Mastering engineer Ian Shepard (Tricky, Deep Purple, The Orb) owns DynamicRangeDay.co.uk annually hosts and spreads an awareness day about the Loudness wars that have begun sweeping over the music industry. This year, it falls on March 16th, 2012 and since we here at 2020k spend time dissecting the engineering, mixing, and mastering techniques of some of today’s more interesting and anticipated records, we’ve decided to spread the word and inform readers why we place so much emphasis on dynamic range during some of our articles on the website.
For starters, we’ll break down the basics:
Dynamic Range is the measurement of of the maximum to minimum amplitude that a given device can record. On a record, we measure dynamic range by taking the loudest and quietest parts on the record and applying a RMS formula that determines the average decibel measurement of range between an audio signal.
Lately, record labels and industry executives have asked that records be produced at a rate that makes records appear to sound louder. To do this, compression is applied to a recording. Compression is a piece of outboard gear that is basically automation on steroids. It will turn down the louder parts of an audio signal, but it will also turn up the quieter parts of the signal as well.
A small bit of compression is fine for a record. It can be used as a way to keep spiking peak transients in control (like the fast transient of a snare drum) and also can be used in a creative way to balance out volume control. For example, if a vocal track seems to be higher in certain parts of the song and unnecessarily quieter in others, the compressor will smack down the bits of the vocal that are peaking too high, and turn up the transients that are peaking too low. This is controlled by several parameters on a compressor, including the threshold, ratio, attack, and release rates. (However, we’re just going over the basics here).
Record labels have found that if you apply mass levels of compression to a song or an album it creates a louder record. The problem is that since an audio level can only be recorded at such a certain rate, audio engineers have been mixing at such hot levels that the audio signal has literally been squashed to death, so that a healthy waveform now looks like a brick wall and all the quiet parts are just as loud as the loud parts.
This doesn’t sound so bad until you take it a step further. The records are also turned up so loud that they’re being distorted. Digital distortion is caused when an audio signal is being ran so hot that it reaches it’s peak on the digital meters (which read up to 0 Decibels Full Scale (or DbFS). This creates very unnatural sounds. You know them when you hear them as it sounds a bit like static or an unnatural, muffled or digital crackling noise.
It also distorts the signal in ways such as the soft sounds being turned up so high that they too, sound unnatural and distorted.
Why is this done? All for the sake of hoping that a song grabs the listeners attention more than the last song they’ve heard on a radio station or jukebox (old school). It’s been happening since the compressor but lately it’s completely sucked over the entire market place.
On Kelly Clarkson‘s “Stronger (What Doesn’t Kill You)” (Youtube), you can hear the noise floor of her vocal tracks being compressed up so loudly that it literally sounds like ocean waves in the background of the music.
“Americano” by Lady Gaga is one big distorted mess. (YouTube)
PROFESSIONAL, AUDIO RECORDINGS are being distorted both during the recording, mixing, and mastering processes of an album because of the need for loudness. We’ve mentioned this on the likes of 4 by Beyonce (review) and have even noticed it on Iamamiwhoami‘s latest release “Good Worker” (but Iam’s has more to do with a clipping signal than a dynamic range issue. We will have an article about in a day).
Also, we do not have to get into the no headroom, brick wall, balls to the wall limiting and mastering techniques of Californiacation by Red Hot Chili Peppers and Death Magnetic by Metallica. We even slammed into Emika for it during our review of her debut album last year, despite actually loving the record’s content.
It’s repulsive, really.
The whole point of music is to be heard so why do we have to compress, limit, and master everything to the point of where everything is at the same volume and everything is clipping? It causes frequency issues, it causes quick ear fatigue, and it overall does not sound good. As a matter of fact, there is a law called the CALM Act that was put into place in the world of Broadcasting that legally capped commercials off at the high volume. Most TV commercials have a dynamic range of 3db, which is why they sound so much louder than when a TV show or movie (especially older ones) are being broadcasted.
The reason we use the TT Offline Loudness Meter and the DR Database so much in our reviews is that it’s a subtle critique or hat-tip to the engineer who produced a certain record. Tracks with more dynamic range are not always good, as creative distortion can be used on songs like “Doe Deer” by Crystal Castles (YouTube) but when you’re Skrillex (YouTube), there’s no need to have your entire EP falling at an average 3dB of dynamic range throughout your entire recording.
If it’s used for creativity? Great. If it’s used to balance out part of a mix or for volume control? Lovely. If it’s used for the sole purpose of being loud? It’s engineering and audio signal neglect and we will not stand for it. Especially since it’s been proven that a louder song doesn’t even effect how you’re perceived on a radio signal.
To read more about the loudness wars, we ask that you visit dynamicrangeday.co.uk. Follow them on twitter, like them on Facebook. And we’re just one side and an extremely broad surface scratch. Do all you can to research.
Dynamic Range Day doesn’t start until tomorrow, but we wanted to get this up early. What will we be doing to celebrate the day? Nothing. We’ll be chilling to Aja by Steely Dan. One of the most beautifully put together records and holds a DR rating of DR14.