Depeche Mode - Playing The Angel - Another victim of the loudness race

How to take some good songs and make a bad album

I love Depeche Mode. They're one of my all time favourite bands. I just wanted to make that point before I continue, as it's not my intention to criticize the band, but illustrate how modern "louder is better" CD mastering methods have spoilt what should and could have been a great album. Having listened to the CD a few times I was satisfied with the quality of the songs, but it was nagging at me that something didn't sound right. I'm not talking about musical style or if the vocals and instrumentation were up to scratch, but the overall sound quality of the recording. Having heard with my ears that something wasn't right, I decided to use my eyes to see what what could have gone wrong...

A Question Of Time (Black Celebration, 1986) [cdstumm26]

Mercy In You (Songs Of Faith And Devotion, 1993) [cdstumm106]

Precious (Playing The Angel, 2005) [cdstumm260]

And there you have it. In comparison to their older but superior recordings, it's plain to see, all dynamic range has been squashed. There's no headroom to allow any element to stand out, all the subtle details have been hit with a sledgehammer. IT'S TOO FECKIN' LOUD, AN UNRELENTING DIN, AND AFTER A SHORT WHILE THIS ASSAULT ON MY EARDRUMS BECOMES TIRESOME. Over-compression has left this album sounding flat. Yes, it's loud, but lacks vibrancy. If I want it loud I'll use the volume control. I'd rather be left that choice. Unfortunately, if I turn up Playing The Angel it won't have the same impact (e.g. lack of punch on drums) as a properly mastered CD.

Precious (close-up view of waveform)

The image above shows clear signs of clipping. That's nasty digital distortion; totally unnecessary and easily avoidable. It might just about have been acceptable if it only occurred a couple of times on the whole album, but clipped waveforms are littered throughout this CD. To my mind, it's a sub-standard product and if you bought it expecting Compact Disc Digital Audio* quality you should demand a refund. As a fan I feel sorry for the band, that after all their efforts Depeche Mode's music is not allowed to shine. The tracks may stand out as the LOUDEST ON THE RADIO, but it doesn't make this album the sonic delight it could have been.

*Actually, the disc and artwork doesn't display the "Compact Disc Digital Audio" logo. I'm guessing that's because some half-arsed copy protection scheme has been used, making the disc non-standard. It won't stop a music pirate, but can inconvenience the paying customer who just wants to make fair use of the product he/she paid for.

UPDATE (4th November 2005)

Out of curiosity, I bought the vinyl edition of Playing The Angel, to see if it sounded any better/different. I'm not one of those people who cling on to the belief that vinyl (analog) is a superior format to compact disc (digital). However, my thinking was that the vinyl format simply wouldn't stand the same level of audio abuse as applied to the CD version, so it would have to be mastered more responsibly. Being an analog medium, I didn't expect to see (or hear) clipped peak distortion. I hoped (with fingers crossed) that the dynamic range might be improved. Let's compare...

Precious (Playing The Angel, 2005) [cdstumm260] CD

Precious (Playing The Angel, 2005) [lpstumm260] VINYL

The vinyl recording was normalized to maximum peak value. Comparing the two waveforms, it's abundantly clear how much sound detail was sacrificed (on the CD edition) for the sake of MAXIMUM LOUDNESS. Is that progress?! I did actually listen to the CD and vinyl versions (at matched volume levels) for the sake of comparison, and my personal opinion was that the subtle details on the vinyl edition were indeed more...errr, subtle! Unlike the CD version, which is the musical equivalent of being shouted at. AAAAAAAARRRRRGGH!!!

Brian Stagg (20th October 2005)