I’ve written before that if you want to make your music to stand out on the radio – make it dynamic.
That bears repeating – crushed, hyper-compressed “loudness war” style music sounds even more limp and distorted on the radio – and no louder than anything else.
I still get the feeling that people don’t believe me, though – and especially, I don’t think they believe how extreme the radio processing is.
So, when I was clearing out some old backups and found the files I’ve posted below – the ones that originally that proved to me beyond a shadow of a doubt that loudness means nothing on the radio – I decided it was time to let you hear them, too.
If you’re impatient to hear the evidence right away, scroll down to the section “The Evidence“, below. But if you have a couple of minutes, here’s the story behind the files.
The Mastering Webboard
Over ten years ago now, I regularly posted on the Mastering Engineer’s Webboard – an online forum where mastering engineers came together to discuss issues that concerned them. It’s gone, now – most of the discussions have moved over to the Gearslutz Mastering Forum.
But the Loudness Wars were a hot topic, even back then. “What’s The Story, Morning Glory” and “Californication” were still fairly new – the concept of a master with a dynamic range of only 4dB peak-to-loudness was just becoming a reality, and most of the engineers on the forum were horrified at the trend.
If only we’d known what music would come to sound like these days, we might have been changing our careers…!
What Is Hot ?
One problem with discussing the issue of loudness online is – what do different people mean by “loud” ? This was before the days of simple tools to measure the dynamic range of mixes like the TT Meter or my own Dynameter, for example.
An experiment to try and answer this question was put together by Tardon Feathered, of Mr Toad’s Recording in San Francisco.
Initially, the idea was just to compile as many different masters of the same song – “Angeline” by Applesaucer – as possible, and release the results, to get an idea of “What Is Hot” – meaning
- How loud would most engineers master a song ?
- How loud was that ? And
- How loud was “too loud” ?
Well, the results of the experiment, and the answers to those questions were fascinating – to read more about it on Mr Toad’s site, click here.
The Orban Optimod Broadcast Processor
But what followed turned out to be even more interesting. From Tardon’s post:
Robert Orban, the CEO and chief engineer of Orban Electronics took an interest. Orban makes most of the radio processing equipment used in the United States [and the UK – Ian].
This equipment does further compression, limiting and equalization to the music before it goes out over the airwaves. This allows the most average radio signal to carry as much music as possible. It is not designed to make music sound any better than it did before it was processed.
Mr. Orban ran selected mixes, including the original unmastered mix, through current analog and digital radio processing gear and gave it back to Mr. Toad’s. We then laid out the results into a single CD and voila – the experiment was complete.
The results were fascinating – and to some people, shocking. In fact, listening again to the files, ten years later, I can still barely believe it !
Here are the headlines:
- All the different masters have the same peak-to-loudness-ratio, after going through the broadcast processing
- The broadcast processing removes all the internal dynamics of the song – the beginning is just as loud as the end
- Even the original, un-mastered “low level” mix is audibly distorted after processing with the Orban – listen to the guitar on the right channel
- The higher the level on the original CD, the more crushed and distorted the “on-air” version sounds
- Even the EQ differences between different masters are reduced by the Orban processing
- The punchiest sounding broadcast version is probably the original mix !
Listen for yourself
I’ve uploaded three examples: the original “low-level” un-mastered mix, a “conservatively mastered” version (for the year 2000) and a “competitive” version.
After each file is the “broadcast” version – this has been processed with an Optimod 8400 using the “Rock-Medium + Low Bass” setting. Notice: that’s a conservative setting for this kind of processor !
These examples are adjusted for similar playback levels at the beginning – scroll to the 3-minute mark to hear how squashed the broadcast versions are.
(And by the way, its worth noticing that the “competitive” version has a peak-to-RMS (DR) of only 8 – which is distinctly tame, by today’s standards, where most albums are DR6 or less.)
The un-mastered mix – DR12
The Conservative Master – DR9
The Competitive Master – DR8
What does all this mean ?
It means that loudness means NOTHING on the radio.
There’s no point in making a “smashed” master for the radio – it’s not needed, and will actually make your music sound worse.
For the punchiest, cleanest sound on the radio, a peak-to-RMS of at least DR8 is needed.
If you want your music to stand out and sound great on the radio – make it dynamic.
I can’t think of a better way of concluding than to quote from the manual of the Orban Optimod-FM 8400 Broadcast Audio Processor (with my emphasis):
There is a myth in the record industry that applying ‘radio-style’ processing to CDs when mastered will cause them to be louder or will reduce the audible effects of on-air processing. In fact, the opposite is true: These CDs will not be louder on air, but they will be audibly distorted and unpleasant to listen to, lacking punch and clarity. We hope that the record industry will come to it’s senses when it hears the consequences of these practices on the air.
Well, that was ten years ago.
The industry didn’t come to it’s senses – in fact, things have got far, far worse.
We might be able to change that, though – by spreading the word.
Join us on Dynamic Range Day and help shout out the message:
NO MORE Loudness War
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