Why Does All Music Sound the Same; An Explanation

Since the topic of music production, mastering, and the Loudness Wars comes up frequently on the forum, here's a good tour through the process.
(It's a few years old but still very relevant).


I think a lot of folks are focusing too much on the title and not the content of the OP’s post and the link he provided. The point is that pop music is being produced in a formulaic fashion the likes of which have not been seen before, much the way a team of suits and scientists figure out the next new hamburger for McDonald-King to sell.

Yes, there were always industry pressures to keep songs short and make them sound like the most recent hit. But things are more ’advanced’ than that now.

As to what our parents said about music: well, they were often right. Elvis was vulgar, Ozzy was disturbing, Kiss was disgusting and a lot of it does/did sound the same. My slightly racist father (r.i.p.) also immediately identified Led Zeppelin belting out of my bedroom as ’black’ music. It was years before I realized he was right and that hearing that in their music was the ultimate compliment......even though he did not intend it.

Anyway, I find it remarkable that my two kids (24 and 27 years old) like and listen mostly to what I listen to. They disdain pop. My daughter likes some pop country, for which I give her a hard time. They think Van Morrison and Sam Cooke are heroes.
I was expecting somebody to mention the generation gap in music. "In my day, etc"...lol.
There were always cookie-cutter songs with the same hook played on top 40 radio and the like. The record labels were thriving and all that mattered was to get radio play and have their songs on the Billboard charts, resulting in sales.
Today there are so many outlets for music to be heard. Bands can even produce their own music, play it on the internet/YouTube and create buzz. Record labels are hurting financially and have resulted to tactics whereby to make a song a hit, the same writers and producers are hired to use their formula on multiple artists to sell their product.

Similar to the "old days" where there was also a formula used to produce hit songs, but now the control and manipulation seems tighter before a track is released. Focus groups are even used to decide which will get airplay.

And thanks to the internet and streaming, more music of different genres is available. There is so much variety, we're not stuck listening to the "same sounding music" which is targeted at a certain demographic.

I don't agree with the statement in this post; I suggest a listen to a recent CD, Dave Alvin And Jimmie Dale Gilmore, Downey To Lubbock.  Nothing about it, songs, singing, playing, depth, clarity, cleanliness, makes it sound anything less than spectacular.  To me.  On my small system (Lyric Ti 140 integrated, Luxman D-05u CD player, Von Schweikert UniField 3 Mk2 speakers) its stunning.  One the big one it is too.  

Seeing them in concert tomorrow evening, am so eager.
Quite a range of comments in this discussion.  I would just note that many of those objecting to the sound of modern pop music sound remarkably like their parents did in the 1950s and 60s--many of the complaints are in fact virtually identical ( too simple, too repetitive, no talent, bad lyrics, bad sound, all sounds the same, all about marketing, etc.).  Fortunately, we didn't listen to them then, just as our kids don't listen to them now.

Fortunately, these days there is a world of music available at your fingertips.  So, if you don't like something, just listen to something else.
What sadly passes nowadays as talent . . . much like a cookie-cutter duplicate, very commercial and predictable formulas, which are mundane, boring, lousy lyrics, repetitive monotony -- with voices that use an edgy technique like ice picks or a dentist drilling in one's ear. There are too many so-called stars or artists that have very little to no style of their own, and the products they sell and the performance they produce would have been booed off the stage when people actually paid their dues and earned a place as a recording artist and a professional. 
I just got a used copy of Tedeschi Trucks' "Revelator" CD in the mail today.

The DR database gives it an average DR of 10 on the CD and 11 on the vinyl. You do notice the loudness a little. Other than that it sounds pretty good to me. Certainly not up there with what I consider my reference CDs (12-16 range and flawless production) but I'm perfectly satisfied with it. Clearly and immediately of superior sound quality (all other factors taken into account) compared to recordings in the 5-6 range. Glad they made the effort. Wish they would take it up to the next level.
I just got The Struts new CD Young and Dangerous released on the 26th. I've mentioned before that this is a new band that I like. It is glam/pop/rock. Their first CD was highly compressed and loud as heck. This album has some slightly more serious and thoughtful content so I was hoping it would be recorded better.

Popped it in the CDP and loudness was there immediately but I thought it was no worse or maybe slightly better than the first album. But the inevitable happens, you feel like you are missing something and that volume will help....this is rock music....but it doesn't, it makes it worse.

Sad about this because at first I thought this would just be a grooving in the car type album but I'm finding that there are some songs I might like to sit and listen to. As much as Queen for instance. But not with this recording.

Went to the DR database site not expecting to see the album there but someone has already tested it. Average DR is 5. Lowest is 4. Best is 6. About the same is the first album.

Oddly, even though they were loud live there was very little distortion and vocals were sharp and clear and there was excellent distinction between the instruments. The sound guy got the piano wrong a few times but that was not a loudness issue.

Just disgusted.
The long term use of hypercompression in the mastering studio has finally killed pop music. Not only does it suck out all the dynamic range out of the music, in so doing it scrubs all emotional content as well.

Hahaha, there is no bottom in terms of what the listeners will accept for pop music. It will never die from mere mistreatment.

I think the theme from Star Wars was lifted largely from Dvorak's New World Symphony.

I don't think the point of this discussion is to say that all compression is bad. When it is used as a tool to improve a recording I don't think anyone objects.

But, let me repeat something I've been saying over and over again. This is not just an issue with pop throwaway music. The loudness wars have penetrated into music and artists who are and should be appreciated by audiophiles. In my naivety I find that shocking that such artists would allow that to happen to their work. The point being, as audiophiles we can't just look down our noses and assume this is only a problem for the Big Mac eaters and Yugo drivers. It is affecting our foie gras and BMWs too.
I confess I never really managed to work up much aggression about the loudness war. Frankly sometimes it can be a bit of a pain when you are listening to classical and have to keep dicking about with the volume to be able to listen to the quiet bits then not get your head blown off 4 bars later. So, at least for me, more dynamic range is not necessarily more better.
Also we tend to forget that popular music has always been cookie cutter stuff. In the UK the legenday production team Stock, Aitkin and Waterman just hashed out much the same stuff for an endless stream of young look-a-likes and regularly hit the top of the charts in the 80s. 20, 30, 40 years on we just remember the stuff that was good enough to last, whereas in the present we hear all the only-of-the-moment crud as well.  On a slightly seperate note I am reminded of the old pub game of getting people to hum the theme songs of Superman, Star Wars and Indian Jones back to back and watch them struggle because actually they are very, very similar.
Interesting subject.

As someone who has moved from an analogue realm to a digital one in my work, I can see how the "highly measurable" numbers game has become of "importance".  Remember the show "Max Headroom"?

When I had to make the switch from film to digital, I was all concerned about the "numbers". Then there was a job that came along that caused me to through all the math out the window and trust my eyes - as I had been doing for decades prior.

Lowest common denominator = biggest market

I can remember being at the TSO watching a performance of Beethoven's 9th. I found it to be lacking in impact - dynamics. This until, Ode to Joy happened. And I realized the conductor had left something in the bag. Realizing the limitations of the hall, and the size of the choir, he left room for the moment of "impact". Granted the only reference I had to this was the Karajan two symphony, double choir recording. No shortage of range there should you want it.

I also remember seeing a documentary on a painter who always mixed white into every color. So, if he needed more red, he has it. Bore blue... You get it.

The secret I think is to not put white in everything and forget that there is still more color to be had.

Depeche Mode has always felt like that for me. All of it running at the same intensity. Mr Bungle on the other hand - not the case.


I don't go to live music in small venues anymore, seems people just want it loud, distortion be damned. I saw Tedeschi Trucks band at U of Missouri a few years ago. Large Music dept btw. The opening act was good, excellent sound. The T Trucks band was loud and at least 50% distortion. I walked out but seemed like I was the only one who cared. I lived in LA for a few years and it was better but not great. I went to scores of rock concerts when I was young, scores of years ago and never heard bad sound like this. I saw Lynyrd Skynyrd on their first tour and they were underpowered but not distorted. They opened for ZZTop who weren't.
Judicious use of compression, absolutely good; George Peckham and Bernie Grundmann good; saturating limiters bad.
Judicious use of compression isn’t a bad thing. George Peckham, whose masterings are sought after (Porky, Pecko, etc.) used a classic Fairchild tube compressor as part of the mastering chain to juice the recordings he was mastering.
To me, music is about building tension, reaching a crescendo and releasing it. That’s true of classical music and of much ’classic rock’: think about the anthemic songs such as "Stairway," or "Freebird" or "Hotel" (yeah, I know, but they got overplayed for a reason and it wasn’t just marketing). Each of those songs has softer acoustic passages that built to a heavier, darker sound; the joy is in the contrast as well as the build up, knowing that things were going to get louder, harder and more pounding. (no sexual entendres here but ’rock and roll’ is itself a euphemism for the act).
I like a lot of ’psych-folk’ because it is a study in contrasts. I don’t think jazz fits into this model, but I haven’t thought that one through. (too many different styles of jazz for me to get my head around as I write this).
Highly recommended for a study in contrast is Roy Harper’s "The Same Old Rock" from the album, Stormcock. It is a virtual textbook of contrasts, of one style of playing morphing into another. It didn’t hurt that Jimmy Page played acoustic guitar on this track.
The long term use of hypercompression in the mastering studio has finally killed pop music. Not only does it suck out all the dynamic range out of the music, in so doing it scrubs all emotional content as well.

Devices such as the following are also partially to blame:

Mastering Clipper, Loudness Meter, Multiband Saturator. This device makes the recording as "loud" as possible and strips the music of anything worth listening to.
lowrider57 said:

"The lows are pushed up and and the highs are limited by not allowing any peaks, they are all at the same level.
The result is no range in the bass, no range in the highs. All instruments lose their separation including vocals and all are at the same level, which means the same volume when played."

After doing a lot of reading on this topic this afternoon I think the statement above really simplifies and clarifies how to look at this complex topic.

djones51, I hope that will be true but according to what I've read, radio stations have been doing this for years and most people who listen to Apple Music probably have Sound Check on and don't even know it.

This has not slowed down the loudness wars as far as I can tell.

And that is what seems so peculiar. SQ is being lost for the sake of loudness despite the fact that the loudness is not accomplishing the purpose that it once had. In effect engineers are making an effort to do something that has no benefit _and_ sounds bad. 

So one wonders why it is still such an issue.
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Streaming is why high compression will die out. No advantage to it, streaming services are set so every track seems equally loud so if they are overly compressed when recorded when they are passed through streaming services the loudness advantage is gone and they sound distorted. Probably why a lot of streamed music sounds lousy to me except for older recordings.
@n80, yeah The Struts, a breath of fresh air.
I haven't checked their releases on the DR scale, but I'll bet it's highly compressed. Fun music for the car or a party, but I won't be playing them on my system. It still irks me that all releases today are treated this way.

There is an online petition directed at the record labels to stop the Loudness Wars. Good luck with that.
Maybe if more streaming services go hires and start demanding better quality mastering, there may be some sort of change.

+1 Geoff.
The high amount of compression is called brickwalling. The lows are pushed up and and the highs are limited by not allowing any peaks, they are all at the same level.
The result is no range in the bass, no range in the highs. All instruments lose their separation including vocals and all are at the same level, which means the same volume when played.

Uh, dynamic range is a ratio. Loudness is not a ratio. Loudness I.e., level is what the remastering engineer can boost since the peaks of dynamic range will be lower when he compresses it. You wouldn’t want to blow up someone’s precious iPod, would you? You cannot get more dynamic range by turning up the volume however. In that sense they’re not related. They’re not related mathematically. For a given CD the DR is constant. Loudness obviously is not a constant.
mapman said:

" Compressed dynamics and excessive loudness are two different but often related things. "

That makes sense to me. It is my understanding that it is pushing the loudness that compresses the dynamic range.


" I wouldn’t worry about it too much unless you are an audiophile who imbibes mostly on mainstream/pop music."

I guess it all depends on what you call other people’s music. ;-)

I do not consider Tedeschi Trucks as mainstream or pop. Likewise with Gary Clark, Jr and Alabama Shakes.

The dynamic range in their CDs and downloads all look pretty bad from a DR standpoint. That’s my point. What we are ascribing to throw-away music is being seen in more serious ’artistic’ efforts. And it is a shame because all of their work could/should be appreciated at an audiophile level.


" If it’s a catchy enough tune, isn’t that enough?"

Agreed. I’m into a new band called The Struts. Guitar heavy good-time glam-pop that sounds good on my car stereo. Not too worried about its DR or loudness (which is not as bad as I was expecting.)
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Mainstream music is essentially fast food ie McDonalds for the ears.  I wouldn't worry about it too much unless you are an audiophile who imbibes mostly on mainstream/pop music.   If it's a catchy enough tune, isn't that enough?
Compressed dynamics and excessive loudness are two different but often related things.
Very true about target audience, but I’m making the point that the mainstream music biz is in a sad state.

Yep. I mean, this "it all sounds the same" is probably true for pop music in any genre. For R&R it probably started with the "wall of sound" treatment, even before compression started. You were supposed to consume it like bubble gum, drive to it, or dance to it.

It is the rare musician whose craft requires us to stop and pay attention anymore in this genre.
Consider however that this homogenization is kind of always with us. Chamber music with it’s basso continuo. Then classical music with predefined sections, and two combating melodies. They set the popular standards which make us notice when artists deviate from them.

And don't get me started on Nashville Country or Mexican Norteno music.  << shiver >>  The words are even the same for heaven's sake.  It is like playing a game of fill in the blank.


Very true about target audience, but I’m making the point that the mainstream music biz is in a sad state.

Erik, I listen to 90% classical so this doesn’t affect me for the most part. It’s only when I listen to rock and some remastered jazz which has been compressed that causes me grief.

Their re-releases now being sold as "remastered," meaning the recordings have been improved.

Some are more compressed, and more EQ'd, some are less. Really depends on who is doing the remastering and who they perceive as their target audience. This is one clear advantage DSD has. When a DSD re-issue is planned, they KNOW their audience is audiophiles, so generally (which is all we are talking here) DSD, like vinyl, has a particular brand.

And yes, of course the article applies to commercial music. Just saying, there's a lot more music out there man. Unbelievably large amounts.

But the Loudness Wars also applies to classic rock and music recorded in the analogue age. Their re-releases now being sold as "remastered," meaning the recordings have been improved.

Only a small percentage have been improved by digital doctoring.

@erik_squires , IMO, it applies to a very large percentage of music produced in terms of sales, airplay, downloads.

You're correct that the number of recording artists this applies to is small in the grand scheme.

mapman said:

" Shouldn’t any true hi end system be able to reproduce any recording accurately, including very loud ones? "

I do not understand the concept that better equipment can compensate for compressed dynamic range (the end result of excessive loudness). If it isn't there how can you fix it?
I have read this article a few times, and the author is not wrong, but it applies to a very small percentage of music that is created every year around the world.

If you think all music sounds the same you really need to change the station.

BEing the devil’s advocate...

Another interesting aspect of modern recordings is that the focus on loud bass makes accurate reproduction on a home system at higher volumes more challenging than ever. Any traditional under-powered system won’t have a chance at accurately delivering what is there at louder volume like the recording is designed for FBOFW. If it can though the results might have some unique appeal even for audiophiles.
Shouldn’t any true hi end system be able to reproduce any recording accurately, including very loud ones?  The easy solution in many cases these days is a good quality powered sub which was unheard of 40 years ago.

Also if one takes a sound meter (try an app on your smartphone) and measures the background noise in many rooms of their home, they might be shocked. The background noise in my family room which is directly above my furnace in the level below and opens up to the kitchen and all the appliances running in there is shockingly high!

Background noise levels in cars are out of sight. So thank god for recordings that are actually louder than the background so one might actually be able to hear them in cases like that.

Most people do not have a sound proofed listening room at home these days. I’m lucky I actually have at least one out of many that I was able to make that way when the house was built.

I agree with Geoff in situations where the record label is calling the shots.

No doubt the actual content of pop music these days is very similar as are the cookie cutter "artists" that perform them.
Agreed. But some of my favorite bands who fall into the alternative or progressive genres are still subject to the same type of high compression mastering.

Many recording artists work in top-class studios with talented engineers and the result is an excellent mix. The product is then sent to the mastering engineer as a digital file. This is where the compression and loudness happens. We're talking about pop music, rock, rap, any mass produced genre headed for airplay.

There are exceptions, of course, where the artist is powerful enough to make the decisions on the post-production of their music. ie, Neil Young.

There may be more similarity in how pop recordings and even most recordings in general are produced these days, especially if the target is radio play, but they still do not all sound the same. That’s just another untrue extreme generalization.

Some are done much better than others and there are many differences.

So yes the dynamics may all have more similar characteristics than in the past but some are still done really poorly, others quite well, and everything in between.

No doubt the actual content of pop music these days is very similar in a desperate attempt to appeal to a broader and more diverse audience than in the past  as are the cookie cutter "artists" that perform them.

Music is all about dynamic range. Nothing else matters. So you’re right! It all sounds the same.
Just watched a clip from a video interview of Mark Knopfler regarding his "Tracker" album. The setting is his studio with its large analog mixing board. Very little computer stuff to be seen other than his laptop. He indicates that this is where he records. Maybe that is why the SQ of his stuff is so good.

However, he did not say specifically how the music was produced/engineered so I can't say for sure what the process was.
Thanks lowrider, great article.

In the context of contemporary pop music as heard on large radio stations, I would say yes, it does all sound the same.

I saw an article about that hit pop song "Meet Me In The Middle". It indicated that it had a whole team of writers and was written from the ground up to be a radio hit with demographics and stats being primary criteria.

I don't have any problem with this per se. I don't have to listen to that sort of pablum or that sort of radio station. (A pop station plays in one area of my workplace and in an 8 hour workday you can hear the same song as much as 5 times).

Where I do have a problem is when this sort of production/engineering carries over to where it does not belong. I think about bands that are serious musicians making high quality music outside of the mainstream who still produce loud highly compressed DR CDs.

Alabama Shakes, Gary Clark, Jr and Tedeschi Trucks come to mind. Really talented, serious, thoughtful musicians. Heck, Tedeschi Trucks have their own studio and their CDs still show significant  DR compression compared to hallmark production quality artists like Steely Dan and Mark Knopfler.

I don't know what the answer is. I just hope that serious musicians will seek to stand out not just on the quality and craft of their art but also in the production quality. None of the artists I mentioned above are ever going to see significant radio air time. And I don't get the impression that it costs any more to show discretion with the loudness settings. I'm assuming that issue is driven by executives or new/young/lazy engineers.