What’s happening ?
In the last couple of weeks we’ve had new releases by Drake, Beyonce, James Blake and Radiohead – and the overall (integrated) loudness of all of them is lower than I’d normally expect. Here are the numbers:
Radiohead -9.9 LUFS
Drake -10.2 LUFS
Beyonce -10.5 LUFS
James Blake -14 LUFS (!)
Wait, what ?
If you’re paying attention, you’ll have noticed that the number for the Radiohead album is barely different from Beyonce or Drake’s – and in a recent post I said that those numbers were “positively restrained, especially in these genres”. But in the same post, I criticised the new Radiohead single for being unnecessarily loud ! How can both statements be true ? Do I need to eat my words ?
Sadly, no. And this post will show you what I mean.
It’s not about loudness, any more
The awkward fact is, the raw integrated loudness figure for an album tell you almost nothing about individual songs within that album.
All these releases include plenty of songs with sparse, mellow arrangements – and their integrated loudness measurements are lower than many current pop releases as a result. And this means they can sandwich in a few really loud songs without having a huge effect on the integrated loudness number – in every case apart from James Blake’s, which really is at a much more sensible overall level than most new releases. (Did I tell you how great it sounds yet ?!)
It’s about dynamics
So if raw loudness isn’t helpful, what is ? That’s where my Dynameter plugin comes in. As the name suggests, it’s a dynamics meter. It gives an estimate of how “squashed” the dynamics of the music are, by measuring the difference between the peak level of the music and it’s loudness. The closer the loudness level of the music is to the maximum peak, the less “loudness space” it uses, and the more “squashed” it will be.
The technical name for this value is PSR , which stands for the “Peak to Short-term loudness Ratio”. It’s effectively an updated version of the TT Meter’s “DR” measurement that you may have heard of – and Dynameter shows a colour-coded graph this value over time, so you can see at a glance how much “loudness space” the music is using.
In a nutshell, the higher the PSR values, the more dynamic the music is likely to be. Very low PSR suggests the music is heavily squashed, utilising relatively little loudness space, and having limited dynamics as a result. Whereas larger PSR values are usually seen in music with more dynamics.
In my experience, audio quality inevitably starts to suffer when the PSR falls below a value of 8, so PSR 8 is coded red on the graph, and lower values go brown and then grey to indicate extremely limited dynamics. Whereas higher PSR values are coded orange, yellow, green, blue and purple.
But what does this tell us ?
You can see how Dynameter measures the PSR profiles of three of the albums I’m discussing in the infographic above, and immediately you can see why I still say the Radiohead album is “too loud” and Drake has better dynamics, even though they both have almost identical integrated loudness measurements of -10 LUFS.
Focusing on the lowest PSR readings, where loudness-war crush is most audible, you can immediately see that “A Moon Shaped Pool” frequently drops as low as PSR 6 – with a tragically low minimum reading of PSR 3. Whereas although “Views” dips down as low as PSR 6 for two songs, visible as bands of dark red in Dynameter’s display, most of the time PSR 8 is more typical – and as I mentioned above, it is possible to go down to PSR 8 without too much risk of loudness damage.
And James Blake ? His album briefly dips down to PSR 6 a couple of times too, but the typical value is even higher, at PSR 10.
So how does it SOUND ?
I said in my original post about James Blake’s “The Colour In Anything” that the dynamics of the album encouraged me to turn it up – and when I did, it sounded great.
In stark contrast, I constantly find myself turning the Radiohead album down. The overall LUFS loudness measurement suggests you should be able to listen to it at a similar volume to Drake, but that’s not how it feels. Fatigue and irritability soon set in, and I keep reducing the volume untill it becomes nothing but background music – which I’m guessing is the exact opposite of what the band were hoping for!
The sound is blunted and stodgy in comparison to Drake and James Blake, for me. They have far more space and detail – in particular there’s far less depth and thump in Radiohead’s sub bass. And the biggest moments feel “held back” to me, full of compression pumping and saturation, whereas the loudest moments of James Blake sing out, sending shivers down my spine. Isn’t that what music is supposed to do ?
Which is a huge shame, because just a few dB more PSR could have made all the difference in the world. The music of “A Moon Shaped Pool” positively cries out for that extra loudness space to take advantage of. It’s tailor-made for dynamics, but the band have chosen to let that opportunity slide. The album was mastered by Bob Ludwig, who is a passionate advocate of dynamics. But he always offers multiple versions and lets the artist choose – and Radiohead went for the “loud” option, as they always have recent years.
The algorithms of the online playback platforms seem to agree with my subjective opinions – YouTube turned “Burn The Witch” down by 5.6 dB soon after it was uploaded, whereas “Hotline Bling” by Drake is only turned down by 4 dB. In contrast, the replay volume of James Blake’s “I Need A Forest Fire” is left virtually unchanged from the level it was originally mastered at, meaning the loudest moments are actually a dB or two louder than the end of “Burn The Witch” !
Don’t take my word for it, though – here’s a playlist with all three songs, judge for yourself. Which song really jumps out of the speakers at you ?
(If your answer is “none of them”, it just goes to show that “loudness” really is pointless…)
So is this the end of the loudness war ?
But it’s a step in the right direction, even though both the Drake and Beyonce albums still have a handful of songs on each where the levels go over the top – and the James Blake album shows that they didn’t need to.
But until artists like Radiohead can reject the loudness FUD and choose a more dynamic master, the war will rumble on.
Meanwhile, we can’t sensibly compare whole albums from raw loudness figures – or even the internal dynamics of a single song. Whereas PSR analysis can give immediate, intuitive, at-glance feedback – in realtime, as we work.
According to both my ears, the measurements and the online loudness management software, if the PSR of your music is too low, too often, it will suffer both sonically and in in terms of the playback volume.
Whereas if you want your music to sound great and stand out, a typical PSR of 10, dipping lower at the loudest points, will sound excellent, with maximum punch, clarity and impact – and will be played just as loud as anything else, if not louder – both online and by end users.
And most importantly ? People will want to turn it UP.
For more information about Dynameter, click here.
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