Music Hits a Brick Wall

By Chris Oliver

March 25 2011 was ‘Dynamic Range Day’, an online campaign to raise awareness of one of my pet peeves: the so-called ‘Loudness Wars’, which came to public attention in 2008 after Metallica’s album ‘Death Magnetic’, was ruined by horrible distortion (more than usual). It’s a technical issue, but put simply, music producers are squeezing the dynamics out of music to make tracks louder – even to the point where records are too loud for CDs to handle them properly.

For a long time, there’s been an advantage in mastering records ‘hot’ (loud) – something Motown Records was well known for. On a fixed-volume jukebox, your tunes will be louder than everyone else’s, so they’ll be more noticeable. Research also showed that most people feel a small increase in volume makes a record ‘sound better’.

This was all the evidence producers needed, but very soon, limits were reached because vinyl could only handle a certain maximum level – and then the real problems began. Producers used a process called compression to ‘squeeze’ the whole record and increase the loudness. Compression can sound great in the car, where you would otherwise struggle to hear the quiet bits above your engine, but the more you use, the less dynamics you get.

This process happened all over again when CDs became the medium of choice for the mainstream audience, this time kicked off by Oasis producer Owen Morris. Another nail in the coffin was the MP3 revolution, when people increasingly began taking their music everywhere with them, listening to poor quality audio on poor quality devices, often through tiny speakers. Once again, producers thought they would gain competitive advantage by mixing loud. Nowadays, a digital technology called ‘brick-wall’ compression is used, allowing much harsher compression; the result is that the average rock track is almost ten times louder nowadays than in the late 1980s.

The problem is that it’s only average loudness – the peaks are the same – the loudest snare drum is no louder on a new release than it is on 1991’s Nevermind, for example. A CD can only reach higher peaks if you turn up your stereo – but in compressed music, the loudest parts no longer stand out from the rest of the song, so those soaring crescendos that make your hair stand on end, the piercing, punchy drum intro on Smells Like Teen Spirit (and even the surprise in Haydn’s surprise symphony) are all gone in modern remasters, casualties of a pointless exercise. Think of it this way – would this blog read any better if it were all written in 72pt font and in block capitals? No. It would be utterly ridiculous – but that is the farcical level that some records are getting to – and recent research shows no increase in sales for records with lower dynamic range. Conversely, many of the greatest records ever made show quite the opposite – a very high dynamic range.

There are a number of solutions available or on the horizon that will let you listen on the bus, without hurting the music. The most widespread are ReplayGain technologies and iTunes ‘SoundCheck’ – which create a uniform ‘loudness’ during playback – making dynamic music stand out from the crowd. Another alternative is putting DRC [Dynamic Range Compression] technology in iPods, MP3s and car stereos. Industry standard settings would mean engineers could mix perfectly for connoisseurs and casual listeners alike.

Other grass-roots organisations suggest different approaches. The Pleasurize Music Foundation propose an industry-wide ‘peace treaty’: an agreed maximum level for loudness in music releases way below the current standard equivalent to the pre-Oasis years. A similar level is suggested by ‘Turn Me Up’, who offer accreditation for records with a high dynamic range.

Whatever happens, I’m glad that people across the industry are speaking out about this, because it can only be good for music. There’s nowhere else to go – compression and artificial loudness have literally hit a brick wall, and the music is not the only one suffering – most of a generation has missed the chance to experience music as I did in my youth – to hear vibrant, dynamic new releases from contemporary bands on great sounding systems. If they had, I believe it would affect them just as it did me – and help to bring back the soul in music. Whether the music industry itself will ever benefit from this remains to be seen – will the next step in music technology be one which offers better quality to consumers – instead of the current downward spiral? I think the damage may already be done, but if the industry take the first step – issuing remasters with greater dynamic range, instead of squeezing the life out of them, then who knows where we could end up.

More info and winner of the first winner of Dynamic Range Day HERE

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