Dynamic Range Day: Inside the Loudness War
Happy Dynamic Range Day! Founder Ian Shepherd, a U.K.-based mastering engineer, says the movement is gaining momentum as more people grow tired of listening to compressed music.
Within the world of audio, both on the consumer and pro sides, there has been no greater point of contention than the increasing levels of compression used to produce music.
The phenomenon grew to the point where it was given the name “loudness wars,” because it reached a level where one engineer would try to outdo another engineer by making his recording louder. The problem is that it employing compression destroyed the dynamic range of many of today’s recordings.
Over the past few years, Ian Shepherd, a U.K.-based mastering engineer, Blu-ray and DVD author and owner of Mastering Media, Ltd., has advocated through his popular Production Advice website an end to the loudness wars.
Shepherd’s most visible action has been his founding of Dynamic Range Day. This year the movement will be marked on Friday, March 16, with awards for the most dynamic recordings, and a variety of prizes from manufacturers in the consumer and professional audio markets.
To help celebrate Dynamic Range Day, CE Pro asked Shepherd to explain what forces are driving the loudness wars and what can be done to stop them.
What does a mastering engineer do, and how is it different than a recording/mixing engineer?
Mastering comes after recording and mixing - in a nutshell the idea is to make the music sound as good as it can possibly be. When you are mixing, you’re balancing elements of the mix to make a song - guitars against vocals for example - whereas in mastering you’re balancing song against song to make an album.
Another way to look at it is, it’s like Photoshop for audio. You get the best camera, you take the best photo you can and when you load it up on your computer you need to adjust the contrast, color, brightness - maybe you want to crop it, and that’s what mastering is for audio. Adjusting contrast and brightness is like using compression and limiting to manage dynamic range and loudness; color is equivalent to EQ; taking out clicks and hums is a bit like red-eye reduction! Those are really close parallels.
What type of training do mastering engineers typically receive - are you a musician, did you go to a music school, did you start as a FOH (front of house) engineer, mixing engineer?
I’m not sure there’s a typical route, but a lot of mastering engineers have come to the point where they were successful recording engineers first. I was the opposite, I did a degree in music and physics, and at the same time I was working on the live sound crew of the university sound crew. I was doing FOH and I learned to mic up guitars, amp cabinets and drums.
I went straight out of that to working at a studio for free. I worked there for several months and then SRT [Sound Recording Technology], a company based out of Cambridge took me on as a tape operator, initially. They did a real variety of work - lots of indie rock and pop - and they had a contract to record the Royal Philharmonic Orchestra, which at the time I think it was the biggest classical contract to be signed. They trained me as a mastering engineer from scratch when I was still young, I don’t think that’s typical. I worked there for 15 years, in the end.
I’m a musician - I play trombone, although once I started work I couldn’t find time to practice. Over the years I’ve done a lot of recording and mixing as well as mastering - and Enhanced CDs, which is a process of putting videos on CDs. From there we went into DVD, and when I left SRT it was because I wanted to move onto Blu ray - now all of that happens at Mastering Media.
Albums That Maintain Dynamic Range
Daft Punk Tron Legacy
Elbow Build a Rocket Boys!
Neil Young’s A Treasure
Pink Floyd Wish You Where Here
Radiohead The Bends
The Beatles Abbey Road
Is it important for a mastering engineer to work with a mixing engineer and record producer during the mastering process?
I really like it whenever the artist or engineer is involved. We call that an attended session, but it doesn’t always happen. I can ask questions and get feedback, so it’s a really interactive process, but often you don’t have that opportunity. Sometimes something was recorded 10 or 20 years ago, and so you don’t have the opportunity to ask those questions.
I like it, but it’s not crucial - although there’s often an approval stage. If you’re mastering a catalog album, you’ll mail them a CD master and get their feedback that way.
Briefly, what is the background behind the term “Loudness Wars”?
It’s the name given to the trend for higher-than-average levels to be put on CDs. The idea is that if you play one CD and then another, your CD is louder. It’s based on the idea that “louder is better” - if you play two identical CDs, but one at a fractionally higher volume, people will normally say they prefer [to hear] the louder one.
That only works when you have plenty of headroom, though - a volume control on an amp, say. On CD, there’s a hard limit to how high the signal level can go, so you’re pushing the music harder and harder against this “brick wall,” so there’s less and less room to make it louder, and so it has to be “crushed” in to fit.
This problem happened before on vinyl, it was famous on the Motown label, for example. But by the 1980s, when I started listening to music, had it faded away - as I think the current loudness war will fade away, eventually.
Bob is an audio enthusiast who has written about consumer electronics for various publications within Massachusetts before joining the staff of CE Pro in 2000. Bob is THX Level I certified, and he's also taken classes from the Imaging Science Foundation (ISF) and Home Acoustics Alliance (HAA). In addition, he's studied guitar and music theory at Sarrin Music Studios in Wakefield, Mass., and he also studies Kyokushin karate at 5 Dragons in Haverhill, Mass. Have a suggestion or a topic you want to read more about? Email Robert at [email protected]
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