records (nor would he care to, surely), which is one example of a label which tends to have art-minded, dynamic music. They simply don't over-power their music with bad mastering and I am pretty sure they even use separate masters for their vinyl vs. CD. Their noisy music is even remarkably "quiet" in waveform analysis. If you look at Fly Pan Am's very noisy "N'Ecoutez Pas" album (sorry, don't mean to pick a relatively obscure example), it actually doesn't get anywhere near those clipping peaks. The same is true of other albums and artists on the same label. I agree with sovietpanda's assessment of the Arcade Fire's album. I took the opportunity to look up some of the dB dynamic values of the tracks and while there are some obviously maxed-out tracks, there is nothing nearly as bad as, say "Luno" from Bloc Party's album. Quite a few of the tracks don't even nearly peak. Look at "Crown of Love" or "In the Backseat." I am not saying that the album is as quiet as it should be, but I feel putting the Arcade Fire's Funeral as the third-worst-sounding album of the past decade or so seems almost reactionary toward the wide popularity. It's as if you are sacrificing the sacred cow to bring more attention to your valid concerns. I am suggesting that Funeral is of course "bad" in a sense, but it's nowhere near the worst. I'm also not sure about Kid A, because I think it sounds fantastic under most circumstances. It's not a soft or malleable sound, but it's very rich, and along with Amnesiac, a lot better-sounding than what came before or after it. Don't get me wrong, Nick Southall, I am very sympathetic to your new-found semi-audiophilia and I have recently become aware of the same issues that you have pointed out in your previous articles. However, there is a larger story, because some of the dynamically great albums which are not compressed and boosted are brilliant when you are listening on a decent stereo system with good headphones or speakers, are absolutely terrible-sounding or impractical in a car or, yes, on an mp3 player on a train. The reality is that there needs to be a middle ground between the often unlistenable excesses of a lot of current pop and rock music and the softness of well-mastered records that only sound right under good listening circumstances. My solution is that with the advent of higher-quality audio on larger-capacity hard media formats, there can be loud and soft remasters of the same album on one format. Much like Super Audio CDs have two layers of information, one could have a "car-mix" which is much less dynamic but fuller and then a "listening-mix" of the same album for something less artificial-sounding. While I realize that Bloc Party's album is overboosted and messy to the point of occasional unpleasantness, I would rather bring it with me in the car ahead of half of my collection simply for the fact that it won't get drowned out by road noise and I can count on it being dynamically even. I wish I had the kind of noise-free car or sound system that would allow me to listen to Ornette Coleman or My Bloody Valentine and not miss all the nuance and detail, but I don't. I am almost thankful for some albums being non-dynamic, even if it means I will almost never give them a close listen on headphones when I am at home.
Posted 11/20/2006 - 12:13:28 PM by oliverpattison:
 Sorry about the lack of paragraph breaks -- I suppose those didn't translate in from the text box.
Posted 11/20/2006 - 12:30:19 PM by :
 In case anyone is gearheaded enough to care, this was the original the technical justification that I've read for making extremely "hot" or compressed recordings, which seems here to be something that started pre-digital age:

With tape recorders, further limitations are determined by the characteristics of the recording tape. Random irregularities in the size and distribution of the magnetic particles on a tape are audible as a continuous noise in the background of a recording. This noise, called tape hiss, combines with low-level noise caused by interference or randomly straying electrons in the circuits of the machine. Any recorded signal must be significantly greater in level than this combined background noise, called the noise floor, if the recording is to be of good quality. If the record level is set too low, then the signal most likely will require amplification during playback so that it can be heard at a suitable level. This, of course, will also amplify the tape hiss and other background noises. Care must be taken, then, to avoid "underrecording" the signal; it should be recorded at as high a level (as "hot") as possible.

Posted 11/20/2006 - 01:33:44 PM by Richie_A:
 I'd be pretty sure that Kid A was deliberately mixed to sound cold and slightly inhuman.. I think it complements the mood of the music, it's a little uncomfortable in places to listen to but I don't think it sounds "bad" as such. I would've thrown Morrisey's 'You Are The Quarry' album and Low's 'The Great Destroyer' into this list as a pretty good example of a decent set of songs damaged by a nasty over-processed production. I'd be interested in knowing how much of this stuff the bands themselves are actually aware of, (and possibly approve of) and how much of it comes from record company instructions to the producers or mastering people... you'd imagine the musicians themselves would have to be the most acutely aware of the specifics of how their own recording sounds.
Posted 11/20/2006 - 02:34:52 PM by Utica5:
 gonna take another crack at kidA defense, first by saying that i think it was a landmark record specifically in it's production (mainstreaming beeps and clicks for literally millions of rock fans); and second, saying that the album is mixed "to sound cold and inhuman" is a loaded criticism. people who don't like kidA say this to sound judicious and to preclude the possibility of anyone telling them that they're wrong, because they can always say: "i just don't like things that are cold and inhuman." further, this complaint ignores the spectacular warmth, depth, and texture of every freaking song on the record..... opinions about production(s) are almost always formed after one has judged the record ("i just KNEW i didn't like arcade fire, and now i have objective complaints to back it up"); given that, they are almost always formed specifically to justify a predetermined taste judgement. i can't imagine otherwise thinking that you could legitimately fault a record for lacking "extreme synaesthetic detail."
Posted 11/20/2006 - 02:39:13 PM by motelmoka:
 Good list. I've always found most of this records to be good if it wasn't for the flat or overdubbed recording. I'd add Broken social scene's self titled too. It has some great songs but the production doesn't help much. Some people I play Paavoharju to also complain about the messy recording but in that case I think the tape-recorded quality is extremely important for setting the mood to the kind of music. I wont argue about kid a's inclusion though. You're using it to provoke readers and to get more comments on the article. That's very pathetic. Shame on you.
Posted 11/20/2006 - 03:24:02 PM by :
 the best produced track of all time is Missy Elliot's "Pass that Dutch" (extended version), imo. including the spoken-word intro haha. *ducks* *runs*
Posted 11/20/2006 - 04:01:41 PM by markrushton:
 I would enjoy reading an analysis of good albums over the past 10 years that do not beat the listener to a sonic pulp with redline mastering. To make it more difficult, don't allow any acoustic or singer/songwriter type artists because they're less likely to go to Eleven.
Posted 11/20/2006 - 05:00:45 PM by skuter666:
 I used to work for a radio station where the chief engineer used to rail and rant mightily on a daily basis about the compression being used on current recordings. After the playlist cd tracks were converted to mp3 style format and stored on the Audio Vault hard drive, then run through whatever processing and compressing as broadcast signal, the end product was nigh unto unlistenable (content aside). So, Nick, have you discussed what happens when you take these ubercompressed/clipped things and turn them mp3, or did I miss that? I gotta figure it’s shite raised to the turd power, at the very least. Another aspect is those of us with older ears. I’m pushing up on 50 and my hearing has changed radically in the last half decade. My ability to discern discrete sound elements is reduced, my hearing is more easily “confused” and especially with compressed music – where everything sounds wall-of-sound, if not wall-of-noise. I find myself actively seeking out music that’s got more space and less clutter.
Posted 11/21/2006 - 12:44:17 AM by :
 Salient object raised Skuter. The ears themselves, forego certain modal tensions based on the indiscretions of noise, whether compressed or stereo-strobed left-right in panoramic divisions to forcibly unvulgarise mono`s projectile echo inducing wave spectrums. But this article`s concerns attributised, we really haven`t found the right subsidy to bequeath `noise` it`s rightful heritage due the equaliser boomboxian amalgamation of Sony-Samsung`s post-82 hi-freq voom-distortion research to the anvil`s quiver-response in aural touchevity. Many of the recordings pleiocated in Nick`s article are simply ear-reductionist per unit (depends whether you`re talking Lahms or VO`s) of vacuum sonarity. Skuter identified that deficiency in the article though I`d just like to quantify his/her referral to the sense of compression-confusion s/he uglifies the calcified response above with. For example, taking Kid A which seems to have received the most dramatic of measured symphonic indelight in the certifiable ears of Stylus commenters can be stated to have a 23% tol-B delta refusion index based on its bit-processing antiquavering rate, which as most Ok Computer heads will have mentally adjusted to, is the highest `dry` (think wine, move away from those `cold` and `hard` adjectives guys) conessing rate per demigonde of Blauser Sonix. Astute observers pay attention here: One pequant equals a sub-waver defined in albastic (intuited `sound`) cornology, thus, Kid A`s Blauser reading would simplify Nick`s subjective selection of descriptive grammar to that which Skuter quandarises.
Posted 11/21/2006 - 02:54:59 AM by :
 Right again. "Dry" really is the operative word with Kid A. It has a full dynamic range (from what I remember, I haven't heard this since I was in my little brother's car), but it is pushed up to the surface of its own abstraction not just by compression, but by a lack of saturation and I could use a little more reverb on the low-end, thanks. The treble is metallic, tinny (an accusation oft hurled at Martin Hannett, my dreamboy, w/r/t Joy Division and how his hamfisted artistic presence mediated the "authenticity" of their ruggedness, which completely misses his point) which could work, except that when you don't automate some moisture into laptop rock in your software there there's no resonance to the tones and the edges of the digitally recorded instruments/vox start making snake noises at you, especially vocals with consonants and bad guitar noodling.

Dryness alone can cause ear fatigue, especially on superhifi headphones, which in turn, alone, could make you so deliriously ear-tired no matter what you're listening to that within a few hours you'd start thinking Yanni sounds like Boris Police Band. I know I hate throbbing treble, and that CT remaster is really big on it. Ever been to a party where someone's iPod djing, and you want to die, then you see they're using the "dance" or "rock" preset in the EQ? There are lots way to produce a bad-sounding record, and lots of ways to tire your ears. Sometimes it's important to look beyond just compression to find what's really making you want to seize in agony and protest.

Posted 11/21/2006 - 03:14:42 AM by ESTEBAN_BUTTEZ:
Posted 11/21/2006 - 05:45:13 AM by :
 Consider the chronology here The-Jessgraves. Whether or not we're dithering with the Phillips logo per BASF filtering or counterperceiving German radiogram achievements circa the Quadraphonic era, to why ask which song is soundwise notice-proof from where in the room you sit between speakers, a lateral leap in affected listening adjustment is that gap in recorded measures, and aside - illustrates Zeno's Paradox remarkably well in asking how does sound reach the ears by dint of waves collision polygon modelling - your Missy Elliot suggestion suggests moot (but of course.) But I have heard Telarc 3D disks even, and those time constraints push the plug into relative space equidistantly across the past 50 years or so of recorded sound, firstly analog people, otherwise dont even bother with this article, and secondly without more twittering technocratic flair from this-exists, both The Beatles Being For The Benefit of Mr Kite, and With a Little Help From My Friends feature the beacon of sound reproduction in excelsis glotto audunum compirica. Swaggle those around your head foetuses and feel the wax wane and run down the shores of your wobbly lobes.
Posted 11/21/2006 - 09:50:18 AM by :
 I had to push that through my de-translation algorithms a couple of times, but I finally recreated it my native language working from the backtranslated Vulgate's every fourth letter.

If we were to talk about badly compressed analog-era stuff, that could get ugly, and it would involve many invocations of the Holy One's Name (Spector). Your Ohm Model F's have nothing on the B&W; Nautilus speakers I'd love to have the opportunity to jack from a Vassar student.

Fidelity? We're just animals, after all. I still use speakers "custom made" by a former 15-year-old boy.

Posted 11/21/2006 - 10:32:59 AM by :
 "badly produced" i meant
Posted 11/21/2006 - 04:18:28 PM by cwperry:
 Now that The-Disexists and JessGraves have fallen in love with each other, I'm even less interested in reading Stylus.
Posted 11/21/2006 - 04:28:38 PM by :
 That was a disagreement up there, in case you wondered-- about space and condenser mic physics and planes of immanency. If we're so disinteresting that certainly explains why you came down here to post that. I bet you read like every word, too. Now play along like a good commentor...
Posted 11/21/2006 - 04:40:00 PM by :
 (the wedding is planned for next Halloween, fleezer is the man of honor, florenze is my matron of honor, and meatbreak will officiate after he gets certified at the church of scientology)
Posted 11/21/2006 - 05:43:46 PM by :
 Love or no, The-Jessgraves are a collective of 40 year pedophiles and I'm a 14 year old boy. Look around - you'll find The-Jessgraves in hundreds of chatrooms around the virtual world. Our love is illegal.
Posted 11/21/2006 - 06:18:36 PM by :
 Myspace is my favorite troll-for-boys glade. I especially love Aaron Carter (circa 2000, of course) and all of his myspace "friends." Hours of fun. Shut the trap-door before the pizza guy sees you Di-sexist.
Posted 11/21/2006 - 06:25:02 PM by :
 And watch it, because you're getting older every second. I might have to move on to Bassman soon.
Posted 11/21/2006 - 06:28:26 PM by :
 you may have also seen me on Union Square looking for 12-year-old skaterboyees who need their bolts greased
Posted 11/21/2006 - 06:38:36 PM by :
 i can't sleeepp/cuz you've got strange powers

Posted 11/28/2006 - 07:48:26 AM by greenbriar:
 This is by far the best "top 10 list" I've ever seen. While I always enjoy the Top 10 lists from your magazine (I really hadn't seen a single one of the "Top 10 Best Movies You've Never Seen"), this one tops them all, if for no other reason than each of these records made the list because of current "mastering" trends. I would like to add that I'm on the tail end of preparing a retrospective collection (one of the songs having been mixed by someone that was unfortunate enough to have made your list...) to be sent to the pressing plant and that it will not be available for the holiday shopping season because of a disagreement over "mastering." The label informed me that they had used a software utility called "Wave Hammer" on the recordings. My heart skipped a beat as I had once experimented in my home with said utility. I remember looking at the wave form and feeling as if I had been on my way to get morning coffee and had seen a mushroom cloud on the horizon. I (kindly) informed the record label that when I see wave forms that have been "hit" (? - wtf) w/the "Wave Hammer," I feel as if I understand how the (American) Christian Right feels when they see footage of Dolly-The-Cloned-Sheep and that I prefer to "opt out" of that sort of "mastering" practice, much like I choose not to spend money on Shell Oil or toothpaste that was tested on animals. And I got my way, though my bank account will most definitely suffer from the release not being available by Christmas. So, thanks a lot for a consistently good (or great, even) magazine (I discovered it when I realized there must be an online alternative to pitchfork) and keep fighting the good fight. P.S. Is this what letters to the editor have come to? ;P
Posted 11/28/2006 - 04:44:41 PM by :
 let me guess, greenbriar--you hate hip-hop.
Posted 11/29/2006 - 09:01:50 PM by greenbriar:
 re: you hate hip hop Now, why would you something like that?
Posted 11/30/2006 - 11:17:22 AM by The_Big_Crunch:
 Something that seems to be missing from this critique in regards is that the way an album is recorded and produced is as much about how it effects the music as how it scores on some computer audio monitoring program. One of the real charms of In The Aeroplane Over the Sea is how basic the recording sounds - it lends an added intensity and intimacy to Mangum's voice and to the ramshackle epic orchestration. I personally think Funeral is one of the best sounding albums I've heard this decade, not just in terms of the music but in terms of how it sounds overall. Maybe it doesn't work out "correctly" for this guy when he takes a visual look at the EQs on some user interface, but it works marvellously with the music and the tone and aesthetic they establish on that record. The icy sound of Kid A is somewhat off-putting to me as well, but it's silly to criticize that alone because IMO the songs are so intimately tied in with the way they were recorded - the ultra-processed and somewhat inhuman sound is part and parcel of what they are and thus it's a mistake IMO to try and seperate the tunes from the way they were recorded. I'd be interested in seeing a list of albums that the writer believes to sound good.
Posted 12/07/2006 - 05:39:33 AM by HBurton:
 Nice list (even though you included a couple of albums I both own and love). Personally, I would have included Franz Ferdinand's 'You Could Have It So Much Better', which I would have enjoyed a lot more if it wasn't the jarring, overbearing aural assault that it is. The contrast with their debut is startling.
Posted 01/12/2007 - 03:09:41 PM by garlad1:
 One interesting point about the trend in mastering 'hot': when they transfer the recording to vinyl, the problem actually corrects because you can't make analog clip. Case in point: I actually enjoy the Arcade Fire LP, and most of the Hendrix LP re-issues that were digitally mastered poorly. I'd imagine the At War with the Mystics LP would also be superior, but haven't worked up the gall to pay $30 for the bleepin' record.