This blog is about a big topic, after ranting and raving about the problem we have today with horribly mixed and mastered recordings I thought I would sit down and write my thoughts out in full. Hopefully this will be enlightening, interesting and most of all thought provoking. The so called loudness wars are something the music industry needs to get over quick if we are to enjoy music as much as we deserve to in the future. The practice of hammering music, to within an inch of its life so it appears louder next to other peoples songs is what I am talking about.
What is loudness?
Loudness is a funny thing. It is measurable as SPL (sound pressure level) in units called Decibels (dB). The loudness of your music is controlled, by the volume controls attached to the device you are playing back the music on, and the SPL level or loudness of your music is never controlled by the file, disc or wax tube the music was stored on.
Now I realize it may seem a little strange that I would define it like that, but hopefully it will make more sense a little later on when we discuss where things have gone wrong.
So, loudness is the power of the sound waves moving through the air also known as SPL. In your day to day life the loudness of sounds you will hear as you go about things can vary greatly, you have probably seen a chart like this before:
As you can see things vary a lot and we can generally adapt to most situations as our ears are pretty clever bits of kit.
When it comes to music, true loudness can be an exhilarating full body experience; we really do love to immerse ourselves in great music. Amplification allowed us to really heighten the experience especially in the club music we so love. So we probably all agree, in the appropriate setting loudness is fantastic, so, you would be forgiven for wondering… why are the so called “loudness wars” a bad thing?
First of all let’s straighten things out; from this moment on I officially re-name the loudness wars – the “digital clipping and distortion wars” because the truth of the matter is: that is exactly what they are achieving in modern music. Before we can get our head around how this has all come about we should have a look at the mechanics & inherent characteristics of the different formats music is delivered in, so that we can see the simple mistake artists and marketing execs. at big labels and radio stations have been making for years. So I will try and keep it simple for them!
Analogue Systems & how vinyl kept the idiots at bay
Back in the days when the Number 1 music delivery medium was vinyl disc and most mix-downs were completed on analogue desks, life was much easier for the music-lover, listener and the audiophile. In the most simplistic terms, the basic process and restrictions involved in getting a good sound when pressing to vinyl actually supported the ideals of preserving and retaining dynamics in music. If you limited and compressed a piece of sound to within an inch of its life, removing all the dynamics through limiting or even clipping, the end result on the vinyl would be that it probably had to be pressed quieter, resulting in a record that is more distorted and basically inferior. This dynamics preservation is one of the reasons vinyl was and still is a wonderful medium, and you won’t see it disappear anytime soon. This simple side-effect of the format supported the idea of a good balanced mix-down, a good master where the emphasis was on clarity, balance and keeping the dynamics, putting all the emphasis on great song writing, mixing and composition. That can only ever be a good thing.
Not only was the delivery medium on the side of good sound, but the way the mixing desks and the whole analogue studio world worked, was also much more forgiving and aimed at mixing music, as I discussed in a previous blog, as you get hotter on an analogue desk, it is more forgiving and sounds 1,000 times better, even when you start to push it. There is no digital style clipping (missing peak data) but instead you get a distortion which is often characterized as warm, fat… or lovely and which is often very musical.
On an analogue mixing desk the 0 or unity gain is actually the equivalent of -18 on a digital mixer – or maybe a little bit higher, it varies a lot but you can start to see where confusion could creep in here.
Digital Loudness and the way digital works
On the flip side of this whole equation, digital sound is a very different world; the concepts used in mixing well may as well be flipped on their head. Zero in the digital realm is the absolute top of the scale. There is nothing, and can never be anything above it. 0 Zero is full scale, 100%. There are no musical benefits you can get from pushing your song up into 0, or clipping. All you are doing here is making a very expensive trade between distortion, and dynamic range, as you clip your transients the dynamic range of your song will reduce and it won’t take long for the harsh digital distortion to be unbearable. So why do we see this so often nowadays, what has happened?
What’s happened is really a mix of many things. As with most things in audio and life itself, it’s very complex and that’s why I think it’s taken a long time for people to really nail down and start to form a response to fight back. First you have educational gaps and losses, both through the lack of knowledge being passed down by those who had it, and also the incorrect knowledge being passed on. Through this period we experienced a change in the fundamental mixer design that most people used, but we still found a lot of people using analogue mixing techniques in digital mixers – where they were completely unsuitable. That’s why, amongst other reasons, when digital mixing first came around, there were a lot of complaints that it was a closed and horrible sound, as it was probably being used incorrectly and I dare say people were getting a lot of added distortion.
The loudness fetish and how it came about
So somewhere along the line we also had a change in delivery format, the Compact Disc’s meteoric rise. The ramifications of this sea change in format were more radical than people may have realized at the time. You have probably wondered why I have spent some time explaining the differences between analogue and digital, and the way they worked. In my opinion it’s that change in format which was also mirrored in the switch from vinyl to CD as the main delivery medium that sparked the race for loudness. The CD had none of the down-sides when it came to pressing a heavily distorted, clipped or limited track. If you could record it then you could definitely press it to CD (and the same goes for any digital medium).
Somewhere along the line, there was a “moment”, don’t ask me when I couldn’t tell you! An idea was formed that the louder sounding song would catch the attention of the listener and ergo… would be more successful (i.e.: competitive) on the radio. Now considering that – as I stated to begin with – the ONLY true loudness control is in the hands of the listener, this idea was folly! But you can see the logic behind it. The brashest pop was bound to get more attention and be remembered by those who were not actively listening or particularly interested. Not to mention that the idea that overall control was in the hands of the major label marketing and sales execs. and that by just making their songs louder than the rest, they could increase popularity, must have been intoxicating option. If they could boast the loudest music on the radio this was an easily measurable route to success, right?? Wonderful….. err….. no. So this is how the clamor to be competitive in terms of “loudness” started and human nature naturally joined in.
You see, human nature is partly to blame for this whole affair. Because of the way our ears work the way we hear sound is not uniform as it changes volume. If you increase the volume of something the way we perceive it changes, so to the layman not paying attention in his car or the expert messing around in a million dollar studio a small increase in volume can be perceived as better in relation to the sound (or song) before it, it can appear stronger and more defined at first. So your mind actually tricks you into thinking it’s an improvement.
If you then add to that the MAD (mutually assured destruction) of the loudness wars mind-set of the time, once they are going for ever louder and louder recordings, all to compete for audience attention on the radio, how do they stop? They have artificially created a situation where they are using human nature to manipulate the teeming masses almost subconsciously into taking more notice of their records. But, they have picked a format which has a definite TOP to its range, at 0. Which they were perilously close to when they first started back in the 80’s. A 24bit digital file has 144dB of Dynamic Range, with 0 at the top. So if you imagine, even with a nice dynamic song destined to press to vinyl, we may have around 17dB of dynamic range, so we are already only really operating in the top 15% of that 144db range, and that’s with great dynamic music…. the shambles that is some of today’s music is that we see a lot of music at 7dB rms, and some even higher.
At these levels, the distortion is heavy and dynamics and percussiveness are almost none existent, it’s like taking a 3D space, and squishing it into 2D. It’s a WALL of sound and not in the good way. There is a whole dimension of music that is mostly missing from the modern world, and not because artists deemed it unnecessary, but sadly because of the fetish and madness of a few people whose only ultimate interest was financial gain.
What digital loudness really is
The Digital “loudness” you get with a limiter or by clipping / compressing / maximizing the audio is just the constraint of dynamic range, so it’s bringing up the level of the sounds in the background to trick the ear into thinking it is louder, at the expense of the dynamics of the drums and other sounds. There is no equipment invented yet which can effectively contain the peaks of the dynamics without generating any distortion, so the main cost you pay is an increase in that distortion, a loss of finer details and as you hit it harder, a generally mushy and sad feeling in your soul! Gone is all the punch, impact and dynamism which is so important, especially in house music and music intended for clubs. All this damage is achieved for a perceived volume increase that could be achieved by using the REAL loudness volume control on your car stereo, and turning it up no more than one notch….ONE NOTCH. (Notches may vary but you get the idea)
This info-graphic of some of the best-selling albums of all time and there Dynamic Range shows quite clearly that higher digital RMS loudness doesn’t sell more copies at all. There is a nice spread of volumes covered there, and I dare say people are making their purchase decisions on the music itself, wouldn’t you?
As it stands we have a loudness bubble, which is hopefully about to burst. Admittedly it won’t be easy, it’s funny because another element of human nature is that, we don’t like big change and the way our memories work we do get accustomed to things, and come to expect them. So we have a generation now who will actually say they prefer the sound of low quality MP3 and uber-limited recordings with no dynamics just because that’s what they grew up with and are used to. So there is obviously an educational element to all this, dynamics add so much to music, literally a whole new dimension that people need to get used to. Once they do, it’ll be a real eye-opener. Check out the video below (about 32 minutes in but the whole talk is great) – he plays a volume adjust example that shows the difference between heavily compressed and un-compressed music, when the two are played back so their average volume is matched, it shows the only difference between the 2 tracks is that where the uncompressed keeps its dynamics and sounds alive with movement, the squashed master sounds lifeless and distorted. This is the error we have to correct. Admittedly it is due to human nature that in effect we may have mislead ourselves, but we did originally know the joy of a good mix-down – so we have no excuses.
The long term effects of digitally loud, but distorted music
Loud music has effects we can immediately discern and effects we can’t. A lot of the way we enjoy music is subconscious or just a feeling and that’s why a blind A/B test when it comes to music can often be miss-leading. For example: take the digital master of your favorite album and the vinyl copy of it. You will find you just get more enjoyment, and longevity out of the vinyl version. It’s a very complex experience when we listen to music and there are lots of subtle things that you may notice, as I always say: it’s the tiny details that matter so much, but if asked what was wrong you likely could not say exactly what it was. Music is an incredibly powerful and real thing, so when sounds are subtly wrong, or when almost inaudible distortion is causing you to not fully let yourself get into the sound, you notice these things and they affect you. Imagine the alarm bells that are going off in your sub-conscious when you hear a terribly loud album on a noisy car stereo. Of course you can still enjoy it, that’s how powerful music is. But when you hear a great recording, on a great sound system, in a great room it can be a truly life affirming experience and that’s no over-exaggeration. We are used to using our ears, and we know how stuff should sound, we naturally recognize all the clues when something is real, and this is why we also know when some thing’s not quite right.
Why dynamic music is nicer to hear, and nicer to hear LOUD
If your recording has natural dynamics, it just sounds right; it completes the music and adds that extra dimension. Listening to balanced dynamic music is nicer at loud volumes, it’s easier on your ears and your brain; it doesn’t become tiresome so quickly like bad and distorted recordings do. The most important things to audio quality are balance, dynamics and clarity of playback – the last 2 directly correspond to avoiding bad distortion. I recently watched this video with the maker of Function One sound systems for clubs. A must watch, he really lays it out when it comes to great sounding loud music. In the best clubs the music can be super loud and enveloping and your ears won’t suffer, it’s the distortion which fatigues and damages you experience.
So the big question
We have the controls, there is no benefit for us in their “loudness” war and there are many benefits in stepping away from this madness… so what’s the next step? There is a ground swell of mastering engineers, artist and listeners starting to work to sort this problem out. A new standard by EBU is on the way hopefully, if we could get them to install this average volume matching standard on the radio the problem would be solved overnight, with the very people driving the loudness wars forced to mix their songs well to sound technically good… rather than rely on a perverse human psychological trait to sound louder.
Listeners are not too lazy to adjust the volume of the tracks themselves, and as an industry we should provide music in a way, and a format which keeps sound quality high, all the dynamics, and also offers them a steady playback volume, so they know what kind of ACTUAL LOUDNESS they are setting with their own controls.
Slaves to the technology
For a long time the music industry has been driven more by technology and the convenience of things than what really matters, obviously – the quality. What we need to do now, knowing that the internet has matured, fast internet is here and convenience could not get much better, is to make it really about quality. First let’s retire MP3, we don’t need it – WAV quality or higher is just as convenient as MP3 once was, and the distortions MP3 can bring into sound are just unacceptable when we consider the facts and measure against audio quality. Admittedly this is not going to happen overnight, but I am quietly confident that a lossless high definition format will come along soon and be heavily marketed by one of the appropriate companies. (for example FLAC already exists)
In this EBU system I mentioned we now also have the technology to put in place a quality average volume matching system for consumers; if you want to experience this for yourself I suggest you get Foobar2000, and this plugin R128NORM. Once set up, these will match all your music so it will play back at the same average volume, and it does a much better job than iTunes algorithms or anything I have heard before. In fact I would go as far as saying that this EBU system, or something like this, should form the basis of consumer playback standards and radio playback systems. It would really even everything out; the way it matches the average volume of a recording allows well recorded tracks with dynamics to stand out against heavily compressed stuff. Just as they actually do with a quick flick of your radio volume control now.
These kinds of standards are already in place in the world of video and movies…. so it’s not unheard of.
I also think there would be a trickle-down effect on the quality of productions. We live in a technology driven world which has brought a lot of new people into production – there are a lot of new labels and music out there. Although a lot of it is somewhat inferior. There are evidently a lot of producers who don’t know how to make a good sounding balanced mix-down and often end up leaning on limiters or other mastering tools such as Izone, the results are mushed and poor-sounding, but loud. With the adoptions of a system like EBU, their stuff would be presented as it is, and not artificially pumped up against the good tracks around it. These guys would then have to learn to mix well and compete. Not a bad thing?
My message to producers: mix lower down the mixer…let your drums crack and aim for a balance of the sounds which sounds punchy. Don’t try and squash power into your mix, just let it all breath and use professional mastering on your mix-down afterwards if you can… you do not gain punch, power or notoriety by having it digitally loud. The only thing you gain is distortion and a mild undercurrent of annoyance in your listeners. Music is a powerful and complex thing – often people allow their liking of an artist and their music to influence them, and they will deny that “over-loudness” is a problem. The fact is that this is a problem, it’s bad audio quality and there’s no getting away from that, there is no music that wouldn’t sound better with a dynamic mix-down. Not even Metallica’s crazy 4dBRMS album. I understand that some people might think this is purely an artistic preference, maybe a statement about their vibe – but in reality those artists who make that statement should be few and far between, most definitely not the norm, as it is today. It just doesn’t sound good. Nothing says music has to sound good, but wouldn’t you imagine the majority of artists want it to? Of course! Loudness is in the hands of the DJ, the listener…the end user…it is not a part of the recording.