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Loudness Wars Coming to an End?

Many audio professionals believe the days of hyper-compressed recordings may soon end. Ian Shepherd, a British mastering engineer, says broadcast audio standards may help expedite the process.


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Metallica’s “Death Magnetic” album was widely scrutinized for the amounts of compression used on the album. The mastering engineer who worked on the album, Ted Jensen, says he is not proud of the way the album sounds, but the results are what the clients (producer Rick Ruben and Metallica) wanted.

The roots of the loudness wars can be traced back to the 1980s when music engineers in Nashville, Tenn. tried to make recordings as punchy as possible for radio airplay.

The negative effects of the loudness wars, which can be described as methods to make music sound “louder” on electronics that are limited in their ability to playback dynamic content, have reached a zenith level in today’s consumer audio market.

This recent emphasis on loudness ties into how consumers buy music. Digital downloads are the preferred music delivery method. And with the combination of low-resolution digital audio files and heavily compressed music (the tool/techniques used to limit the dynamic range of music), the visceral impact of music has been lost.

To counteract the effects of heavily compressed music, Ian Shepherd, a U.K.-based mastering engineer, Blu-ray and DVD author and owner of Mastering Media, Ltd, launched Dynamic Range Day (DRD), a grassroots movement to end excessive compression. DRD 2012 experienced its highest levels of interest since it debuted several years ago.

Awareness Slowly Growing
Outside of the professional audio community, more people are learning about compressed recordings, but Shepherd says little has been done to address the problem.

“Now pretty much anyone who is making music knows about [hyper compression]. In terms of public awareness, there is some growing awareness; mainstream media have covered the issue from time to time, but in terms of what has actually been released, I’m not sure there’s been much overall progress,” Shepherd asserts. “There have been some great sounding, dynamic releases, but super-loud, low-dynamic-range music is still the norm in many genres.”

Photos: Albums That Lack Dynamic Range

Shepherd says professionals within the recording industry are doing the best they can, but ultimately they are doing what the record labels tell them to do. He does point out, however, that an increasing amount of professional audio equipment manufacturers are stepping up to support his DRD cause, including Solid State Logic (SSL), TC Electronic, Bowers & Wilkins (B&W), PSB Speakers and NAD Electronics

“Sound quality is of vital importance to Bowers & Wilkins. Our founder, John Bowers, was a passionate music fan and he started making loudspeakers because he felt poorly served by the loudspeakers that were offered to him as a consumer,” says Shaun Marin, brand manager, Bower & Wilkins. “Decades later we continue to make world-leading loudspeakers - loudspeakers that bring music to life and reproduce sound as close as possible to what the artists created in the studio, although maybe not always as it was mastered to compact disc.”

New Standards may redefine Market
The first major step towards the elimination of heavily-compressed music could be the International Telecommunications Union’s (ITU) ITU-R BS.1770-2 standard recommendation for the measurement of loudness that was introduced in 2006 and revised in 2011.

Following the ITU’s recommendations, the European Broadcasting Union (EBU) released its Loudness Recommendation EBU R128 in August of 2010. Acting to rectify the problem on the broadcast side of the issue, many European and Asian broadcasters are adopting loudness standards that are based on the criteria first introduced by the ITU.

Here in the U.S., the federal government has also been proactive to improve the quality of broadcast television. By the end of 2012, the broadcast community will have to follow the Commercial Advertisement Loudness Mitigation (CALM) Act that requires commercials to be played at the same volume as broadcast television.

In terms of music and recording, these broadcast standards do not apply. But Shepherd theorizes the measurement standards will be applied to the production of music.

“Measuring loudness, in general, isn’t easy. Now the ITU has agreed on a new ‘loudness unit:’ the LU. You can measure short- and longer-term loudness over a whole song. They’ve also agreed on guidelines for broadcast; what the average loudness should be and how much you can vary it. The recommendation has been made law in the U.S. for advertisements and is also being adopted in the U.K. and all over the world. All the major broadcasters here - Sky, the BBC, ITV - have agreed to follow the standard.

“In the future the loudness of music and audio will be measured by this standard. Quiet stuff will be turned up and loud stuff will be turned down to get consistency. What this means is that if you take a super loud CD like ‘Death Magnetic’ [Metallica] and play it against [Michael Jackson’s] ‘Thriller’, they will play back at the same volume. But because ‘Thriller’ is more dynamic, it will actually sound louder, because it has more punch and headroom for musical impact.”

Making the Best out of a Bad Situation
Despite the record industry’s continued sales and marketing of heavily-compressed music, there are avenues music fans can pursue. Shepherd says technically-adept music enthusiasts can test the quality of their CD collections with software solutions like Audacity and the TT Meter plug-in tool. He also says that other solutions such as the Tone Boosters EBU loudness meter are also pretty affordable, and for those less technically inclined there are also less scientific methods available.

“In terms of listening, if after a while that you find yourself fatigued by what you are hearing, then the music may be heavily compressed,” Shepherd explains. “If there’s no contrast - no light and no shade - the choruses don’t lift, that’s a clue a song has been squashed. A great way to learn how this [compressed audio] sounds is to watch the meters [in these programs] while listening. This will help develop your critical listening skills.”

Shepherd says the key to building a quality music library comes down to how the music was produced. “There’s so much space on modern devices and users have the option of using FLAC and lossless formats, and that presents an opportunity to get the highest quality replay,” he emphasizes. “The file format, however, doesn’t reflect on the dynamics: It’s how it was mixed and mastered.”

Shepherd suggests that if music fans want an alternative to downloads and CDs, vinyl may be the solution they seek.

“It's ironic that some people are actually ripping vinyl because some labels are releasing vinyl with more dynamic mastering. The Chili Peppers last album, ‘I’m With You’, was rated at DR4 [dynamic range 4 rating], but on vinyl it measures DR9,” he says. “Adele’s album ‘21’ is more dynamic on vinyl than CD, too. This is nothing to do with any limitations of either format - the whole CD versus vinyl debate is a red herring. They’re different formats and they have different sound qualities. These differences in dynamics are choices made by the labels, artists and engineers.”




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Article Topics

News · Audio · Dynamic Range Day · Ian Shepherd · All topics

About the Author

Robert Archer, Senior Editor, CE Pro
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.

18 Comments (displayed in order by date/time)

Posted by Cactus FlapJack  on  06/26  at  02:04 AM

Did you have to write all this article to finally make your sales pitch for vinyl at the very end?

Posted by Jan Siwinski  on  06/26  at  02:34 AM

Fantastic read. I also agree with all the points you have made.

I’m mastering engineer at musicVee and I find that loudness is definitely one of the more common requests from our customers, more so by customers that produce or release digital music. You find yourself frequently at loggerheads between what they want and what you know is right. I believe a lot of it is down to…

1) Competition, ‘Skrillex is this loud so I want to be..’

2) Not enough education in the subject. It only takes ten minutes of watching a home production video on YouTube to realise that people are throwing compressors all over their productions. Sometimes without the need for them, sometimes completely mis-used.

I find that bands and labels that release the work of bands, appreciate dynamic range a great deal more.

We’re EBU R128 compliant. If the standards are befitted for broadcasting, I believe it should the same for all audio. It’s the logical option.

Cheers for the great read, I’ll share this one on Facebook.

Posted by Ruud  on  06/26  at  08:53 AM

It’s not just compression… there are different tricks mastering engineers are using to make records more loud.

Listen to the extreme high frequency hiss in Rihanna’s voice on the song “Bullet proof”. Makes the song much louder but it’s extremely fatiguing to listen to.

I’ve noticed the same in Manic Street Preachers song, ironically called “If you tolerate this your children will be next”. This song includes a lot of high frequency distortion that doesn’t seem to have to do a lot with compression, but does add to the loudness of the song. I wonder if it’s just very poor mastering or if it was done on purpose.

Also for example Coldplay seems to have a reasonable DR, but for some reason it sounds like the treble was turned way up, making songs sound loud and unpleasant… I’ve noticed the same in some commercials on Dutch television (where EBU loudness compliance is already in effect on all major tv stations). Some have ‘turned up the treble’ in order to stand out. Fortunately most haven’t and commercials sound much more impressive and pleasant now; sometimes they really use the larger dynamic range like it’s used on bluray movies; to create a dramatic effect. Very interesting!

Imo regulating music (even on cd’s) by the government may not even be a bad idea. I suspect that loudness may even be bad for your hearing because it exposes you to more (harmful) high frequency distortion and higher average volume (more sonic energy), not allowing the ear to recover during more quiet sequences or songs (which are simply not there anymore). So that may be a good reason to regulate it.

About EBU regulations for regular radio airplay: I think the effect would be limited. The dynamic range could be increased a little, but never beyond that of cd’s. Lots of older car radio’s don’t have built-in loudness functions so listening to the radio while you’re on the highway (with lots of tire noise) would be uncomfortable. Ideally the car radio should compensate for this and apply loudness itself so that a maximum quality audio signal is broadcasted. But unfortunately that’s just an ideal picture smile

And talking about Skrillex: dubstep music would sounds SO MUCH better and more intense if it was mastered with a proper dynamic range. Dubstep is all about being intense (as the genre’s melodic qualities are minimal), and in order to convey that intensity to the listener you NEED the dynamic range. You need targeted and controlled distortion and compression, not blanket distortion and compression.

And indeed: music on vinyl sounds better, the reason being the mastering process being different (vinyl is made for audiophiles); if you applied the same master they would sound nearly the same. The difference is purely in the mastering process.

Posted by Jan Siwinski  on  06/26  at  09:55 AM

Absolutely Ruud! That made me laugh,

“I’ve noticed the same in Manic Street Preachers song, ironically called “If you tolerate this your children will be next”.

Let’s get this fixed for the sake of the kids!! smile

I think with regard to the MSP’s high frequency distortion..they’ve probably just overdone the harmonic excitation a bit too much. Beautiful results if done well, awful if messed up. Though overdoing it can dull the sound. Without hearing it again I shouldn’t comment too confidently about them.

A great way to increase loudness without limiting is with Good Eq work and correct frequency routing. Back to Skrillex, I know he’s only young but he’s got Eq work down to a tee. Most of those vocal wobbles are done with EQ automation rather than taking the easy options.

A studio, whom I won’t mention the name of,  sent us an 4 track EP through last week with the majority of the bass frequencies panned left. I have no Idea why. I amended it back through the centre and got so much more out of the track. The band themselves have been back in touch with their compliments as such a simple alteration made a vast difference.

This leads me back to education in the subject. Though you would expect the studio to get it right in all honesty. That’s entry level production knowledge.

There are a lot of production schools opening now, both online and group classes, so maybe this is the start of better education. It wasn’t so easy to achieve these things before. Though again, most are aimed at electronic production as opposed to bands with instruments.

Posted by Gooch_Licker  on  06/26  at  10:28 AM

Puncy DOES NOT mean loud and compressed. It DOES mean dynamic with impact.

Posted by Ruud  on  06/26  at  10:30 AM

I’m interested in your findings if you ever hear that MSP song again! You can find it on Spotify (I assume that’s the same as the cd version).

About loudness through Eq: I don’t know if it’s such a great way. It’s probably part taste, but I like a “full” sound, and too much high frequencies makes a song feel messy and makes it very uncomfortable to listen at high volumes (just like a low dynamic range). Also it’s very hard to counter-correct; if I turn down the treble or re-eq, the vocals will often sound muffled because one instrument was mixed with different eq-settings than the others and the vocals.

The way movie soundtracks are mixed and mastered with a high dynamic range sounds sooo much better if I play it on the exact same speakers. A good example is the Star Trek (2009 JJ Abrams movie) soundtrack. Music, effects, ambience, panning etc. all done perfect; you can watch the movie at very high volume without it becoming uncomfortable. I’d love it if more music was mastered closer to this in terms of Eq and loudness!

Try to listen the end credits track at very high volume for example (the cd and Spotify soundtrack were made louder and contain more distortion, so you should listen using the original bluray disk). It’s just Eq’ed perfectly: notice the high frequency sound of the wind instruments without it becoming too loud or indistinct! Also the dynamic range is enormous. Ok, so is a lot of other classical-ish music’s DR, but still this is a good example of the amount of emotion you can put into music if you leave the full range in tact!

And yes, if I play the bluray on my laptop it sounds more silent. But that’s something my laptop should compensate during playback!

Posted by Robert Archer  on  06/26  at  10:48 AM

I wouldn’t discount the role the monitors played in these mixes with the extreme high frequencies. I don’t know why someone would add a massive amount of EQ to whatever frequency bands to make a recording “louder” but I think that if the person who mixed it had a set of monitors that rolled off the top end they could of unintentionally EQ’ed to compensate.

That’s just a guess.

Posted by Jan Siwinski  on  06/26  at  11:13 AM

With regard to the Eq, I meant whilst still in the production. And I would never recommend ‘Massive’ amounts of EQ. If it needs massive amounts then something is seriously wrong. When mastering, I find 0.2, 0.3 decibel changes can be plenty.

If you have 30 tracks and no EQ work to define the different elements, It’s just going to be a cloudy mulch. Using EQ to define and separate kick’s from the bass frequencies. Snares hit’s need to punch through but not overpower guitars and vocals etc. GENTLE EQ in the production can be more than enough to achieve this. I didn’t mean necessarily going as far as mid/side EQ or anything like that. A little is most often enough.

I recently passed one of my work in progress tracks I’m producing for an American vocalist over to the engineer at bloc mastering, mainly for another engineers appraisal really. The first thing they mentioned was the definition between the different elements. Clarity. All I’ve done is make sure the frequencies that are near or in the same bands stand out from each other. It doesn’t mean heavy EQing. Just a bit of a raise at the right frequency and a tight ‘Q,’ instrument depending, can be enough. Obviously the changes made are relative to the track.

Rudd, I’ll try and get hold of it. Trying to get my head round some ‘code’ tonight, which I’m a complete novice at, so once I’ve unbent my head from divs and iframes I will give it my full attention smile

Posted by Paul Van der Jonckheyd  on  06/26  at  11:16 AM

It is all down to fear!
Artists are so afraid, they think if their music isn’t ridiculously over-compressed it will not stand out.
I have been fighting this for years, loosing a lot of clients in the progress I’ an afraid.
Read my website at http://www.foon.be/better masters.html or my blog at http://recording.org/blogs/foon/332-the-despair-of-the-mastering-engineer.html

Posted by Dr. AIX  on  06/26  at  11:43 AM

The demands of the labels and artists for loud albums will not go away anytime soon and to offer vinyl as a solution is ridiculous. The dynamic range and other problems (crosstalk, wow and flutter) of vinyl make it a narrow cast format for collectors and dedicated fans. The solution is to find labels and producers that avoid mastering all together. I spent yesterday listening to our new Mark Chesnutt 3D Music Album™, which didn’t go through any mastering processing at all. The real world dynamics present on this track (and all of our releases) means that consumers can experience music the way it was meant to be heard.

The mainstream record companies and artists will NEVER get back to more dynamic range…it’s not part of their DNA anymore.

Posted by Bob Rapoport  on  06/26  at  11:52 AM

The chronology of progress in storage media technology over the years has determined the amount of dynamic range available to consumers.  From Edison’s cylinders to 78 rpm shellac discs to vinyl (at slower speed), first 45rpm, then 33.3 rpm with RIAA equalization because the disc could not store all the bass and treble, 8 track tape, cassettes, CD, DVD, and finally Blu-ray, its been a quest for more room to store the entire master recording with no compression.  Now that we are finally there, after 100 years of progress, we have a disc that can hold 50 Gigabytes! No compression necessary if you have the right connections and processing.

Its preposterous to think a vinyl album, designed in the 1940’s with 60 dB dynamic range can outperform even a
CD at 90 dB dynamic range, let alone a Blu-ray disc with a bit for bit identical copy of the original studio master recording at 120 dB dynamic range, the sound of a live performance is finally possible at home, in 1080p and DTS Master HD.  You must have a good audio system and the privacy to turn it up to hear it.

Posted by Jan siwinski  on  06/26  at  12:00 PM

That’s just it. What they want, against what you know is right. Catch 22. Or perhaps not….I read recently that the powers that be want to have the power to issue fines for “Bad masters” entering public stores. Which factors they mean exactly, I can only guess will be over-compression/limiting and peaking. I’m in a digital suite so I never let audio that comes my way peak above -0.1/-0.2db.

*Robert Archer* - Agreed. Monitoring plays a massive factor, If not the most important. If you can’t hear it, you can’t amend it.

Posted by Dennis Penner  on  06/26  at  01:16 PM

What about live concert dynamics?

Here is a letter to the editor I wrote after attending two concerts:

Dynamics,  Contrasts and Hearing Loss

Recently I attended concerts on consecutive nights at the Burton Cummings Theater
that were part of the Winnipeg Jazz Festival.

Thursday night’s show was opened by a blues band headed by Lucky Peterson, followed by Trombone Shorty & Orleans Avenue. Both bands had outstanding musicians in the group, I think – I couldn’t really tell because the sound was so loud that I couldn’t hear them!

Seated in the first balcony, my daughter and I covered our ears at times to get some relief from the distorted cacophony that was supposed to pass for music.  When Trombone Shorty started playing his horn, one could see that he was putting out a massive effort, but with your eyes closed you would not have been able to tell that he was even playing.  Drums, bass and guitar were cranked up to levels that obliterated the trombone, trumpet, saxophones and vocals for most of the evening. Worse, these levels were relentless – no dynamic contrast at all – only loud or louder. The sound system couldn’t handle the extreme levels cleanly, the room couldn’t handle the levels without saturation and our ears cannot handle those levels without the risk of permanent hearing damage.

On Friday night the show consisted of Ron Paley and his band followed by jazz legend Ramsey Lewis and his group. This evening also included drums, bass and guitars
but one was able to clearly and distinctly hear every note played by the pianists as well as every musician on stage.  There was amazing dynamic contrast, sound levels varied from pianissimo to fortissimo, but never once did the levels approach the threshold of pain.

Both concerts were able generate great enthusiasm in their audiences.
I fully realize that the crowd on Thursday needed higher sound levels than the more sedate audience of the second night, but those needs could have been satisfied with less painful levels – levels that would still allow us to hear the artistry of the musicians.

My iPhone dB meter registered 107 dB which is about the maximum that it can measure
so I am sure the level exceeded 110 dB for most of the 2 hour concert.
Don’t get me wrong – I love loud, dynamic sound - when we performed Mahler Symphony No 2 in the concert hall, the level in the back row of the choir also registered 107 dB. But it was unamplified, undistorted natural sound and it was that loud for mere seconds, not hours.

Here is what Health Canada has to say about levels of that magnitude:
“if the sound level of the dance bar music is at 110 dBA, you would be at significant risk for permanent hearing loss after only a minute and 30 seconds per day.”

To all bands and sound operators – Turn it down and let us hear the music!

Posted by Robert Archer  on  06/27  at  03:51 AM

I think more people are starting to bring ear plugs to live concerts because of the volume levels Dennis. Depending on the band they could be touring with a setup designed for larger venues and once you put that setup into a smaller room that problem can arise. It can also be difficult to control volume levels in a building because of the sound reflections.

I saw Slash at the House of Blues in Boston a few years and he had his full rig with him that he was also touring outdoor festivals and other large venues. He was super loud in the House of Blues with full Marshall stacks. I can also remember playing a show and the FOH engineer had us set our stage volume at 95dB, the SPL in the seating area was approaching 110dB because of the sound bouncing off the back wall.  I was playing through a Peavey 5150 half stack and I had my master volume set at three just to help keep the stage volume around 95db.

Posted by Ruud  on  06/27  at  06:17 AM

Paul: I think you’re absolutely right. It all comes down to fear. A lot of musicians seem to be very insecure wink

Also if bad Eq is a result of bad monitors, then how come blurays are often mastered perfectly? I know a few small mastering engineers and they use exactly the same front speakers for bluray and cd…

By the way another problem about a small DR hasn’t even been mentioned in the article or the comments, namely removing entire octaves at the bottom part of the spectrum, to accomodate for more high frequencies. I remember the person who mixed the latest Maroon 5 album telling how frustrated he was that his careful mix was put through blanket compression, which included removing the lowest octave and the lowest basses, in favor of a few dB’s more loudness… I would really love to hear the original mix. They should release it somehow, as a special edition something, or put it on a concert bluray or whatever, I just want to hear it.

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