This episode was written and produced by Casey Emmerling.
In part 2 of the story of mastering, we explore the consequences of the Loudness War and call out some of the worst offenders. We’ll also hear about the artists and mastering engineers who have been fighting back, and learn how modern listening habits might finally put an end to this sonic arms race. Featuring Greg Milner and Ian Shepherd.
MUSIC FEATURED IN THIS EPISODE
Working Man is Always Poor by Live Footage
The Light Instrumental by SAILR
The Human Flute by Ryan Taubert
Wonderful Life Instrumental by Reagan James
Sparrows Instrumental by Jamie
Money Making Machine Instrumental by Jamie Lono
Airliner Remix Instrumental by Secret American
Waterfalls Instrumental by Reagan James
Do What We Want Instrumental by Spirit City
Smoke by Sound of Picture
Twenty Thousand Hertz is produced out of the studios of Defacto Sound and hosted by Dallas Taylor.
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View Transcript ▶︎
You’re listening to Twenty Thousand Hertz, I’m Dallas Taylor, and this is part two of the story of mastering.
In the last episode, we looked at the history of mastering. Up until the 80s, the constraints of analog equipment meant that music had to be mastered on the quieter side. While this may sound like a bad thing, the upside is that music from this era has really strong dynamics, almost across the board. Pick nearly any song from the 70’s or older, and you’ll find a striking contrast between the quietest parts, and the loudest parts. This gives the music a much more spacious and vibrant quality.
But once digital technology took over, things changed pretty quickly. New audio technology allowed mastering engineers to make songs much louder. Artists also started trying to one-up each other with how loud their songs were, and music overall got louder and louder. But all of this volume came at a price, and music became so compressed that it lost a lot of that impact and depth. The Loudness War had begun.
For some people in the industry, even music that was pushed right up to the limit wasn’t quite loud enough. But if you’ve already compressed a song as much as possible, what happens when you try to make it even louder?
Ian: Beyond that, you can actually start to get distortion, where, if you just push the loudness up so that it hits that digital ceiling, where the tops of the waveforms, the musical waveforms, are literally sliced straight off [SFX], you get an effect called clipping. That sounds distorted.
That’s Ian Shepherd, a professional mastering engineer who also hosts a podcast called The Mastering Show.
Greg: When you clip, you literally are inserting a little blip [SFX] of noise.
And that’s Greg Milner. Greg writes about music and technology, and wrote a book called Perfecting Sound Forever: An Aural History of Recorded Music.
Greg: At that moment, the digital system is just saying, "I can't read this." So, if you're careful with it, you just do it every once in a while and the clips last just a fraction of a second, supposedly you're not going to be able to hear those parts, but a lot of recording engineers and musicians will say, "Yes you can.”
Just imagine what would happen if you started pushing up every nanosecond of a song until it clipped. Pretty soon, all of that clipping would start to overpower the actual music. [SFX: music gradually clipping more and more] If you kept going and going, eventually, you’d be left with pure white noise. So whenever a song is clipping, it’s like a little bit of the music has been cut out, and replaced with white noise. Human ears aren’t supposed to hear this type of noise all the time.
Greg: This is very difficult to prove and I don't know if it ever will be proven, but you ask a lot of engineers and they'll tell you that it causes fatigue. Some people will even say that it's a physical fatigue, that your eardrums are just being bombarded by these compressed parts and you are less likely to listen to music for long periods of time.
If you look at the waveform of a song in an audio program, you can see how the soundwaves swell at the loudest parts, and shrink at the quieter parts. But if you look at a song that’s clipping, you’ll see that the soundwaves no longer have these dramatic peaks and valleys.
Greg: When the sound clips, the soundwaves actually look like mountaintops with the peaks shaved off, which is not the way soundwaves ever behave in nature.
If a song is compressed enough, the waveform will look like a flat block, almost like a floating row of bricks in Mario [SFX]. When a song has had this done to it, engineers will say it’s been “brick walled.” and since the 90s, a ton of albums have been given the brickwall treatment.
Greg: If you look at certain recordings that really are notorious for being really poorly mastered in terms of loudness, the Red Hot Chili Peppers' Californication for a long time was really Exhibit A. There is so much compression and clipping in that, it just assaults the ears [Music clip: Red Hot Chili Peppers': "Parallel Universe"].
As the name implies, brickwalled music often has a kind of wall-of-sound quality to it, where instruments struggle to stand out from each other, the snare drum doesn’t really pop like it normally would… It just sounds kind of… squashed, because it is. It’s almost just like every single sound in a song is exactly the same volume. Take a listen to “Spaceman,” by The Killers and see if you can hear what I mean:
[Music clip: The Killers - "Spaceman"]
Compare that to the 1978 song “Roxanne” by The Police, ” and you can sense a little bit more of a natural difference between the instruments.
[Music clip: The Police - “Roxanne”]
But one album in particular has become the poster child for the Loudness War.
Greg: Death Magnetic by Metallica
Ian: Death Magnetic by Metallica [speaking in unison with Greg]
[Music clip: Metallica - “Cyanide”]
Ian: So the Death Magnetic album by Metallica was one of the first albums that really caught the public attention as far as the issue of the Loudness War was concerned. What happened was that a fan emailed the mastering engineer, complaining about the sound of the CD. And the mastering engineer replied off the record, saying, "Yeah, I'm not super proud of this one, but that's what the band wanted, and it is what it is."
According to that fan, here’s the actual response they received from the mastering engineer: Quote, “I’m certainly sympathetic to your reaction, I get to slam my head against that brick wall every day. In this case, the mixes were already brickwalled before they arrived at my place. Suffice it to say, I would never be pushed to overdrive things as far as they are here. Believe me, I’m not proud to be associated with this one, and we can only hope that some good will come from this in some form of backlash against volume above all else.” Unquote.
Ian: The fan then published this on a forum, in public.
Ian: So, suddenly everyone could see what was meant to have been a quiet, private comment by the mastering engineer. And actually, I spotted this and wrote about it on my blog at the time. And Music Radar and Wired magazine and, ultimately, the Wall Street Journal picked up on the story, and it was briefly in the news. And there was actually a petition signed, with 20,000 fans asking for the album to be remixed and remastered.
When 20,000 Metallica fans start complaining about an album being too loud, there might be a problem.
Ian: The really fascinating thing about it, though, was that, as well as the CD release, the soundtrack was available as part of the Guitar Hero game on the PlayStation. We think what happened was that the files were sent out to the game manufacturers earlier on in the production process, before the decision was made to go for this extremely loud final result. So the files that were used in the game were much cleaner, less distorted, than what came out on the CD.
Ian: Some of the fans much preferred the sound of the Guitar Hero version to the released CD.
Let’s listen to the two versions, and see if we can hear the difference. We’ve matched the loudness level so you can focus on the quality of the sound. Here’s a clip from the Guitar Hero version:
[Music clip: Metallica Dynamic 1]
And here’s that same clip from the CD release:
[Music clip: Metallica CD version]
The CD version just sounds awful. Here’s another clip from the Guitar Hero version:
[Music clip: Metallica Dynamic 2]
And here’s the CD:
[Music clip: Metallic CD version]
It’s important to note that in order to match the volume levels in these clips, the CD version had to be turned way down. Here’s the actual difference in volume. We’ll start with the Guitar Hero version:
[Music clip: Metallica Dynamic 1]
Now brace yourself, you might even want to pull out your earbuds—here’s the CD version:
[Music clip: Metallica CD version]
Ian: It's very unusual for us, as music fans, to get the opportunity to compare the final sound of an album with how it might've sounded earlier on in the process.
The original CD release of Death Magnetic is an extreme example but the unfortunate truth is that the vast majority of mainstream music from the last few decades has had some version of this hyper compression treatment. This means that for most of the music that’s come out in the last 30 years, there’s a better sounding version that we’ll probably never get to hear.
Greg: I've found you can almost choose stuff at random.
Greg: “Let's Get it Started” by the Black Eyed Peas is a really big offender.
[Music clip: Black Eyed Peas - "Let's Get It Started"]
Greg: “The Fallen” by Franz Ferdinand.
[Music clip: Franz Ferdinand - "The Fallen"]
Greg: Vapor Trails by Rush was another one that was so poorly mastered that the fans actually rebelled.
[Music clip: Rush - The Stars Look Down (original)]
When Rush released Vapor Trails in 2002, a lot of their fans were unhappy with how it sounded, and the band actually agreed.
In 2013, they had the entire album remixed and remastered. Let’s take a listen to those two versions, and see how they compare.
By the way, we are adjusting the volume levels of these examples so we can compare quality, not the loudness.
Here’s a clip from the original version:
[Music clip: Rush - Nocturne (original)]
That guitar sounds kind of crackly, almost like it’s a broken speaker. Here’s the same clip from the remastered version:
[Music clip: Rush - Nocturne (remix)]
Everything sounds so much cleaner. Here’s the original again:
[Music clip: Rush - Freeze (original)]
And here’s the remaster:
[Music clip: Rush - Freeze (remix)]
Vapor Trails is a rare example of a band remastering an album specifically to improve it’s dynamics. Plenty of times though, you’ll hear fans complain that the remastered version of a classic album destroys the dynamics of the original.
Ian: Yeah, remastering is a bit of a controversial topic.
Ian: There have been reissues of classic albums where they've been pushed to the kind of extreme Loudness War levels that we've heard recently, which is not always in the best interest of the material.
Albums by bands like Led Zeppelin and The Rolling Stones get remastered and re-released over and over. When a new remaster comes out, services like iTunes and Spotify usually remove the older versions from their library. Unfortunately, these new versions might not be as dynamic as the ones they’re replacing. Our whole perception of what classic music sounds like is shaped by the specific releases that we get to hear. But as newer versions replace old ones, that history is constantly being rewritten.
These issues don’t just affect one or two styles of music. No genre has been safe from the Loudness War.
Ian: Unfortunately, we now have the situation where it's not being driven by the genre.
Greg: Some music really benefits from a louder, aggressive sound, but if you want to take hip-hop as a genre you can compare the typical hip-hop song today to a hip-hop song from the so-called Golden Era in the '80s and '90s, and I guarantee you that the ones from the '80s and the '90s are gonna have a bigger dynamic range.
Here’s a clip of Young MC’s “Bust a Move”, from 1989:
[Music clip: Young MC - “Bust a Move”]
And here’s “All of the Lights” by Kanye West, from 2010:
[Music clip: Kanye West - “All of the Lights”]
Ian: Ironically, some of the most dynamic releases recently have actually been metal albums, which is an extreme, loud genre
This is the song “Of Unworldly Origin” by the band Revocation.
[Music clip: Revocation - "Of Unworldly Origin"]
Ian: Whereas you get just other saccharine pop stuff that's pushed to within an inch of its life, I mean the last Miley Cyrus album was a country, folky thing, [Music clip: Miley Cyrus - "Malibu"] and it was as loud as Skrillex, [Music clip: Skrillex - "Purple Lamborghini"] which just feels insane.
According to Ian, mastering engineers face a lot of pressure to make music as loud as possible.
Ian: Most mastering engineers, if you ask them, would say that they prefer not to go for the super loud stuff.
Ian: I'm really lucky because I've talked about this issue for a long time. Most people know that I'm a fan of dynamics, and I'm not a fan of super-loud mastering. So, most of the people who come to me are not asking for extreme loudness, but a ton of my colleagues in the industry, all they get is requests for things to be louder. You know, the classic comment when they get back the master is, "It sounds great, but please can you make it louder?"
And even though these issues have gotten more attention recently, Ian says that not much has changed.
Ian: Over the last five years, lots more people are aware of this issue, and the reasons you might not want to go super loud, but they still request it anyway, because there's this idea that maybe they need it in order to compete, or to sell lots of copies, or to get the right sound for the style that they're performing in. None of that, in my experience, is true. There's research to show that loudness has no effect on the sales. There's research to show that users don't really care what the loudness is, it's all about the music.
So it’s not just mastering engineers who are responsible for making music louder. Musicians, mixers, producers, and basically everyone involved in the music production process have a roll in the Loudness Wars. But, there are signs of hope, and they’re hiding in some pretty surprising places. More after this.
Starting in the 90s, popular music became completely consumed by the Loudness War. Most albums since then have been extremely loud and compressed, and many have been pushed so high that they clip and distort unnaturally. Nirvana’s Nevermind arrived in 1991, just as this trend was catching on. Nevermind became one of the best selling albums of all time, but by today’s standards, it's pretty quiet. On the other hand, Californication, by Red Hot Chili Peppers, came out eight years later, and it was also a huge hit. Californication is a great album, but for better or worse, it's super loud, and super compressed. So I wonder, if it had been a little quieter, with stronger dynamics, would it really have hurt sales?
I’m not saying that music should sound exactly the same way that it was in the 1970s. But surely there’s a middle ground between the extremely light touch of the 70s, and the heavy-handed approach that took over in the 90s.
Greg: There are ways to do music that's very compressed that competes in the Loudness Wars and still has enough of a range from the difference between average levels and peak levels, to really sound nice.
Ian: So you’re always looking for the loudness sweet spot: that perfect balance between loudness and dynamics, where it’s loud enough, but it works musically, the sound is right, and it has the right emotional impact.
In recent years, some artists and mastering engineers seem to have found this sweet spot, and have made big hits.
Ian: For example, “Uptown Funk” by Mark Ronson and Bruno Mars was a huge hit
[Music clip: Bruno Mars: Uptown Funk]
Ian: “Get Lucky” by Daft Punk
[Music clip: Daft Punk - Get Lucky]
Greg: “Get Lucky” by Daft Punk I think is a good example. If you look at it on paper, you look at the peaks and the averages it looks like it's just peaking nonstop, but it's very subtly done so that there's enough of a difference between the averages and the peaks to really sound nice.
Ian: “God's Plan” by Drake is a massive worldwide hit and is not ridiculously loud.
[Music clip: Drake - God's Plan]
Greg: In terms of the Grammy winners, the song that Bradley Cooper and Lady Gaga did, if you look at that, that's got a more traditional sort of dynamic range.
[Music clip: Bradly Cooper and Lady Gaga - Shallow]
Greg: One interesting one, if you want to talk about going against the trend is Chinese Democracy by Guns N' Roses. Especially given that they were out of the public eye for so long you might think that they'd want to come back with a huge bang.
[Music clip: Guns N’ Roses - Chinese Democracy]
Greg: The story I heard from Bob Ludwig, the mastering engineer, is that he mastered three versions of that album and played them for Axl, and Axl chose the one that was the least compressed.
Ian: Bob Ludwig, who's a legend, offers his artists the choice. And if they choose the super loud version, that's the version that he goes with. But he personally prefers more dynamics, balanced dynamics.
This “loudness sweet spot” applies to remastering, as well. While some remasters have been overly compressed, others have done a great job preserving the dynamics of the originals, while making them sound even better.
Ian: The reissues of The Beatles' original albums that were done a few years ago are a fantastic example of that. They preserved everything that was great about the originals, and they sound even better than they have before.
Let’s see if we can hear how the sound changed across a few different Beatles releases. Here’s the original version of “Lucy in the Sky With Diamonds”:
[Music clip: The Beatles - “Lucy in the Sky With Diamonds” (original)]
Here’s a remaster from 2009:
[Music clip: The Beatles - "Lucy in the Sky With Diamonds" 2009]
And here’s the remixed and remastered Super Deluxe edition, from 2017:
[Music clip: The Beatles - "Lucy in the Sky with Diamonds" Super Deluxe]
All three versions sound great, but the newest one somehow manages to sound the most punchy, and the most spacious. Let’s do another example, here’s the very first mix of “Back in the U.S.S.R.” from The White Album:
[Music clip: The Beatles - “Back in the USSR” (original)]
And here’s the 2009 remaster:
[Music clip: The Beatles - "Back in the USSR" 2009]
And here’s remixed and remastered version from 2018:
[Music clip: The Beatles - "Back in the USSR" 2018]
These albums were recorded over 50 years, but by using the master tapes, the engineers at Abbey Road made these classic albums sound like they were recorded yesterday.
Audio tape was patented all the way back in 1929. In the 9 decades since then, a massive history of music has been recorded on analog tape. For special projects like the Beatles remasters, you can go back to these original tapes and use modern technology to bring the sound quality into the 21st century. But what if we lose these tapes?
In 2008 there was a fire at the Universal Studios Vault. The fire started from construction work on the roof. Universal Music Group hasn’t released the exact details on this fire, but it’s estimated that there were over 100,000 tapes with 500,000 songs stored in this vault.
The list of artists is unbelievably long and there’s no way I could go through the entire thing now, but just casually looking over it, here is a tiny fraction of who’s master tapes were probably stored there:
Louis Armstrong, Duke Ellington, Bing Crosby, Ella Fitzgerald, Judy Garland, Billie Holiday, Patsy Cline, Chuck Berry, Aretha Franklin, Elton John, Lynyrd Skynyrd, Eric Clapton, Jimmy Buffett, The Eagles, Aerosmith, Steely Dan, Iggy Pop, Barry White, Patti LaBelle, Tom Petty and the Heartbreakers, The Who, the Police, Sting, George Strait, Dolly Parton, R.E.M., Janet Jackson, Guns N’ Roses, Queen Latifah, Mary J. Blige, Sonic Youth, No Doubt, Nine Inch Nails, Snoop Dogg, Nirvana, Soundgarden, Hole, Beck, Sheryl Crow, Tupac, Eminem, 50 Cent, The Roots.
This is a tiny tiny fraction of what could’ve been in this vault. We don’t know for sure because in the ten years after the fire there still hasn’t been full confirmation. Losing even just one master tape is a huge hit to the music industry.
If these original master tapes were indeed destroyed, and had not been digitized, this is the biggest loss in our modern music history. That would also mean that none of these albums would have the opportunity to be remixed and remastered in the future like what we heard with The Beatles.
In recent years, music production has become almost completely digital. But a lot of people still prefer the sound and experience of analog. So, many modern artists have been releasing their music on vinyl, and that’s an encouraging sign for the Loudness Wars.
Greg: Vinyl is the only medium in the music industry that's actually growing.
Vinyl technology hasn’t changed a whole lot since the 70s. Due to the sensitivity of the cutting equipment, there’s still a hard limit on how loud you can make a vinyl record. As vinyl sales rebound, mastering engineers are being forced to consider how their mixes will sound on vinyl, just like they used to.
Ian: I wrote a blog post a few years ago, recommending that people master as if it's going to vinyl, but use that same master everywhere, for online, and for CD, and everywhere else, because that master will translate, and will work everywhere.
Ian: If a client was insisting on a super loud master for the CD release, for example, I would always encourage them to send a more dynamic version for the vinyl cut, simply because, as we said, there's a physical limitation. And again, there's no point in pushing that loudness super hard in the mastering for the vinyl if it's going to get turned down at the cutting stage anyway.
Ian: And actually, you do see a fair number of releases these days where the vinyl master actually sounds quite a bit different from the CD master, for that reason.
But the biggest change in recent years is the way most of us consume music: by streaming it.
When it comes to sound quality, there are pros and cons to streaming services like Spotify, Pandora, and Apple. On the one hand, they compress audio files down to make them smaller. This data compression can definitely result in a lower-quality sound. This is primarily so you can stream it and not eat up your cell phone’s data plan. But there’s another thing these platforms do to songs that’s actually pretty great.
Ian: The interesting thing about streaming is that, because sudden changes in loudness are the number one source of user complaints in TV and radio and also online, streaming services like YouTube and Spotify and Tidal, they want to give people the best user experience, so they have started measuring the loudness of songs they're playing back, and they turn louder songs down to stop people being blasted by sudden increases in loudness.
Greg: They keep it on a constant level because otherwise, especially if you were listening to a mix, if you were listening to Pandora or something, you'd have to be constantly adjusting your volume knob to deal with the fact that some records were louder than others.
Ian: And that's had two interesting effects. One is that it has removed the incentive, really, to make stuff super loud in the first place.
Greg: You’ve gotta figure that if you make music, a lot of it is going to be listened to through some sort of streaming service just because that's the way a lot of people listen to music today.
Ian: 87% of US music industry revenue in 2017 came from non-physical formats. So, only 13% came from CDs and vinyl and cassettes. Everything else was from streaming and downloads. So when that many people are hearing music for the first time online, the temptation to try and use loudness to stand out goes away, because even if you make something super loud, it's going to get turned down afterwards.
Ian: And then you have the situation where maybe some of those compromises that we've talked about, in order to get that super loud sound in the first place, actually become more obvious when they're compared to other songs that were more dynamic to begin with. Because you have this song that was squashed into this small space in order to get the loudness up there, but then you reduce the loudness again and suddenly it sounds kind of held in and constrained in comparison to the music that had more space to breathe in the first place.
Greg: Really, if you're a smart artist you know that and you don't use hypercompression because there's really no point to it.
A few artists have actually started making two different versions of their tracks: a more dynamic one that they send to streaming platforms, and a more compressed one that gets put on the CD and on iTunes.
Ian: Some people are optimizing music for streaming services. For example, the YouTube version of Dirty Computer by Janelle Monáe is actually more dynamic than the iTunes version.
Let’s see if we can tell the difference, here’s the iTunes version:
[Music clip: Janelle Monáe - "Make Me Feel" (iTunes)]
And now, Here’s the more dynamic YouTube version:
[Music clip: Janelle Monáe - "Make Me Feel" (YouTube)]
Ian: For me, I think it sounds better as a result. They both sound fantastic, but the YouTube version just sounds incredible. And the iTunes version, to me, when I compare it, just sounds held in. It's a bit more in a box, it's a bit more constrained.
As an artist, is it really fair for artists to give paying fans a worse sounding version of your new album? Doing so isn't just a disservice to them, it's a disservice to the music you worked so hard to make.
Greg: Why would you want to limit the tools that you have at your disposal? And I really think that's what hyper dynamic-range compression does. It just takes a tool out of the toolbox and there's no reason to do it.
If you like to listen to your music loud, the best tool is your volume knob. Making music louder in mastering, just for the sake of being loud, simply degrades the overall quality of sound. This brings us to why dynamic range even matters in the first place.
Greg: Well, you think about it in terms of what music and sound is. It's a sonic palette and there's different ways to use that palette. One of the ways is to vary the music from soft parts to loud parts. It sounds very elementary, but it's very important. You can say music sounds fine today and I'm not gonna argue with that, but it really is undeniable that there is an important part of that sonic palette that just is not being used and I think that a lot of music benefits from that kind of rollercoaster ride of soft to loud to soft. We like our ears to be kind of tickled by these really quick bursts of high energy that go from soft to loud. So that's why I think it's important.
Let’s use Photoshop as an analogy. Think about all of the tools you can use to tweak an image. You’ve got brightness, contrast, saturation, temperature. Dynamic range in a song is like contrast in a photo. High contrast means there’s a stark difference between dark and light, loud and soft. But when music has had all of the dynamics drained out of it, it’s like the contrast is stuck at its lowest setting. The image becomes gray, flat, and lifeless. Turning up the brightness on that gray image is like boosting the volume on a hyper-compressed song. Now you’re left with an image that’s almost completely white. Think about if we treated photography like we treat our music and made all of these photos just as bright as possible so that they could stand out from each other. Just think about how much less impactful those photos would be.
Ian: There are various examples of albums where I love the music, and I just find them frustrating to listen to because the sound doesn't do what I want emotionally.
Ian: It just feels like a missed opportunity to me, and especially if it's music where I love it and I want it to have that emotional impact.
But it doesn’t have to be this way.
Since streaming services even-out the volume between tracks, artists don’t really have to worry about standing out with ultra-loud music. So while it was digital technology that started the Loudness War in the first place, ironically, digital technology might be the thing that finally ends it.
Ian: Because we don't have to compete for loudness anymore, we can just choose whatever's perfect for the music itself, and know that it's going to be played back on a level playing field.
Ian: For me, it's an opportunity to go back to what mastering is all about, which is making the music as good as it can possibly be.
Twenty Thousand Hertz is produced out of the studios of Defacto Sound, a sound design team that makes television, film and games sound incredible. Find out more at defactosound.com.
This episode was written and produced by Casey Emmerling, and me, Dallas Taylor. With help from Sam Schneble. It was sound Edited by Soren Begin. It was sound designed and mixed by Nick Spradlin.
Special thanks to our guests Greg Milner and Ian Shepherd.
If you want to dive deeper into these subjects, be sure to check out Ian’s podcast, it’s called The Mastering Show. His website is called Production Advice. And check out Greg Milner’s book, Perfecting Sound Forever. You’ll find links in the show description.
The background music in this episode came from our friends at Musicbed. Visit musicbed.com to explore their huge library of awesome music.
What album captivates you with its amazing sound? You can tell me on Twitter, Facebook, or through our website at 20k.org. If you enjoyed this episode, be sure to tell your friends and family about us. Also, if there’s anyone in your life who records music seriously be sure to tell them about these two mastering episodes. And finally, support the artists you love by buying their music, and buy it in high quality.
Thanks for listening.