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SubNormal J3

The Loudness War

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Disclaimer: I don't profess to be an expert on digital sound, but I think I know enough to carry a discussion about this. Correct me if any of these statements are incorrect.

Okay. So I'm sure most of us have heard the speech about digital recordings becoming more and more maximized over the last decades. If you haven't, here's a good explanation:

I can see what this guy is saying, and I can easily here a difference between my old CDs from the late eighties and the digital recordings of today. However, I'd like to here the other side of the argument. I thought I'd ask the justification for the dynamic compression seen on most ReMixes on the site. It seems logical to me that more dynamics and clarity are ideal, but I'm sitting on the fence for this discussion. Albeit, leaning towards the argument for more dynamics. Is maximizing a necessary evil or is there more to it than that?

Other arguments for maximizing are that it is easier to here the music in a noisy environment. That makes sense to me, but it seems as more of a byproduct of maximizing rather than the reason for it.

Do any producers out there have some more concrete reasons for why they maximize music? I don't mean to question anyone's production style. I'm just really interested in this whole phenomenon.

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As far as I'm aware, expanding the amplitude of a wave does not change its inherent form, as long as the amplitude is expanded identically along its length. No damage is done, nor data lost when the waveform is maximized. The whole point is to push up to the clip-limit without breaking it. This allows the volume to be maximized without changing the sound.

Whether it's a wise idea or not is another issue altogether, which I'll leave for the sound production folks to handle.

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It really depends what kind of music you're talking about. As they say, every mix is different. If you're talking about metal or trance, I like the option of cranking my music up. When it comes to pop, a loudness war was inevitable imo because that's nature of pop: be louder and more in your face than competing acts and get more attention. If you're talking about more mellow genres, dynamics are more important to me because I'm listening for detail and musicianship. However, even on more mellow tracks I will tend to push the limit as far as it can go without messing up the dynamics. There's nothing more lame than an awesome track that's mixed way lower than you're used to hearing.

In a way, I feel like there's no going back for the time being because people like me have been conditioned for certain loudness volumes.

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Also keep in mind that maximizing creates a standard for audio; on a CD with tracks of varying dynamic ranges, it's handy to have a volume level that will stay fairly constant between tracks, so that the listener can set that volume level quiet or loud, as desired, and not have to change that setting between tracks.

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This is a hotly discussed topic on almost all forums related to music production. My perspective is that there's nothing wrong with using compression and limiting (maximizing is just a form of this) to even out your music. In fact, using compression + limiting on an entire mix can really glue it together, making it sound more cohesive. In dance music, the pumping effect sometimes caused by OVER-compression is at times desirable. However, most importantly, I like to listen to music (including my own) at a single volume level. I'm OK with turning up (or down) the volume between two songs from two different CDs, but I shouldn't have to turn up my volume to hear an intro and turn it down in the chorus.

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It's an interesting topic.

The production on Smashing Pumpkin's record Siamese Dream often felt too quiet to me. Stuff that's recorded closer to the clip threshold always felt more punchy (which is kinda ironic since that guy was talking about recordings losing punch).

Hard limiting and compression does effectively lower the dynamic potential of a recording, by lowering the possible number of volume intervals in a sound wave.

When used artistically in the fashion Zircon mentioned, it's a good thing. When it's used too often to paper over poorly performed live instrument tracks, then it's a bad thing. In that instance it would be better to hand edit any offending peaks delicately.

I think people also hate turning up their stuff for quiet part then getting bombarded by sound. Music exists in a different environment in today's world too. Whether it's outside during a noisy commute through an mp3 player, or in the background while you're fraggin noobs on an fps, or literally on an OST, you're always fighting for audible superiority with many sources.

Perhaps there is a market for audiophile style re-masterings for the headphones wearing vinyl junkie. As long as the raws are recorded pure, it's simple enough to mix two versions.

Capitalism is choice after all.

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zircon is right in that sometimes the effect on the sound that comes from over-compression is sometimes desirable, but in many cases it's just done poorly. Like in rock music, sure the electric guitars are often distorted and sound good that way, but when compression of the whole track causes the voice to start distorting in the chorus, and the bass to be much quieter than the guitars, then it's done wrong. Other times the large amplitude of the bass is maintained during compression, but then at louder bass parts noticeable clipping comes in. I used to think these things I hear in my headphones were due to MP3 bitrates, but I've confirmed in multiple cases that the original CD audio also suffers from these problems.

As far as I'm aware, expanding the amplitude of a wave does not change its inherent form, as long as the amplitude is expanded identically along its length. No damage is done, nor data lost when the waveform is maximized. The whole point is to push up to the clip-limit without breaking it. This allows the volume to be maximized without changing the sound.

What you're talking about is totally okay, but dynamic range compression reduces dynamics by bumping up only the quiet parts, and leaving those near maxed parts alone. This doesn't introduce actual hard clipping, but distorts the sound towards clipping, and in cases where it's poorly done there is actual clipping introduced.

EDIT: Oh yeah, and zircon I would also point out that, while I'm sure you are already aware of this, some musical styles sound okay with flatish volume levels, but the world of jazz and classical for instance are a world of dynamics, and clearly compression of these genres would ruin the music.

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I can see both sides of the argument. For me, if I want to listen to older albums, I try to track down older remasters on CD instead of the newly remastered anthologies. I really enjoy listening to CDs from the late eighties and early nineties. I have a CD recording of The Doobie Brother's "Minute By Minute" album that has fantastic dynamics. I here the argument that it's a pain to have to change the volume between an intro and a chorus, but this album had the same average volume throughout so it was a matter of adjusting the volume relative to other albums only. What set it apart from more modern remasters is that every instrument came through because there was so much room in the waveform. I kind of get a little kick of OCD when I'm searching for older CDs because I love the sound of the older remasters and don't want to accidentally get a newer remaster (which has happened all too often and I don't have enough money to replace them). For modern music, you don't really have a choice. I bought Earth, Wind & Fire's latest album: "Illumination" (2005). It was fantastic, but it seemed to me that the maximizing had left several unpleasant artifacts. I noticed the same thing with Sting's latest Christmas album compared to the first CD issue of "The Dream of the Blue Turtles." It's just fascinating to me how digital audio has changed the industry.

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I'm OK with turning up (or down) the volume between two songs from two different CDs, but I shouldn't have to turn up my volume to hear an intro and turn it down in the chorus.

Mmm... Depending on the genre, turning up the music when it's quiet and down the music when it's loud completely ruins the music. I'd be careful with that habit, since it could be eliminating a purposeful element in the music.

I can't speak for a lot of music, but if you do that with classical/romantic/modern music, you're really, really missing the point of those styles.

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Mmm... Depending on the genre, turning up the music when it's quiet and down the music when it's loud completely ruins the music. I'd be careful with that habit, since it could be eliminating a purposeful element in the music.

I can't speak for a lot of music, but if you do that with classical/romantic/modern music, you're really, really missing the point of those styles.

Well to be fair he didn't say that hen was adjusting the volume like that as habit... Henwas just saying that adjusting volume between different songsnon different CDs is acceptable, whereas adjusting volume while you're listening to a song is weird.

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I think just about any style of music suffers from overcompression. Salluz was talking on Facebook about how heavy metal is mixed so terribly most of the time and I gotta wonder, what is up with that? For a genre that prides itself on powerful music, the brickwall limiting is destroying any power in the sound. I know metal is also about GRRRRR LOUD but it's getting ridiculous. Even Metallica is clamoring for a re-master of Death Magnetic because the dynamics are shit and the songs are very distorted.

Personally, with as far as audio systems have come, you would think people would be more willing to accept softer recordings, since the systems themselves are becoming more and more powerful. I would rather have a slighty compressed version of a song over the OMG LOUDNESS version of a song. I love turning up my stereo when Zeppelin or Guns N Roses come on because I know I'm going to actually feel the dynamics of the music, not just bombarded with sound.

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What's worse is that this has spread to almost all audio. I've noticed some tv commercials being compressed to the point of being ridiclous. I asked my sister if she could hear the ducking of volume under the voiceover in a document film, and she did.

With digital audio, especially with the bandwidth we've got these days, this whole thing is ridiculous. I can understand it when you're dealing with analog broadcasting where you have to be louder than static, but we're past that now. I don't think we even have analog tv broadcasts anymore in Finland. Radio is switching to digital broadcasts as well, dunno to what extent.

The bar for loudness has been rising, and it's screwing things up for ppl who want a medium loudness on their music. Medium today is the obscenely loud of yesterday, and loud today is... I think OverCoat brought up some 1-bit music netlabel thing somewhere. Feels like that's where we're headed.

There's a tv commercial for headache pills that's running on finnish tv, where they've asked ppl to describe headaches. My occasional headaches make everything sound overcompressed. Also, overcompressed music gives me a headache.

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One thought that has occurred to me lately is that the increasing amounts of compression in music has in some way correlated with how much music has been shifting from a foreground event in our lives to a background event.

Pardon the pseudo-history here, but throughout history music has been an event towards which people would dedicate their full attention (or to the drama it was accompanying). It was something we either participated in or attended specifically to appreciate. That's been changing over the past century so that music is something we put on in the background--to listen to while we're doing something else, and this rate of change has been escalating especially in the age of radio and now personal music players.

Volume is the most basic quality of a sound, in my opinion. It's volume for crying out loud! I mean, if you think about it physically, perhaps in terms of evolutionary biology, volume is the quality of sound that has the most implications on whether we're in danger. Changes in volume grab our attention whether we like it or not. This is very effective in music when the music is in the foreground of our attention; dynamic changes are a wonderful aspect of composing and listening. Such dynamics can be distracting, however, especially if we're putting on a beat to study to, run to, surf the web to, etc. Like zircon said, it's annoying to have to change the volume every 20 seconds. I remember my dad getting tired of my Star Wars soundtrack CDs whenever I asked for them to be played in the car, because he'd have to turn them up to hear the quiet parts and get blasted when the brass hit. Those songs didn't mesh well with family conversation.

Anyway, I think the de-emphasis of dynamic changes is part of larger shifts in music's role in our culture. I'm NOT saying compressed music is inferior--the music I love listening to most of the time, foreground or background, is some of the most compressed music out there. I just think the act of fully orienting one's attention towards a piece of music and experiencing, among other things, arresting undulations in volume is something people don't take the time to do anymore, to our own detriment. It's also very necessary part of intuitively understanding a lot of classical and especially contemporary classical music. I remember hearing a Saariaho piece--it was cello w/ extended techniques and electro-acoustic accompaniment--on shitty speakers one day as I adjusted the volume to hear the different parts. I didn't like it. Then one day my professor played it on the huge speakers in our classroom, and I was getting goosebumps and on the verge of crying.

Now, on the other hand, we're living in an age of EXTREME timbral and rhythmic variation in music, especially in the pop music most subjected to the volume wars. (Btw, that's part of why guitars are so ubiquitous--you can make so many different timbres with them and all the different playing articulations adapt really well to subtle rhythms.) So in a sense we're compensating with different kinds of variation. Perhaps combining the timbral and rhythmic variation of more popular styles of music with the harmonic, dynamic, and formal variation of "classical" would just be too much to handle.

Certainly there are some other considerations involved in the volume wars besides this; this is just something I've thought about lately.

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although my wording is almost certainly wrong here, i will say that there is more to dynamics in interpretation that only volume.

even on an overcompressed track you can hear the difference between a guitar or piano or violin being played softly and hard

i don't have much problem with the mastering of tracks nowadays. if anything i think production has evolved a lot and that it captures the intention of the artists much better than it did in the past

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One thought that has occurred to me lately is that the increasing amounts of compression in music has in some way correlated with how much music has been shifting from a foreground event in our lives to a background event.

It's the truth honestly. I'm working as a custodian at my university right now, and that is when I listen to my music. As much as I would like to have music be the foreground, 21st century life makes it very difficult. I think that is a good observation you made. I also think that headphones have much to do with it because most people use headphones in a noisy environment compared to the traditional home stereo set up which is hardly what it used to be. The bright side, though, is that music is much more widespread than it ever was.

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I just decided to get out of the war myself and go back to basics. I'm looking for old school engineers for future projects who won't pump the hell out of music that doesn't need hell pumping.

I'm really trying to sit down and think about the record and whether or not it calls for being maximized to all get out. I'm pretty sure that I don't make those kinds of musics so I hopefully things from here on will be more about dynamics and not about loud.

Which brings up another point - listening device manufacturers capping volumes BECAUSE OF loud music. I'm upset when I can't turn up my old music any more because of the caps on volume set by the device. Several devices allow you to turn off the volume cap but some are pre-set. Real bummer. Especially with those Star Wars recordings Patrick Burns mentioned.

Here's hoping for the best.

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Which brings up another point - listening device manufacturers capping volumes BECAUSE OF loud music. I'm upset when I can't turn up my old music any more because of the caps on volume set by the device. Several devices allow you to turn off the volume cap but some are pre-set. Real bummer. Especially with those Star Wars recordings Patrick Burns mentioned.

I hadn't thought of that, but its true. The volume differences between older songs and today's masters are phenomenal. I have an old Kenwood KA-8100 back at home that I would use to power my Polk Monitor 10As with. I have an old CD called "Pops in Space" where John Williams conducts songs from Super Man, Star Wars, and Close Encounters. It was a dynamic experience to say the least, but I have to really crank it up on my iPod and change the volume cap. Especially in noisy environments.

@Mustin

How do you feel about the dynamics on The OneUps albums?

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Mmm... Depending on the genre, turning up the music when it's quiet and down the music when it's loud completely ruins the music. I'd be careful with that habit, since it could be eliminating a purposeful element in the music.

I can't speak for a lot of music, but if you do that with classical/romantic/modern music, you're really, really missing the point of those styles.

You misunderstand me - I'm in complete agreement with you. I said that I should NEVER have to be changing the volume within the same song. I said this is only acceptable with DIFFERENT songs from DIFFERENT CDs. I don't mind having to turn my volume up from an electro-house CD to a jazz CD. I do mind having to change my volume from track to track on the same CD, or certainly within the same song.

EDIT: Oh yeah, and zircon I would also point out that, while I'm sure you are already aware of this, some musical styles sound okay with flatish volume levels, but the world of jazz and classical for instance are a world of dynamics, and clearly compression of these genres would ruin the music.

I actually disagree with this to some degree. While I wouldn't 'slam' an orchestral track, I think some level of mostly transparent compression is acceptable. For example, it makes no sense to have a piece that peaks +6dB once, maybe twice, for only a single second, and as a result the entire piece has to be turned down 6dB. It makes more sense to use compression and transparent limiting to find a middleground. By turning those peaks down a little bit you're barely changing the dynamic overall but making the overall listening experience better.

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It makes more sense to use compression and transparent limiting to find a middleground. By turning those peaks down a little bit you're barely changing the dynamic overall but making the overall listening experience better.

There is definitely a balance. A bad peak is also an artifact of poor recording. A good concert hall and microphone placement in and of itself compresses the sound to the point that a bad peak is probably not part of the sound the performers were trying to create. In that situation, transparent or localized compression makes sense to me in order to fix a poor recording. Of course, a better recording that didn't require extra dynamic processing would be ideal.

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@Mustin

How do you feel about the dynamics on The OneUps albums?

Of the three The OneUps albums, the most recent one definitely sounds best, but for the most part, I really don't like the sound at all. Hence the reason I'm going through old LPs and looking for mixing and mastering engineers. Gonna start doing it up right.

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I learned to mix and master for extreme metal, so I tend to limit to -.1db and push each instrument as hard as I can, and boost it so it's as loud as possible without clipping. That seems to be less popular here, so I haven't been mastering as strongly lately. My own opinion is that there's nothing wrong with pushing a song as far as it can go if it doesn't clip. It's not like it makes the song sound terrible. In a lot of cases, it makes it sound better. Metallica is a good example of how horrible it can sound when done wrong. Death Magnetic clips so hard, it isn't even funny. The only time I was ever able to listen to a song from that album was on Guitar Hero: Metallica. There's a difference between loudness and distortion. <_<

I'm less worried about the loudness war than I am about the studio magic war, and people who don't set velocities for their friggin' MIDI notes.

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I learned to mix and master for extreme metal, so I tend to limit to -.1db and push each instrument as hard as I can, and boost it so it's as loud as possible without clipping. That seems to be less popular here, so I haven't been mastering as strongly lately. My own opinion is that there's nothing wrong with pushing a song as far as it can go if it doesn't clip. It's not like it makes the song sound terrible. In a lot of cases, it makes it sound better. Metallica is a good example of how horrible it can sound when done wrong. Death Magnetic clips so hard, it isn't even funny. The only time I was ever able to listen to a song from that album was on Guitar Hero: Metallica. There's a difference between loudness and distortion. <_<

I'm less worried about the loudness war than I am about the studio magic war, and people who don't set velocities for their friggin' MIDI notes.

Dude, take a song like "Painkiller" by Judas Priest from 1996 then reduce any modern metal song to the same average db. You will see a phenomenal difference in the dynamics and power of the song. "Painkiller" averages at about -9db. Compare that to a modern metal song like "The Fecal Rebellion" from Mirrorthrone which averages -2.5db and the difference is very clear. Reduce "The Fecal Rebellion" by about 6db or 7db and compare it to "Painkiller". Death metal is not the only offender here. Even one of my favorite progressive groups goes overboard with compression. "Acid Rain" by Liquid Tension Experiment averages about -4db.

There's a difference between getting as loud as possible and squishing the music. I find that about -10db allows for a decent loudness, but also affords ample room for dynamics. But there are plenty of songs that dip to -14 or -18 that sounds fine, they just need a little volume knob action is all.

loudness.jpg

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I vote for dynamic. Without sounding too judgmental, I would dare say that these days, most people will think the loudest track sounds better. There is a huge problem going on that the louder mix is the better mix. And I truly hate it, and go against it.

I prefer to keep my music around 96dB.. These days, many would say it's too low. But I'd rather be selfish and only care about my opinion than to force it up on 98-100dB.

PS: Painkiller, all the way!

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Dude, take a song like "Painkiller" ....

loudness.jpg

The volume wars should definitely be decided by people who make decisions using their eyes instead of their ears. :(

Let youtube videos and jpegs on the internet make the decision for you. They'll take my limiter when they pry it from my cold dead hands.

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