Loudness means NOTHING on the radio – The Proof

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 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 Loudness Meter, 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 Evidence

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 dynamic range, 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 an “on-the-money” 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 !

And by the way, its worth noticing that the “on-the-money” version has a dynamic range of DR8 – which is distinctly tame, by today’s standards, where most albums are DR6 or less.

The un-mastered mix – DR12

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The Conservative Master – DR9

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The On-the-money Master – DR8

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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 dynamic range 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

If you’d like to make sure you’re always up to date with news about Dynamic Range Day, feel free to sign up for the Dynamic Range Day Newsletter, using this form:

facebook comments:


  1. paul southerland says

    Dynamics is bad for the radio because people listen to it when they are at work, in the car, or while doing other things at home.

    There is nothing more annoying while at work than having to adjust the volume of your radio when a song gets quiet, and then loud. Offices want to be able to set the volume at a comfortable level and then not touch it. They don’t want the quiet parts drowned out by office chatter and phone calls, and they don’t want the blaring parts to be distracting. It is the same in your car, and at home while doing other things.

    Ever notice how insanely over-compressed soap operas are? Every time there is a pause in dialog there is a loud hiss from the noise floor getting compressed.

    That is because they are targeted at house wives who are getting other stuff done (originally at least), who want to be able to hear everything over any noise they are making.

    So, in that sense compression is very important for radio play. It isn’t necessarily about “loudness” but about consistency.

    I used to make mix CDs for a restaurant that I worked at, but the owner would always turn down the whole thing just because of a 1 minute loud passage. So I started compressing the shit out of the entire playlist, and then he was fine with it.

  2. says

    Hi Paul,

    Thanks for the comment.

    You’re absolutely right, and my point isn’t to blame radio for the compression that’s used – only to say that it makes any compression prior to broadcast pretty much irrelevant !

    Most people are shocked when they hear exactly how extreme it is, though.


  3. Robert says

    How to tell those cursed labels about this (Radio processing truths etc)?!?…And master DyNaMiC for a change, not squashed to death with DR6 and less?!? – LOUDER is worse not better!

  4. Jorano says

    Robert, if you ever get a chance to speak with anyone associated with a label, or an engineer, artist, etc., let them know how you feel. Spreading the word in any way possible is better than staying quiet. If you buy an album that has terrible mastering, write to the artist/engineer/label and link them this article or other articles that show how the loudness war is doing more harm than good. It’s the least we can do for now.

  5. Robert says

    @Jorano Hmm…I tried emailing and snail-mail post to some record labels and mastering houses like ‘Sterling Sound’ and complain about this, quite a few times. The crux is me besides not being in the US,…Cold ignorance is what I get back, usually not even a reply…Nothing! I’ve no idea on how to reach artists/bands about this yet. But this cursed ignorance is a huge stumbling block, like against a brick-wall! And the rotten $loudness-war squashing continues…Reaching to the stage to just heavily boycott releases…I’ve fed up with this rotten cold ignorance, and the crappy distorted releases continuing…I’ve even recorded a anti loudness war song (private at the moment…Called: ‘No More Loudness War’), and done some art paintings about loudness war…Which I like to exhibit one day…Feel real desperate!

  6. Gordon says

    I’ll make a simple comment… “All that available dynamic range sure seems like waste of space” Rememer the movie “Contact”


  7. says

    I have something more to add here. So much focus is being put into getting loud mixes, thumpy kicks and rumbly bass, sparkling pop vocals, a whip crack snare…where’s the songwriting in all of this? Pop lyrics these days tend to sound mindless, there’s no real passion in the music, the singer’s concept of chord progression is cloying and too obvious to be enjoyable, and the production gloss tries to make up for all it’s lacking. That is what you call turd polishing, and we need none of it!

    What there has to be, is better songs, PERIOD. Now, admittedly I don’t have the market cornered on great songwriting, but I am at least a small part of the coming revolution of singers who have more of a message than “shake ya booty booty, shake ya booty flaps” (and that’s just R&B… ROCK lyrics have also become mind-numbingly idiotic. Angst in rock sounds like it’s peddling car commercials. Everything is too over-produced and now with the loudness war, if anything good can be said of it, it’s that popular music with horrible songwriting sounds as bad as the “good” idea someone had to create it in the first place. It’s no irony to me that good music always sounds “right” in terms of dynamics.

  8. says

    This shit irritates me, because most of the people spouting this bull crap twist the truth… Yes there are some terribly mastered albums out there. But most of them conform to your “On The Money Master” The ones that get more compressed than that are fairly rare in the big scheme of things.

    Your “On The Money Master” sounds the best.. even though I think the song is awful and the singing is really bad.

    Good levels of compression add energy to a song, it’s nothing to do with trying to be the loudest (At least not as far as I’m aware, although some retards may have gotten confused about this point), people just make mistakes if they get caught up in the moment.

    Having mastered a lot of stuff, if you really get into a song or piece of music, it can be tempting to crank it, and sometimes engineers just forget to pull back on the breaks a little.

    It happens… Mastering Engineers need to have good feedback from the artist and label to do a good job, the whole processes of creating a great record is communication.

  9. says

    Hi Luke,

    Sorry, but the evidence is against your argument.

    The “on-the money” master is DR8. The further you go beyond that, the worse things sound.

    Take a look at this database, and see how many DR 6 and lower albums there are – and imagine wha the radio processing is doing to them:


    (Remember that the broadcast compression is always added ON TOP of what’s come before.)

    The are some releass with decent DR in recent years, but the are still many casualties.


  10. Knob says

    Here’s another take. When you listen to some of the recordings from the 60’s and 70’s on the radio they sound great, better than some of the newer mixes. For instance David Bowie or even the Beatles. At some point I think mixers started mixing to get that same compressed radio sound on the records because it added a certain amount of excitement and energy to the mix. Hence, the vicious circle of compression.

  11. MXM says

    Can someone please explain to me why it’s not industry standard to send unmastered mixes to radio stations? (Perhaps because a few mix engineers are getting lazier with their ITB mixes and mastering has to do all the EQ work?) I think this would solve the broadcast issue, eh? All my life I’ve thought of mastering as more of an album thing anyway…it’s supposed to get an even volume throughout the album and stuff like that. Maybe I’m just a silly young producer.

  12. The K-Man says

    I’ve been pondering this for a while. The technology exists for a setting or knob to exist on audio equipment – right next to the ones marked “Bass”, “Treble”, “Balance” and “Volume”.

    It should be labeled either “Compress” or “Compressor” or “Dynamic Limiter” that a dummy(read: 90% of the listening public) would know what it’s function is. Turn it clockwise and two important functions are applied simultaneously: (A) 1 to two stages of compression: 2:1 @ -20 and 4:1 at -10, and (B) automatic gain-back so the consumer does not have to adjust the volume after each time adjusting this compressor knob.

    In the car, or on portable devices, two or three settings would suffice, so those people would not have to take their eyes off traffic for more than 1/10th of a second.

    What do you guys think? It would allow artists and engineers to express themselves with the fully dynamic potential of digital audio, and give the CONSUMER control of how dynamic they want their music!

    If they’re at 60mph in traffic on a multi-lane highway press the compress button until “Max”. If they’re parked by the lake in the middle of nowhere, keep pressing compress untol “Off” displays.

    At home, if there’s 50 people chatting in a dining room or living room for 12, turn the Compress knob as far to the right so as much of the music remains just audible through conversations.

    When it’s just a couple on the couch, turn the knob fully to the left, and enjoy the full dynamic range of the original recording.

    On a noisy plane or subway, select “Moderate” or “Heavy” in the Compressor section of the Music menu in the iPod/iPhone.

    Folks we’ve got iPods that can run your house, realistic 3D bowling and flight simulations, AV home theater receivers in the house that can produce better sound than the local multiplex – WHY can’t a knob/settings like this be available to the mass market?

  13. says

    @paul southerland

    I think you missed the article above you. The whole point was that music with more dynamic range DOESN’T sound quieter. It sounds more…dynamic. It doesn’t require people to turn their volume knobs up or down: you simply enjoy quiet sections the way artists intended them to be. Life is all about balance and the ups and downs: if songs have the same volume throughout they’re bland and boring. You won’t have to turn the volume up or down but you’ll likely turn it off completely.

  14. Nelson T. Gast says

    Very influencing article, however this only shoots down reasoning for over-compression for radio play, which unfortunately is not the most popular medium today. As a college student, most of my peers listen to music via their iPod or iTunes. Is there any advantage to having your song “quieter” in that setting? From my own experience I find it much easier to get into a song that has been mastered loudly but that may be simply because my favorite genres are ones that tend to over-compress… any thoughts?

  15. CJ says

    Releived to find this, and your great site Ian. As I find so much music irritating and painful, just because of the harsh overcompressing and limiting (and the same goes for settling down in front of the TV – unless it’s a proper move or particular series with sweet, cared for dynamics and sound).

    There’s obviously a balance, but I miss warmth and dynamism a great deal. Let’s hope it’s coming back as has been mooted by Katz…


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