Loudness Wars Coming to an End?
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 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.”
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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.”