Friday, March 16, 2012

Music Production and the Loudness War

Magnetic Death to Your Ear Drums



The vast majority of my music consumption is through headphones. There are many advantages to this--it reduces outside distractions, clearly reproduces every detail of the songs, and allows me to pick up on production that plays with the stereo channels. But there are also disadvantages, the biggest of which is that, from album to album I have to adjust the volume. That's even worse when playing my entire library on shuffle. I've tried options such as the "Sound Check" on my iPod, but that just makes everything flat and shitty-sounding.

You would think that by now there would be some kind of standard or technology to make sure that everything is at the same volume. Sadly, that's not the case. And things keep getting worse.

A recent promo from groove/technical metal band Misguided Aggression is a particularly bad offender. Upon playing it, I quickly had to turn the volume down, literally all the way. Even so, it was an unpleasant listening experience, and despite two attempts I couldn't make it through more than a couple songs. As such, I issue summary judgment against the band. (With a cheap pair of ear buds you wouldn't have that problem so much, because they lose a lot of signal between the player and the speakers.)

The Why

Why do people want to make the production louder in the first place? The simple fact is that people like their music loud. It sounds better when it's loud. When you have your own volume control, you can turn it up yourself, but this problem began with jukeboxes, where no one adjusted the machine's volume between songs. If your song was louder than the one that preceded it, then it sounded better, at least in an environment where there is a lot of background noise or the speakers are of low quality. This resulted in labels, producers, and musicians engaging in an arms race to make their recordings louder, to sell more singles.

Why the trend continued in the CD era is somewhat of a mystery, but with today's iTunes, single-song download mentality, you can see why it's getting worse. And most people don't have the right equipment (or, indeed, the right ear) to detect the problems.

The Why Not

So, what are these so-called problems? Keep in mind I am not a sound engineer or any other kind of educated expert, but I will try to explain this as best I can.

The most prominent example of excessively loud production in recent memory is Metallica's Death Magnetic. Reviews of the record almost always mention the terrible clipping. Clipping is distortion in the sound created because the waveform of the sound is attempting to be louder than the medium allows. It's kind of like playing your stereo louder than the speakers can handle. It sounds pretty metal, when you put it that way--after all, some metal legends played with their amps turned to 11--but there's a big difference between doing that to create a sound and doing it on the medium you want to reproduce it.

Clipping is only the most-cited problem. But even worse is the loss of dynamic range, or dynamic range compression. If you listen to a classical music recording, you will likely have to turn the volume way up, because there are very quiet parts. But the loud parts then get really loud. That is an integral part of the listening experience. Its importance to classical music is the reason it's the only genre which seems to be immune to the loudness war. Dynamic volume causes you to pay closer attention, and makes the louder parts just that much more dramatic. I often mention dynamics in my reviews, but the volume dynamic is often forgotten.

It's bad enough that dynamic compression robs the music of its impact. But even worse is ear fatigue and hearing damage caused by consistently loud volumes. If you play some modern-production tech-death record and play it at a high volume, it's going to get tiresome, and can cause a headache. But if you take a record from Led Zeppelin's early career, you can play it at a much higher maximum volume without any problems. Hearing damage and ear fatigue are caused by constant exposure to high volumes. A dynamic recording gives your ears a much-needed break, AND it lets you listen to your music at higher volumes.

What's the Ideal?

Now, I want to caution you not to conflate quiet production with good production. Yes, a good production is going to be quieter than a Death Magnetic production. But even a quiet recording can be flat, and if you turn it up loud enough it's going to be just as hard on your ears.

I must admit that I've become somewhat accustomed to louder production. It may take me several tries to get the volume for a new recording adjusted properly, so I can really evaluate the music inside. But when I find a truly dynamic production, it is a real treat.

Movies already have a standard in place, the THX standard, that certifies (among other things) that it has high sound quality--which means, in part, dynamic range. Music has a number of different standards that are out there, but they are not so widely accepted yet. I'm not saying labels and bands need to start paying for certification, but there should be a standard that they can strive for. To me, it would be ideal to have dynamic range on every album and yet never have to adjust my volume, but given all the different variables (average volume, sustained high volume, maximum volume, etc.) that's nearly impossible. I'll settle for good dynamic range.

What To Do About It

Today is the third annual Dynamic Range Day. Visit the site. Raise awareness. As metalheads, we are in a relatively small music community that is very much driven by our opinions, on the Internet, rather than by the opinions of label heads. We can make a difference.

But there's a lot more about this topic, spelled out in a way the average person can understand, on the DRD web site. Like I said: Visit the site.

Dynamic Range Day

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