I recently purchased my copy of Imagine Dragons Night Visions. I know, it’s two years old, but I’m a careful music buyer.
After ripping the CD to ALAC, I was enjoying listening to my new jams when I started getting a little concerned. It sounded like my speakers were being over-driven by the tracks, which makes me a little nervous. Nervous enough to look into it.
What I found was tracks that were recorded using methods that produced large flat runs of full-volume waveforms. This is what you might call “almost clipping” and is a fairly serious problem for audio hardware.
Here are a couple of screenshots, the first is of a portion of my ALAC file. It shows the volume levels are constantly pounding the limits.
I’ve seen this in several recordings over the last decade or so. It is a technique used, I think, to produce a certain fat sound that sounds pretty cool.
Here’s the other screenshot I wanted you to see. It’s from Amazon’s MP3 rip that was made available to me when I bought the CD. It’s almost the exact same place in the track.
The red color in this one shows places where the signal is clipped. Both screenshots show levels that are unusually high. Amazon’s ripping process, because it re-processes the signal, actually introduces clipping where the lossless ALAC process does not. However, both files produce an almost identical physical effect on hardware.
The dark blue areas in these screenshots represent the peak volume levels in the music. These levels relate to the amount of power the amplifier is sending to the speakers as well as how long those power levels are kept up.
Here is a third screenshot to help illustrate what I’m saying. Here I’ve zoomed way in to show the waveform and you can see the broad flat area in the line. That can be called a square wave or it could be called clipping, depending on whether it runs past the edge of the window (which represents the limits of reproduction of sound, to a major degree).
Is this necessarily bad? It depends. If your audio system is well balanced, meaning the speakers and the amplifier are right for each other, and if you have good heavy gauge wiring which can handle the increased duration of higher power cycles, you’re probably OK.
If, on the other hand, your amp is under-powered or you’re using cheap, thin wire, you might suffer some damage if you play this at a high volume level.
The bottom line: I wish there was some better way of getting the cool fat sound without pushing my hardware this way. I’m inclinded to think this sort of stuff is the result of lazy or uninformed sound engineers being pushed by artists who maybe don’t know what they are doing to the equipment. Or maybe they just don’t care. Either way, I wish professional audio people would stop doing this.