Photo: Orin Zebest.

Are you sick of the death of dynamic range? Are you mad as hell at squashed audio that means to be “loud” and only wind up with the actual sounds smooshed out? Alternatively, are you guilty of some detail-squishing dynamic abuse yourself?

A campaign is on to get the dynamic war out of comment threads and forums and onto the streets. Taking a positive tack, the Pleasurize Music Foundation isn’t simply attacking overcompression and dynamic distortion: they’re suggesting an alternative path, in which restored dynamic ranges bring back joy to your life. There are opportunities to sign up as listeners, labels, producers, mixing and mastering engineers, even the consumer electronics and music tech industries.

There’s also a free (Windows-only) plug-in for checking the dynamic range of your mix. There are plenty of other tools that do the same thing, but the idea is nice.

pleasurize music!

Thanks to Mormo at Basement Hum for the additional heads-up.

Now, the idea of crushed dynamic range is nothing new. But via comments, mastering engineer Tobias Anderson points out that it’s not always the mastering that’s to blame — some people are actually distorting at the digital conversion stage. (That’s, incidentally, not the fault of digital recording, either – to screw that up, you have to be really careless, which evidently people are.)

Tobias’ comments below. Now, obviously, this is an issue that can generate some controversy. But start talking about simply preserving dynamic range? I think just about everyone can get behind that. The idea of “quality” can often be loaded, but talking about dynamics as pleasure is as universal as hearing.

As a mastering engineer, it has become increasingly disconcerting to both work on and listen back to much of todays’ music. Distorted, compressed & messy sounding to say the least! However, 2 points I must make:

Firstly, compression and brick-wall limiting are NOT the only factors involved in making a record loud and / or distorted. The clipping of the ME’s ADC (analogue-to-digital-converter) is the most aggressive form of distortion you will hear on todays’ loud records. Digital limiters are generally (hopefully) not cranked too much (between 1-3db), but rather the load should be spread across more than 1 unit, making the effect less obvious than if the same amount of gain reduction had been employed with a single unit. The signal is then fed back to the ADC, and ‘clipped’ to achieve the final loudness increase. The maximum peak level of digital audio is 0dbfs, however when clipped, the incoming audio exceeds this value (up to 6db, maybe more in ridiculous cases!) and the loudest peaks of the music are literally shaved, or ‘squared’ off. With the upper end ADC’s, this process can be fairly transparent, if used ‘sensibly’ (if that is possible..) however when abused, it sounds truly awful as you all can hear. One example (many are available :) that springs to mind is the Foo Fighters’ Nothing Left To Lose album. Every time the snare is hit, the digital distortion is unbearable, the high frequencies sound grainy and harsh ect ect. However, audibly, the effect of clipping differs greatly from the effect of brick wall limiting, which can, as previously mentioned, and subjectively speaking, benefit or compliment a particular style or genre of music. Dance, hip-hop & drum n bass coming to mind especially. This processing DOES impart a certain sense of power to the sound which is very different than simply using compression alone on the mix buss or on the individual elements in the mix.

Secondly, music is never ‘cut’ or HPF’d (high-pass filtered) at 80hz. 40-45hz maybe, a gradual roll-off from 80hz-20-30hz probable, but there is still a lot of important musical information below 80hz that is needed in modern music, even if it can’t be reproduced by poor consumer listening equipment. The 60hz(ish) peak in a hip-hop kick for example, would sound completely wrong and hollow if the fundamental frequency lived in the 100hz range for example. I can’t think of a commercially released modern record that has been released with very little or no musical information below 80hz, not impossible, but certainly not the norm by any stretch. Lastly, having a ‘pre -mastering’ chain is really not a good idea, and will probably do more harm than good in most situations, unless: the listening environment is very good and the engineer is very skilled. Using a particular compressor for a desired character on the mix buss prior to mastering, is a very valid ‘mix’ technique, but again the engineer must be very competent for this to be worthwhile.

I hope this has shed some additional light on the loudness war for you all.

If you would like to express your dislike for the practice, in hope of eventually stopping it, please visit and register for free at

www.dynamicrange.de

Toby Anderson

  • http://www.studioontheclouds.com Byung Kim

    As I'm still learning to be a mixer and master engineer, loudness has been always a problem for me. I still have long way to go to understand the dynamics and the loudness war that has been issue for some time, but it seems like 'usual demand' from clients/customers is that they want their tracks sound as loud as they can be. Mr. Anderson's comment has shed a new light in perspective. For now, I'll stay as a by-stander for this loudness war and see what others say about it.

  • Adrian Anders

    I do like the idea of the plug-in giving less skilled listeners feedback on the amount of dynamic range their music contains… but I think alot of this "loudness war" rhetoric strikes of semi-political concepts of what is "correct" or "pleasurable" in a field that is ultimately subjective.

    Recorded music by its very nature distorts reality into something that is designed for the medium in which it's played through. I'm all for giving people more information about the science behind sound, but I'm not supportive when folks start pontificating about how the way they listen to music is somehow intrinctly "better" than the way someone else listens.

  • http://www.keyofgrey.com KeyOfGrey

    While I absolutely agree that music is being crushed these days, I'm not sure that testing music with a DR score will shame people into changing their habits.

    Some music is, and by the site author's own admission, crushed as a stylistic choice. These pieces will get a low DR score (which means less dynamic range according to the website). At the same time, music that has little or no compression (where one possibility could be mix inexperience), will receive high DR score. For sure, some mixes and genres will intentially have a high dynamic range (ie. classical music, prog rock, etc), but music that I mixed in my high school band over a decade ago, will get a high score because of the high dynamic range caused by terrible mixing.

    I'm not saying this project isn't worthwhile, I'm just worried that pushing DR as a metric alone isn't good enough. If there is some measured proof that we're going to standardize as a benchmark, it has to include much more than just DR. My 2 cents.

  • http://superhumanoids.com/images/flyer_small.jpg cameron

    any tips on a mac plugin that accomplishes the same thing?

  • http://www.createdigitalmusic.com Peter Kirn

    Nope, I agree. On the other hand, I think in the end reasonable compression rates won out over insanely over-compressed MP3 files in the years of that format (data compression, not dynamic compression). I think there probably has been some damage done to reasonable dynamic range that can be restored.

    So long as we're aware that dynamic range can be a powerful tool, and there are beautifully produced, engineered, and mastered albums out there regardless of the year, I'm content. ;)

  • http://www.createdigitalmusic.com Peter Kirn

    And yes, this a crude metric. Obviously, if you're intentionally overcompressing your sound, you're not going to bother with the plug-in. For everyone else, though, it is at least *some* metric so people can start to listen to what they're doing in new ways.

    @cameron: Almost anything that does dynamic monitoring can give you some indication.

  • http://www.sighup.ca Steve

    While I'm in favour of greater dynamic range in recorded music, just because I prefer how it sounds, I confess I'm sick of the whole debate.

    I saw a video interview with a record store owner recently about the rise in sales of vinyl recordings. All the folk they showed in the video buying stuff in the shop strike me as matching the demographic description of the same people driving this debate over dynamic range: middle class, middle-aged, slightly tubby, white suburbanites who base all of their musical opinions on their vague and romanticized recollections of the 60s and 70s. Not coincidentally, the same guys driving up the resale value of music/audio gear from the 60s and 70s.

    It comes off as little more than kids-these-days nostalgia fits. As the American saying goes, decide with your dollar. Instead of trying to influence others, why not simply support only those records with proper dynamic range? Don't like the clipping on that new Metallica album? Don't listen to it then, world won't end if you don't. How that dislike has to be turned into a broad cultural lecture with the subtext that middle class, middle-aged, slightly tubby, white suburbanites know what's best is beyond me.

  • http://www.createdigitalmusic.com Peter Kirn

    @Steve: Well, that's an easy discussion, too. So many of the albums being singled out here *sound awful*, and so many other albums *sound fantastic* that it's easy enough to vote with your feet. ;)

    That said, I think there is a misunderstanding among beginners of what dynamic range is and how to use it, so if this discussion — however crude — starts them on an exploration of that, maybe it can't hurt.

  • http://0p0media.com 0p0

    yeah! this rocks! and plugin is awesome!

    I hope sometime in the future, people stop thinking louder is better :)

    thanks for the post CDM!

  • Paul

    Hallelujah. About time !

  • http://www.sighup.ca Steve

    For Macs (and windows for that matter), maybe check out DestroyFX's RMS Buddy:

    http://destroyfx.smartelectronix.com/extras/

    I agree Peter, education in this area isn't a bad thing. Trouble is I think it's hard to come up with a prescriptive generalization on dynamic range, since while certain best practises are advisable to all comers, it's still dependent on the content.

    This site's documentation is confusing at times, hopefully they come out with something that clearly presents why retaining dynamic range benefits the music, and how to read the information in very simple obvious manner. I'm sure they will since it's still early days for them, be nice to have an "all you need to know about dynamic range in 200 words or less" document for anyone interested.

  • Armando

    Vintage Warmer 2 would do the same thing no? If not better?

  • http://www.createdigitalmusic.com Peter Kirn

    Well, look at this way: let's say you wanted to teach about color range, color adjustment. But everyone was cranking saturation up as high as they could without the image becoming unrecognizable.

    A good start would be to get people to stop doing that blindly. Doesn't even necessarily mean you couldn't *occasionally* do it for special effect. But it'd be tough to get into the subtleties of color theory until people stopped screwing it up.

  • http://snapshotintime.blogspot.com/ wi_ngo

    I would say "guilty as charged" when it comes to over-compression at times. It stems mostly from me being terrible at mastering, but I also just like it as a different type of effect, as many do.

    I'm kind of tired of the old-school mastering snobs bellyaching about how it's "wrong". Tastes change, and what sounds "good" is obviously subjective. Sort of sounds like the siren song of a dying artform (I know – a little hyperbolic). But I'm sure that overdrivin amplified guitar sounded terribly "wrong" when rock and roll was born, too.

    Lots of bands are experimenting with digital distortion techniques these days that would have been considered distasteful in the 90's, but now it's just 'modern' or different for the sake of being so. I even saw a plugin recently that does aliasing on purpose. So, whatever.

    These "get off my lawn" type of guys need to realize that kids these days just don't care, because they've grown up with it. They're not going to be easily convinced that a well-recorded Led Zeppelin record sounds better than Justice, no matter how much science about dbs and hz you throw at them. They've done studies: http://www.crunchgear.com/2009/03/04/whippersnapp

  • http://www.createdigitalmusic.com Peter Kirn

    That study looks highly suspect to me. At the bitrate for most MP3s (or AACs, natch), the main issue is that most will detect a subtle-to-nonexistent difference. The loudness battles really are, as far as I can tell, associated with the rise of massive media conglomerates owning radio stations and making albums that match that sound. In fact, if anything I would bet people, on average, are listening on higher-fidelity *mobile* devices than they were in the past. (Cheap transistor radio, anyone?)

    But then, the fact that there is a lot of music with more intelligent production and more dynamic range just proves the rule. It doesn't have to be a "get off my lawn, you crazy kids" as it is "I'm a crazy kid, now get your crap music off my iPod."

    The other thing no one talks about is that music has steadily filled up with more and more layers of sound. It's hard to create dynamic space with that going on. But if anything, on the music I've been listening to that's gone the opposite direction — and it's, honestly, an exciting challenge.

  • http://www.basementhum.com Basement Hum

    To my understanding, the 'loudness war' rhetoric is less about criticising the use of compression and limiting as an aesthetic decision, and more to do with pointing out that blasting a track as hard as possible in order for it to sound louder than its neighbour, to grab a potential buyers attention better, is not a sustainable strategy. It doesn't seem controversial to me to conclude that the quality of mainstream music recordings has suffered as a result.

  • http://nonplus.us nonplus

    they said mac versions will be available in a month or two

  • salamanderanagram

    i dunno about this… their doc claims that a garbage song they tested is "unfit for consumption." that's the same garbage that has butch vig as a member? since he's responsible for some of the more iconic sounds from the last 20 years, maybe he can decide for himself how loud to make his sound, and whether it's good or not….

    the tracks of mine that got the "best" rating from this were the ones that i think sound the flattest and have the least going on. the ones that got the "worst" rating are my favorite ones. go figure.

    music is subjective. overcompression and saturation is an intentional sound. if you don't like it, go listen to something else.

  • http://nonplus.us nonplus

    here's a perfect example of loudness = bad that i think we can all relate to: Rihanna's "Umbrella". it's a beautiful song ..it's a ballad! …and it's all smashed to hell for absolutely no aesthetic reason other than to make it seem "loud" and give it "sizzle".

  • salamanderanagram

    just ran through some of my favorite artists – all of whom i knew were guilty of over-compression and saturations – tipper, vibesquad, glitch mob, etc.

    none of it has the suggested dynamic range, all of it fits into the "unfit for consumption" range.

    and it's also my favorite music, so i guess i will ignore dynamic range complaints from now on…

  • http://www.myspace.com/signal_automatique Kassen

    Steve; being born in '77 I only have the haziest recollection of the era but I still prefer vinyl. One part of that is certainly the sound but another is the tactile interface. I don't think this has anything to do with nostalgia, actually I experience the toy turntables I use for my DIY sequencer (through playstation to USB converters) as slightly futuristic; it's "grab&drag", a bit like a mouse except you can do it with your eyes closed if you'd like.

    More generally; the screen of my portable mp3 player cracked so I put it in "random-all" mode (this was a bit tricky to do without much of the screen…) and left it there. I now wish it had a plugin like this and would turn down the volume for those overly limited tracks. to be clear; I respect everybody's artistic intent but I also respect my ears and I'd just like to enjoy listening to music. If it's too loud too much of the time I'll turn it down a bit (or wear earplugs).

    Frankly I think that's the one thing these records are achieving; they'll be turned down a bit.

  • Ryan

    It's been almost 3 years and http://www.turnmeup.org/ still haven't posted their finalized criteria…

  • Polite

    I have enough trouble mixing my music to be "loud enough" let alone having to worry about it being "too loud" yet. >_>

    Sigh. So much to learn. So little time and money.

  • Skye

    I think some of these comments are grand generalizations. I'm 22 and can easily hear DR differences from records of yore. So what if they weren't released when I was born? Is that my fault? No. Can I still listen to them if I want to? Yes. Was there a lot of good music before my time (and will there be after it)? Yes.

    Some people here put it as if you grew up between a certain set of years, you can't know what dynamic range is. That's garbage. I would also advise to them to check out most soundtracks, classical, and jazz recordings even of this era if they want to talk to anyone about dynamic range. Those records are still being mastered with quite low RMS powers, and they sound great. (Of course, hearing the soundtrack to The Dark Knight, it seems loud mastering is slowly seeping into this field of music as well).

    Think before you add a comment.

  • Place

    @Steve

    The problem I have is that I really *want* to listen to the new Metallica album. It's supposedly a return to form for them (which is to say, picks up where I stopped listening to them, right after "Justice".) They're a band that meant a whole lot to me way back when. I can't stand the sound of the new album. Sure, the world won't end if I don't listen to it, and there's plenty of other great metal out there to dig on instead. It just disappoints me that the mastering on the album has become a barrier to enjoyment of what could be meaningful music.

    The main point of the debate is that we should have a range of options available to us, as producers. These should be aesthetic choices, not market driven rules.

    BTW: me = working class, middle aged, fit, mixed ethnicity and living in a medium sized town. Don't think I've driven up the price of anything lately.

  • http://www.jackthebear.com.au Adam

    All the best with the campaign.

    There can be no LOUD without soft.

  • wheatonna

    It's all well and good to consider digital distortion or brick-wall compression as an esthetic choice, but if I never get past track

    four on an album because my ears are tired –regardless of the volume knob– then there's a problem.

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