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Dynamic Range Day - Loudness War Protest

Production Advice

make your music sound great

Learn the Loudness War secret that will give YOUR music an edge

by Ian Shepherd



Here’s something you might not expect to hear from me:

The Loudness War is your friend

Why ? Because it offers an easy opportunity to let your music stand out from the crowd.

Here’s how

Turn it down

If that sounds like nonsense to you, keep reading.

I’ve set up a very simple Spotify playlist.

It features a selection of songs, some very “loud”, some very “dynamic”.

(If you don’t have Spotify, take a look at this video, which demonstrates exactly what I’m talking about here.)

First, make sure that Spotify’s “Set the same volume level for all tracks” function is ON, in the preferences. This is the default, and means that all the tunes will be played at a similar average level, so you don’t have to keep adjusting your volume control when you’re listening on shuffle. Like I say it’s on by default, so you’ll probably already know if you’ve changed it.

Next, take a listen to the playlist, by clicking this link – and turn it up fairly loud.

Notice anything ?

Some of the songs sound better than others – MUCH better in some cases. Some have more impact, more space, more clarity, more punch.

Others sound blunted, squashed, restricted and constricted – distorted, fuzzy and mushy. Like Kanye’s “All Of The Lights”, for example, or “Broken Beat and Scarred” by Metallica.

Listen to the first version of “Rage Against The Machine” from 1’45″ building up to 2 minutes. Listen to the power, the thrill, the buzz – I challenge you not to start nodding your head when the main riff kicks in !

Now listen to the second version – the feeble 2012 remaster – at the same point. It just doesn’t work, in comparison, does it ? It starts out OK, but the build just doesn’t have the same intensity, overall it doesn’t have the bite or the snap, and when it reaches 2 minutes it’s just… a damp squib.

So, what’s the difference ?

The Loudness Wars are the difference – over the last 20 years or so, the average levels on CDs have been pushed higher and higher against the “brick wall” ceiling that all digital recording formats share.

And the only way to achieve this was to squash the music into a smaller and smaller “dynamic range” – roughly speaking, the difference between the loudest and softest parts of the sound.

As a result, measured using the TT Dynamic Range Meter, Metallica’s “Black Album” from 1991 has a very healthy dynamic range of DR11 – whereas “Death Magnetic” has less than one third that – it measures only DR3 !

(To get an idea of how those numbers stack up, click to check out this infographic. To find out how to measure the dynamic range of your own music, click here.)

But what does that mean ?

It means “All Of The Lights” has less than half the ‘crest factor’ of “Slim Shady”. Less than half the space for the drums to punch, for the vocals to bite, for the chorus to lift.

But wait – it’s louder, right ? Didn’t I say the levels were being pushed up ?

Well yes – but Spotify’s “normalise” function evens those levels out. So does the radio – to hear the proof, click here – and so do we, when we listen.

The first thing you do when you put a CD on is adjust the level, right ? Or even more likely, your mp3 player does it without you realising.

So why are people pushing the levels up ?

Good question. Maybe it’s label managers and A&R people’s fear of not being “competitive”, maybe it’s the eternal desire to “go up to 11“,or maybe it’s just a simple pissing match – “my CD must be higher level than so-and-so’s”.

Whatever the reasons, I’ve got news for you – they’re all bullshit.

How do I know ?

Well for one thing, there’s research to support it.

But also, just in the last few days, I saw an article in the excellentSound On Sound” magazine testing exactly this question. You should read the article for yourself, but here’s a summary.

SOS took three songs, and made three versions of each. One “full level”, one 3dB quieter and another 6dB quieter. No other changes – they all had the same degree of Loudness War “squash” as the originals, the only difference was the overall volume.

They then submitted the songs to SoundOut and asked people to review the tracks – blind, amongst a host of other songs, and in random order. You can read the full details in the original article, but here’s the headline:

The “Overall Track Ratings” calculated by SoundOut were the same at all levels

(Strictly speaking, there was no statistically significant difference.)

That means – listeners didn’t care that some versions of the tunes were nearly half the apparent level of the others !

Other ratings did come up with statistically significant results, but they varied by genre, and were very unexpected.

For example, the highest-level version of the jazz tune got a higher rating for “Market Potential”, but in the electronica genre, the lowest level (-6dB) track came out with a convincing 13% lead !

What does that tell us ?

Listeners don’t care about “loudness”

Either they don’t notice the level differences at all, or even when they do they don’t necessarily prefer the highest levels – in fact in some cases they like the quieter ones !

And this flies completely in the face of the “perceived wisdom”.

(Although it matches that research I mentioned very closely)

I can’t wait for Sound On Sound to do a similar test, but next time allowing extra dynamics for the lower-level songs. Based on the songs in the playlist at the start of this post, I think we can all predict which version people will prefer…

So, where’s the opportunity ?

Remember how much better the original master of “Rage Against The Machine” sounds, in comparison to the un-necessarily crushed re-master ?

You can have that advantage for your music, too. Just turn it down and let some dynamics back in !

Ease off the compression and limiting, reduce the level a little, and allow your music the same room to punch, thump, lift and breathe. In every situation the extra dynamics will give your music’s sound a competitive advantage. It’ll sound better in Spotify, it’ll sound better on the radio and it’ll sound better on your mp3 player.

Everyone else is chasing shadows, believing the hype, and holding their music back, for the sake of an urban myth. Listeners don’t prefer loud music at all – but they will notice that dynamic music sounds better, just like you did.

So learn to love the Loudness Wars, and use them to your music’s advantage !

Oh, and – tell your friends.

On Dynamic Range Day, if you like :-)

That’s a hint – click here to find out more !


Image by Orin Zebest

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32 Responses

  1. KJs says:

    Whilst I fully agree that the loudness war is a bad thing, we struggle when producing club music where the loudness war is in full effect.

    If our tracks are noticeably quieter when mixed into from another highly compressed tune then the DJ is going to automatically think that our tune is not produced very well and not play it again in the future.

    Do you have any ideas or tips on how to get round this?

  2. Siggidori says:

    @KJs: How about educating the DJs and showing them the volume slider/knob? … or suggest an compressor/limiter to them (last resort?)?

  3. Ian Shepherd says:

    Hi KJs,

    Thanks for the comment – great question !

    I actually think is another urban myth. As Sigurdór says, all mixers have a gain knob for each channel, so you can balance levels as part of the mix.

    The loudness wars make this even more important – if a DJ wants to play something from ten years ago as part of a set, it will always be quieter than recent stuff, and balancing the levels is a crucial skill for them to master.

    So a DJ won’t judge you harshly for a more dynamic mix if you’re around the DR10-8 range – she’ll thank you for giving a her a track with more beef than everything else ! The difference between that and a DR6 master isn’t enough to make her doubt your productions skills, but it is enough to make a huge difference to the way your music works in the room.

    This style of music is the closest we get to the hypnotic beats we all share in our common ancestry – and for that to work, it’s crucial you can FEEL it – which means, it needs dynamic range to work in. The kick drum and bass are massively important in dance & electronica, and the first to suffer from excessive compression or clipping.

    I’ve mastered plenty of this stuff in my time, and if anything tend to go for more dynamics rather than less, and I’ve never had any complaints…

    Cheers !

    Ian

  4. VIOZ says:

    I have a question: how expensive would it be for anybody to release two versions of a recording, one “loud” and the other “dynamic”, and let the public decide which to buy?

  5. Oscar says:

    I have to say that I love the sound of more dynamic when I am listening. But to KJ’s point DJ’s seem to ignore music without the “feel” Ian mentions. I guess for good reason. When you are playing in a club environment, there are so many stimuli that the music can get lost.

    Oscar

  6. Ian Shepherd says:

    I think this is the symptom not the cause. These days 90% of what’s released is squashed within an inch of it’s life. What the DJs are playing is an inevitable consequence, rather than them specifically choosing something with limited dynamics

  7. Ian Shepherd says:

    @ VIOZ Another good question – it depends. If all that happens is an extra master with more ‘crush’ factor, then not much – but you would have to pay for two sets of glass masters and alternative artwork/stickers. (A few hundred pounds extra)

    If the idea is to do separate dynamic and squashed mixes, it could be more expensive though.

    My question is – why bother ? All the evidence shows there’s no advantage to hyper-compressed versions, that’s the point of this post…

  8. All the decent DJs I know have no problem balancing differing track levels and spectral energy (it’s one of the core skills next to beat matching) and fully understand the meaning and power of dynamics, ebb & flow, tension, crescendo & release. And bad DJs will never learn these vital skills if there is no opportunity to do so due to the tracks being unworkably squashed.

    I recently ran one of my half-drunken bassy techno DJ mixes through the TT Loudness plug-in and – despite a subtle touch of post-pro multi-band compression – it received a rating of DR8-12. Listeners have commented that it is “weighty,” “wonderful waves of bass,” “sounds good, man”, etc.

    As you said, Ian, the kick and bass lines are the first to suffer from over-compression & limiting and the last thing a club wants is for the dancers to get ear fatigue early in the night and leave. I think the idea that dance music has to be flat to be fat is yet another one of these loudness war myths that needs to be tackled.

  9. Ian Shepherd says:

    Hi Anthony,

    “flat to be fat” – love it ! What we need are some equally “punchy” catch-phrases that tell the truth !

    Suggestions, folks…?

    Ian

  10. Kassim says:

    Absolutely right, when you listen to the 70′s production you diffidently feel the music, the dynamics and the creativity in building the stereo image, nothing is in your face; and i agree the only two type of music or may be more that somehow stayed on the right track are Jazz and classical music.

  11. Matt Colton says:

    I applaud Ian’s efforts on this front, and agree with the lions’ share of what Ian has written, with one caveat –

    The amount of dynamic range should be appropriate to the style and content of the recording and music.

    Some styles suit a more compressed sound and some don’t, and likewise some mixes handle more compression better than others.

    Dynmics are no different to EQ or reverb in the sense that getting it right means doing what is appropriate, not ascribing to a catch all theory such as if you measure DR 12 on the TT meter it will sound better than if you measure DR 7.

    (Whilst it may be said that in general this is the case, it can never be true in every case).

    The overwhelming deciding factor in how loud a mix can be processed in mastering is contained within the nature of the mix itself.
    For example a well recorded and mixed folk song may comfortably be made to go louder than a badly engineered death metal recording.

    Ears should always IMO be the final arbitrator of loudness, with our meters used as a secondary guide to help us make judgements, not the judge and jury themselves.

    Also the phrase ” It means “City Of Blinding Lights” has only half the sonic potential of “Bullet The Blue Sky” ” is kind of meaningless Ian, no offence intended!
    You seem to be implying here that dynamic range (which can be quantified) is inversely proportional to sonic potential (which obviously cannot possibly be quantified as it has no definable meaning). How far down the track does this train of thought run? If someone puts a compressor on the bass guitar in a mix are they reducing its ” sonic potential “? That would be extremely difficult to argue.

    I think the article itself contains enough well argued and rational evidence to support the case you make, without needing to be embellished with a little journo – esque flowery nonsense :)

    Overall though well reasoned and thought provoking – and well done for raising the topic and sparking the debate once more!
    And also further congrats for helping to spread the TT meter around the world – one of the biggest problems faced by home and project studio engineers is a lack of metering, with most DAWS offering nothing of any use.
    The TT goes some way to helping to address this.

  12. Ian Shepherd says:

    Hi Matt,

    Thanks for the comment ! And yes, guilty as charged – journo–esque flowery nonsense it is. Sue me !

    :-)

    More seriously, I also agree that the actual DR of every song should be judged on it’s own merits. This is what a professional mastering engineer spends much of the time judging. It’s a question of balancing impact, punch, density, space, genre, timbre, context…

    I stand by my rule of thumb, though. In ANY genre, consistently pushing the DR lower than DR8 inevitably involves compromise. I challenge you to find a DR6 album that wouldn’t sound better as DR8 ! Even really aggressive genres start to suffer beyond this point.

    (Of course too wide a dynamic range can be an issue, too – but that’s a whole other blog post)

    Cheers,

    Ian

  13. Raphael says:

    The Spotify Link in “I’ve set up a very simple Spotify playlist.” is broken – it points to http://productionadvice.co.uk/loudness-war-secret/www.spotify.com ;)

  14. raziel panic says:

    @vioz

    “how expensive would it be for anybody to release two versions of a recording, one “loud” and the other “dynamic””

    Aha! I had the very same idea. in addition to the “CD loud” master, we decided to offer what we’re calling the “high dynamic master” version. Because it is also in a higher-than-CD bit rate and depth. the files are larger, so it does cost a little more to deliver them. My name links to the band site with more info about it.

  15. [...] music industry is over. Research into actual sales rankings, Radio Impact, Listener ratings and Hearing loss, all show better results for music with a higher dynamic [...]

  16. matthew andrews says:

    ok its all very well talking about this, but if the record company’s executives are in a bubble and are unaware of this then whats the point. how can this be communicated to them? or to some one they will listen to? (bono?)

  17. Ian Shepherd says:

    Good question ! My hope is that simply by raising awareness we increase the chances that this will “filter up”.

    But also if everyone emails U2′s fan club (say) with messages saying “Atomic Bomb sounded rubbish, “Horizon” was a bit better, let’s get back to the “Joshua Tree” for the next album please – that might have an effect ?

    Actually, I don’t care about mainstream bands making their stuff dynamic (although I was very disappointed with King Of Limbs) – I just want the people who read this blog to stop feeling pressured into making the same mistakes themselves.

    Ian

  18. Sure, education of a client is part of this but sometimes we deal with very experienced industry people and if they require a hotter master they get one. I tend to go to a certain level where I am happy I have retained punch in the drums and then reasonably often you get the request to push it louder. I don’t refuse, though do explain the trade offs.

    It is a service, are you telling me no one has ever asked for a louder master? I find it hard to beleive judging on my weekly average requests for a “hotter version”, I had to do a hotter version for a piece of religious worship music this week, lol ! Even god wants to hear it louder man.

  19. Andre' says:

    Just got the TT Meter yesterday and I must say I was astonished at what it told me. My mix had a dynamic range of 3. After applying some multiband compression and limiting on the stereo bus the dynamic range actually rose up to 13. I must say it does sound more engaging this way but it does have much less impact when you play it after an “industry standard” track. As a newcomer I feel this works against me so I remain unconvinced. I guess metal has been a victim of loudness more than other styles because there’s less dynamic range to compress to begin with.

  20. Ian Shepherd says:

    Hi Andre,

    First, for a heavy genre 13 dB is more than is needed for a final master – the loud sections will work well at DR8.

    Also, check out these posts and tell me if you’re still unconvinced !

    http://productionadvice.co.uk/loudness-war-secret/

    http://productionadvice.co.uk/loudness-means-nothing-on-the-radio/

    http://productionadvice.co.uk/research-loudness-sales/

    Ian

  21. Jez says:

    I think you’re article misses a fundamental issue concerning how different listeners – particularly younger listeners – consume music for most dance, electronica and hip hop where the main playback medium is either a portable mp3 player or a mobile phone speaker then loudness matters as either there is an inhibitor that limits the volume, or the speakers are so shitty anyway that volume becomes an issue.

    I know very few, normal clubs, that actually have a decent sound system – and in venues it all tends to sound a bit shitty anyway. Couple that with Statutory noise limitations based on peak rather than RMS and we end up with a situation where in order to pop in a club it has to sound louder. Catch-22.

    I agree that uncompressed music sounds better (I need to only pull out a stack of Vinyl from the late 80′s to know that)and for Radio I take your point – but for most listeners on an ipod in a noisy environment, on a subway or in a noisy city – Loudness has it’s benefits.

  22. Ian Shepherd says:

    Hi Jez,

    I fundamentally disagree with the idea of mixing or mastering for the “lowest common denominator” – it’s worth bearing it in mind, but there’s nothing anybody can do to make something sound good on a mobile phone speaker, so why bother ?

    DR8 as an average will sound fine on crappy playback systems, provided the mix is sound. Why make the rest of the world suffer for kids who aren’t really listening anyway ?!

    Ian

  23. Avien says:

    Turning down the level will decrease the range of dynamics just as turning it up will. What a terrible recommendation!

  24. Ian Shepherd says:

    Hi Avien,

    I think you’ve misunderstood the post.

    Turning the music down before any compression or limiting will allow more dynamics in the final master. Turning it down afterwards won’t affect the dynamics at all. Either way, it can’t make things worse.

    Ian

  25. Hello Ian!

    First of all I just want to say thank you for this site, it has been and continues to be an invaluable resource, and I very much appreciate what you do for us! :D

    I just want to share some of my observations from my experience as a club DJ and playing in relatively big rooms on big systems.

    Based on my experience talking to and playing with high profile DJs, I think (though I could be mistaken) the general consensus is that it has become almost impossible to play old tunes these days because there will be too big of a difference in volume mixing from one to the other.

    Your suggestion of using gain knobs to equalize the levels, in my experience, would’t work because during peaktime sets in a big room with a club full of people you are already pushing the system to its limit. The mixer’s master output level is regularly in the red. Ive watched closely as some of the biggest names in the game have been behind the decks, and ide say 95% of them are 1 or 2 bars in the red on the mixer for most of their set. And they are playing the most current, squashed, low Dynamic range music out today…

    So, throwing in a classic with high dynamic range would inevitably require a significant loss in overall volume, because there’s just no where to go any higher on the gain. The peaks of the the high dynamic range track would just

    It ofcourse depends on the particular club and soundsystem… I am guessing the worlds best soundsystems are able to achieve satisfying levels without requiring the DJ to max out the mixer’s signal. But where im from, in the clubs ive played, peaktime sets are almost always redlining all night :(

  26. Ian Shepherd says:

    Hi Leo,

    Thanks for the comment ! A few people have made similar comments, and I see your point. The solution is simple, though – turn the amps up.

    More gain at the amps means the mixer can be run less hot, which means you can turn the loud stuff down and have headroom to bring the quiet stuff up.

    Of course the problem with that is that clubs are subject to noise legislation, and in many cases the amps are in a locked cupboard behind a very large bouncer :-/

    So, I do see the problem (I said it was simple, not easy !) but I don’t agree that the solution is to crush the crap out of everything to compensate for this one specific listening situation.

    If DJs can get a good relationship going with club owners, I don’t see why the amps shouldn’t be tweaked for people who want to play more dynamic stuff – assuming they don’t abuse the privilege and blast everybody – it just takes a little time and communication. Which of course we don’t always have – I’ve worked in live sound and understand the problem.

    Again the new ITU recommendations may come to the rescue – I can imagine mixers in future that adjust playback volume based on loudness measurements. This would make life easier for novice DJs and also provide a way to prevent people breaking the law in terms of level – which would mean it would be safe for a club owner to set up a decent gain structure on their gear.

    Time will tell…

    Ian

  27. Mary says:

    “Turning the music down before any compression or limiting will allow more dynamics in the final master. Turning it down afterwards won’t affect the dynamics at all. Either way, it can’t make things worse.”

    Thanks for this tip Ian! I’m working on some songs that turned out pretty good recently. For starters I’m using the BX-Digital Hybrid EQ. That’s the best eq I’ve got! I don’t even bother with my other equalizers anymore.

    Most of my songs I’ve analyzed thus far are around the -17 to -25 rms levels. (Before compression/limiting). That’s way too low for me. My latest songs fluctuated between the -10 to -15 range. Low enough yet loud enough for me. I haven’t had a steady DR8 yet, fluctuating slightly below or above that range. I’ve noticed digital clipping before adding compression or limiting with the variable RMS levels even within the -17 to -20+ ranges. Long story short. Turning down my master fader, I think to around a -2 or -3 output will probably:

    1) Minimize or eliminate clipping (even though there’s no distortion in the song (un-mastered mix-down version).

    2) Allow more headroom to bring up the overall volume level of the song during the mastering stage.

    3) Improve the dynamic range of the material.

    In closing this may be what I need to do.

  28. Greco says:

    Does it make sense then to have two versions of a track- a quieter one with wider dynamics to deliver to the radio stations and then a ‘louder’ mastered one for online / cd release…?

  29. Ian Shepherd says:

    Lots of people suggest this, but I feel there’s no need for different versions – there’s a “sweet spot” where music works equally well in both situations.

  30. Theo Karpo says:

    This is indeed a very troubling issue for us ‘amateur’ home recording artists who have any kind of ambition for real-world success. A friend of mine, the same who introduced me to music production, also was the first to enlighten me about the “loudness war”. I could hardly believe it!

    It’s quite incredible that music quality is degrading over time – in nearly every regard. My only theory behind this, which is rather philosophical, is that recorded music is static, and that therefore since its introduction has become progressively less organic and more “enhanced” and “plastic”, or artificial – that’s its nature to begin with – it’s becoming “more of itself”. Perfect stasis, to the point of complete homogeneity, seems to be the destination:

    Autotuning – no tonal variation; clicky drums and synths – no timbre or texture that reeks of the feverish jungle-people from which we evolved; no dynamic variation of course as discussed here. Artistically, no spirit – bling bling! Hehe. Basically, it’s the further domestication of an already static art-form, as if propelled by a desire to eradicate all the quirks of music until it is a pure sine wave and nothing more. The same trend can be seen in painting [look at those boring cubes and circles of abstract art!], sculpture [the same], film [no long takes, no flaws, it has to be a fast, easy-to-take-in delivery of a story], literature [smaller vocalubary, less ambiguity]… it applies to just about everything. Food as well is progressing from being totally organic to processed and full of synthetic chemicals. Perhaps this is the natural path of industrialism – toward greater ‘fakeness’.

    The only solution: make music for ourselves. If you want to keep the traditions of organic and lovely music alive, you might have to forsake the modern goodies of music commercialism and thousands to millions of listeners and fans. You might have to make music just for yourself and friends and family, and maybe a few hundred or a couple thousand others. Much like the bards of old. This is what most real musicians are doing these days, and cheap tech makes it increasingly accessible. They play in their own region when they do live stuff, and learn production themselves and even release their own CDs or Internet content. After a few decades of their current chaos of millions of people taking advantage of accessible tools to crown themselves ‘musician’ [as if that were actually anything desirable, LOL], the fakes will be weeded out and there will again be recognised stars, experts and geniuses, all self-made. But then, in that next wave of music awesomeness which will be born of DIYness, there will be no middlemen left standing, and the music will be by the people, for the people. This truly seems to be the way it’s happening, and makes me feel like the “recording revolution” I’m participating in is something really worth doing, even if sometimes the current state of affairs makes the future seem bleak.

    https://soundcloud.com/theo-karpowicz/

  31. Jeff Evans says:

    I did join the organisation you recommended:

    http://www.dynamicrange.de/

    I also became an active member and downloaded the TT Loudness Meter. I have found that I have several measuring tools in my arsenal as a mix and mastering engineer. Firstly K system metering which does go a long way towards great and dynamic mixes. Secondly the free Orban LUFS meter and this is a very nice tool to have as well. Now I feel the Loudness meter is really excellent and offers a third form of measurement.

    After working with it now I can see why it is easier to express dynamic mixes as a dynamic range reading as opposed to what you should be striving for rms wise or LUFS wise in a mix. I can also see how it is a matter of balancing everything so that a mix may be taken up in level obviously from the premastered level. But taken to a point and stopping obviously so the DR reading stays healthy.

    A great example is Steely Dan’s ‘Everything Must Go’ CD. The average rms level is about -12 dB. The LUFS reading is somewhere around -14 LUFS and the DR reading is a beautiful 10 or so. No wonder that CD sounds so great. It is literally a perfect balance of loudness and dynamic range. Yet it still sounds punchy, transient as hell and just kicks ass! (Wonderful band too that helps!)

    Thanks Ian for all your great info and also how to use and read the DR meter. That is very important for sure. You have given me some real world and useful mastering targets now to go for.

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