Mar 4, 2011
The Loudness War is your friend
Why ? Because it offers an easy opportunity to let your music stand out from the crowd.
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 !
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.
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