Music Activism

Musical Activism? Okay, exactly what is that? And why does Tao Mokoda engage in it?

The answer is simple: The music 'industry' stinks as a vehicle for promoting the ART of music! That needs to stop! From taking the lion's share of artists' money for their creative works to the stupidity of the 'loudness war' to MP3 compression, this business of music is giving you, the public a pathetically thin slice of the vast pie of music that is available in the world, then charging you an arm, a leg and two teeth for it!

So, what is Tao Mokoda doing about it? One, we record, produce and release our music completely independently. This is a problem for us because we dont' have the huge marketing and distribution machine record companies have. But we're committed!

Two, we use audio compression for its intended purpose, to enhance recorded music by preventing unwanted distortion and volume irregularities. We don't use compression just to make our music as loud as we can, or as loud as other artists' music.

Three, we distribute our music as high-quality WAV or AIFF files and try to abstain from lossy MP3. However, we realize many people like MP3, so when we are asked, we provide that format, but only at the highest possible quality levels.

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What Is ALWR?

ALWR stands for "Anti Loudness War Recording", and in order to understand what that means, you need to know a couple things, which will be explained in very simple, non-technical terms. Hopefully, after reading this, you will DEMAND better! Many people are starting to, thankfully.

File Compression and Audio Compression
To 'compress' something, in this sense, means to make it smaller by compacting it in some way. Compression can actually refer to two very different and totally unrelated things as it relates to recorded music. For the record, we don't much care for either of them, at least not the way they are used today.

What is file compression? In the days before the Internet became widely popular and any kind of online activity was painfully slow by today's standards, someone figured out that in order to make downloading files, especially picture files, faster they could perform certain operations on those files that would make the files smaller, much smaller. The files were referred to as "compressed', and they had to be "uncompressed' before they could be used by the recipient. Eventually, vast improvements were made in compression technology, and soon that technology was applied to audio files as well. High-quality audio files, such as are on a typical music CD, are pretty big, but in those days, "hugely immense' would have been a more fitting term! Imagine, a single 4-minute song would have taken up more than 50 floppy disks (you remember those, right?). With advancements in compression technology, we can now make that file a tenth of that size and still preserve most of the audio quality using the MP3 format. In the early days of portable music players, this was great, because with the expense of flash-type memory (what your music player songs are stored on, or in) this meant you could store 10 times the number of songs versus the uncompressed ones.
But, the problem with MP3 compression, and compression in general, is that you can't make a file smaller without removing something from it! That's exactly what MP3 compression does (this is why it's called 'lossy' compression, because some of the audio material is, quite simply, removed to make the file smaller). MP3 compression is very cleverly done however, and enough of the quality is preserved so that it still sounds good. It doesn't sound great, but it sounds good. In the days when flash memory was very, very expensive, this was an acceptable tradeoff. Since you can now get more than 5 times the flash memory capacity for less than half the price compared to say 10-12 years ago, continuing to use MP3 compression just to make audio files smaller is pointless, and in our opinion, rather stupid! In 2001, the popular breakout portable music player cost $400, and that had a 5GB hard drive, not flash memory, which would have made it even more expensive. Today, you can get a very good player with 32GB of flash memory for not much more than $200, and those are usually expandable using SDHC or MicroHD cards. 32 GB would hold between 600 and 700 high quality songs, depending on length. Unless you're trying to carry half a million songs on a music player at one time, MP3 just doesn't make sense, considering what you're losing. If your music collection is larger than six or seven hundred songs (and most people's probably are) you can always spread it out over several SDHC cards.
Know this: With MP3 compression, even at the highest available bitrate (the main factor that determines quality), you will never, EVER hear that song the way it was recorded in the studio! Why? Because most of the actual audio material has been removed. It's done in a way that it still sounds good, but it can never sound great, that's just physically impossible.

What about audio compression? This is where we really get into the ALWR stuff. Imagine a singer belting out a song, and at one point he/she needs to push hard to get out a high note. What can happen is that because the singer has to sing LOUDER to push out that note, what the audience hears may be distorted because the mic, or the mixer circuitry or the power amplifiers feeding the speakers, are being pushed into what is called 'clipping". Clipping literally means that because the signal is too high to be reproduced fully, the peaks of the sound wave are clipped off, resulting in an ugly, harsh, unwanted sound. Now the sound man, if he knows that big note is coming, might just put his finger on the fader (or slider) for the channel where that singer's mic is connected, and just turn it down just enough to prevent the clipping, then turn it back up again once the singer is back in normal voice. But that only works if the soundman knows exactly when the clipping is going to occur, and how long it will last, Plus, there may be other instruments that might be loud enough to clip also. From a practical perspective, NO soundman can control random clipping manually.
Enter audio compression. The simplest way to explain an audio compressor is to describe it as a very fast, automatic volume control that can be set to automatically turn the volume down on a particular channel whenever its signal clips, and turn it back up once the signal is below the clipping point. Genius! Properly used, a compressor does a wonderful job an leveling out the peaks in a song, making it sound more consistenly loud (or soft) over the course of the song.
There are basically four settings: THRESHOLD, which is the level that, when the signal exceeds it, the compressor kicks in to lower the volume; RATIO, which is basically the amount of volume reduction to apply or how much the compressor reduces the volume; ATTACK, which is how long the compressor will wait before turning down the clipped signal; and RELEASE, which is how long the compressor waits once the signal is below the threshold, to turn the volume back up. Properly set, the listener won't even 'hear' the compression, but if not properly set, a weird, sort of 'pumping' sound might be heard.
The problem with compression is that at some point, someone discovered that compression can be used in such a way as to make a piece of music sound louder without actually turning the master volume up one bit! How? Well, there is something called dynamic range, which is basically the difference between the loudest sounds and the softest sounds in a piece of music. The levels are measured in "dB", so if the loudest sounds are, say 75 dB and the softest sounds are at 25 dB, then the dynamic range is the difference between those two levels, which is 50 dB (75 dB minus 25 db). The dynamics of a piece of music are part of the creative process; the way louder instruments play against softer ones, or louder sections against softer ones. For example, in many songs, the chorus is a little louder than the verses and generally, the lead vocalist is a bit louder than the background vocalists. If every instrument in a song is blasting out at 75 dB, the song will sound ugly, unbalanced and probably distorted, because there is just too much volume for the system to process. So, of we use a compressor to clamp the loudest sounds down to say 60 dB, we will then have enough reserve power (or headroom) to turn UP those softer 25 dB sounds to, say, 45 dB. Voila! The song overall will sound much louder. However, the dynamic range, which was 50 dB, is now only 15 dB (60 dB minus 45 dB), so the dynamics of the song have been absolutely ruined by this squashing of the dynamic range, meaning all the parts are at or close to the same loudness. Bear in mind, the numbers used here are not realistic, and serve only to explain the concept.
So, does this mean the song will sound terrible? Well, not necessarily. However, you're not hearing the dynamics that the artist and the studio mixing engineer built into the song. Stated another way, you're just not hearing the song the way the artist intended. So why is this done? I can tell you that most artists and engineers DO NOT like using compression this way, but the record company executives pop into the studio and say, "Make it louder". Well, the master volume and the volumes of the individual tracks can only be turned up so much before they will clip, so the only thing left guessed it; compression. Squash the heck out of the dynamic range, but by jeebs get that sucker louder! The 'loudness war' was started when the request was not just, "Make it louder.", but, "Make it louder than everyone elses!" Unfortunately, it's the record company's call and that's the call they are making far too often these days. Every record company wants their CDs to be louder than everyone elses.

The conclusion of all this is that because of audio compression, you can NEVER hear the music you listen to with all the dynamic content and variations that the creators intended and that the engineers tried to bring to pass. You just get loud for the sake of being loud. And because of file compression (such as MP3), you're never hearing the full harmonic content of the music either. And the prices you pay for music these days is nothing short of atrocious! Given the advancements in amplifier and speaker technology, if a song isn't loud enough, you can just turn it up! YOU should determine how loud a song should be, not the record company! And with the falling prices of flash memory, music players, and Internet bandwidth, there is simply no longer much need to use file compression. Now it's possible that if you could hear the uncompressed audio in an uncompressed file, you might prefer the compressed version, but you can't make that comparison because you're never given the opportunity to hear the original sound. Personally, I believe you'd like the original much better.

So that's what the "Loudness War" is all about, and ALWR is a concept, put forth by Tao Mokoda, to not use audio compression to make a song louder at the expense of the dynamic range, and to not distribute our music in anything but an uncompressed format, unless otherwise requested. We seriously hope more and more people will start complaining about these abuses of compression, so that we can all start enjoying the music we prefer to listen to in a way that more honestly reflects the creativity of our favorite artists.