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  • AlexMetalFi
    AlexMetalFi

    Dynamic Range Day

    Alex is chief editor and co-founder of Metal-Fi, a site dedicated to the heavy metal audiophile.

     

    Today is Dynamic Range Day. Yes, another hallmark audiophile holiday in the same vein as Record Store Day and its Black Friday counterpart. But unlike the other two, there are no lines at your local record store to contend with nor any holiday exclusives to really speak of. No, Dynamic Range Day only asks for one thing from you - and that is perspective. So on this auspicious day, I'd like to offer mine, as well as give a brief overview of the holiday and why it is so important that every audiophile celebrate it.

     

    DRD was founded in 2010 by Ian Shepherd, a world renown mastering engineer and founder of the very popular website Production Advice. His mission was simple: He wanted to raise awareness about the deleterious impact the Loudness War has had on modern music. But at the same time, he also wanted to highlight those artists and bands who continually prioritize fidelity over volume during the recording process. And each year, as part of his "State of Dynamics Address", he nominates artists who have released a dynamic record in the year prior and then proceeds to give one of them the prestigious DRD Award. Winner's have included popular artists like Steven Wilson, Daft Punk, Bjork, and Jack White to name but a few. I highly encourage you to watch today's live webcast here to find out who this year's winner is. I have a feeling it will surprise you!

     

    But let's step back for a moment: What is the Loudness War and what does dynamics have anything to do with high-fidelity in the first place? And more to the point, why should you care?

     

     

     

    Loudness-War

     

     

     

    The Loudness War in a nutshell is a catch-all phrase to describe the now multi-decade long "sonic" arms race waged by labels and artists to release the loudest album possible. The idea behind it is that the louder a record sounds, be it through the radio in the '80s, the CD in the '90s, and now through the various streaming platforms of today, the more likely it will leave an impression with the listener (read: you'll buy it). And even though there is no statistical evidence to correlate volume with sales, the fact is this urban legend still persists today as the industry is constantly producing louder and louder material.

     

     

     

     

     

     

    Yet when I talk about an album sounding louder, I'm not talking about you listening to it at high volumes. Instead, I'm talking about records that have been made artificially loud by reducing their level of dynamic range, or the ratio between the loudest parts to the softest ones, during the mixing or mastering process. Very simply, an engineer will raise all the quietest parts of a recording by cutting off the low and high end peaks regardless of whether or not the source material warranted it. This in effect squashes the original signal and in the process takes out a lot of the punch and sonic depth the recording would have had if this kind of aggressive limiting hadn't been applied. Take note, once a recording has gone through this process it is irrevocably damaged; there is no way to recover the peaks that have been effectively chopped off, and more often than not, you are simply left with an amorphous wall of sound where volume homogeneity reigns supreme at the expense of ultimate fidelity.

     

    Some of you have probably first heard of the Loudness War as a fall out behind Metallica's now infamous 2008 Death Magnetic release. But the truth is it was not the first nor the last causality of the Loudness War. In fact, Death Magnetic is almost par for the course for many artists - Adele's, Grammy award winning album 25 is well within the range of it, and so is the new Flaming Lips record too. The unfortunate reality is the Loudness War is alive and well in 2017.

     

    Here is also another sad truth, or if you prefer, perspective: More often than not, the weakest link in your playback chain is not what format you use, but rather the source material you are pumping through it. So today, on this DRD, all I ask of you is to at least consider that perhaps sampling rates and codecs aren't the true enemy of high fidelity, but rather shoddy production and a penchant for volume is. In the meantime, please take this day as an opportunity to rediscover one of your favorite albums that was produced with dynamics in mind and think, "What if they all sounded this way?"

     

    Until next time.

     

    Happy Dynamic Range Day!

     

    Alex

     

     

     


    User Feedback




    Some friends with an acoustic and vocal band just recorded a CD.  The first mix they got back was DR 5. I listened at their behest and explained why it was wrong.  They just knew they didn't like it as it sounded wrong. A couple more rounds and it will be done more sensibly to a DR 11 or 12.  What in the world are such people thinking? This was not metal music, and I wouldn't do it to DR 5.

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    Just an example of what I was referring to above this is the view of a track in Audacity.  I lowered the level by .1 db to get rid of multiple red clipping lines.  This is a traditional Christmas song "The Christ Child's Lullaby" with a mandolin, 12 string guitar, flute, violin and three female vocalists.  A DR 4 for this one track.  Heavy compression.  Limiting was so bad it made the mando sound more like a banjo.  This from a commercial studio in business for 30 years.   Please someone explain it to me, what was the guy thinking? 

     

    Now to his credit once it was gotten across what they were expecting for the sound, this fellow did a first rate bang up job in making it sound nice.  He clearly has skills from his years of experience.  I just don't know why the first version looked like a track from Death Magnetic instead of a Christmas lullaby.

     

     

    loudness wars v2.png

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    3 hours ago, esldude said:

    Just an example of what I was referring to above this is the view of a track in Audacity.  I lowered the level by .1 db to get rid of multiple red clipping lines.  This is a traditional Christmas song "The Christ Child's Lullaby" with a mandolin, 12 string guitar, flute, violin and three female vocalists.  A DR 4 for this one track.  Heavy compression.  Limiting was so bad it made the mando sound more like a banjo.  This from a commercial studio in business for 30 years.   Please someone explain it to me, what was the guy thinking? 

     

    Now to his credit once it was gotten across what they were expecting for the sound, this fellow did a first rate bang up job in making it sound nice.  He clearly has skills from his years of experience.  I just don't know why the first version looked like a track from Death Magnetic instead of a Christmas lullaby.

     

     

    loudness wars v2.png

    I think it has just become so ubiquitous that the heavy DR is the "default", and no one thinks about it any more. Sad!

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    1 hour ago, firedog said:

    I think it has just become so ubiquitous that the heavy DR is the "default", and no one thinks about it any more. Sad!

    in the words of Avatar, "this is sad, very sad only".  Only it is worse than sad.  It is sad, it is insane, it is incomprehensible.  In  Platoon is the quote: "Hell is the impossibility of reason".  I think that fits best.

     

    It is impossible to reason out why a Christmas lullaby ends up like this with voices and mostly stringed acoustical instruments.

    loudness wars v2.png

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    I really feel that sound engineers these days make recordings for the sole purpose of having the music played on darn smart phones w/earbuds or in a car via USB. .

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    Having an increasing awareness of the extent of dynamic range reduction in modern or remastered older recordings has changed my music buying habits. I am wary of most new recordings, and do my best to check that newer releases and remasters are not brickwalled or have a lot of DR reduction before I make a purchase. For the past year I've been researching the best recordings/masterings of individual releases and am quite surprised how many good, higher-DR recordings, that are sometimes quite old, are out there that were completely under my radar. That said, most of my CD purchases these days are from Discogs or eBay and are usually of older releases of the music I like that have a reasonable DR. It is unfortunate though that for many new recordings from about the mid-90s and onwards are not available with a reasonable DR range. For example, I heard a cool Kristen Hersh tune on the radio the other day, but researching the CD found out the DR was abysmally low, between 5-8. Would I buy it? Maybe, but with a lot of disappointment that it couldn't be better, and with a low selling volume artist like her the chances of a future remaster to improve the DR aren't too high.

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    5 hours ago, firedog said:

    I think it has just become so ubiquitous that the heavy DR is the "default", and no one thinks about it any more. Sad!

    I think about it all the time!

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    Thanks so much for this excellent piece on what may be the single most important topic in Audiophiledom.  Like other commenters, I've worked hard to find the highest DR versions, and sometimes skipped purchases altogether when I know I'll only be frustrated by a beautiful voice that's obviously truncated.  

     

    These practices are stealing art!

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    OK, even thinking about this for the minute it took to write my appreciative comment gets me riled up.  Let's take one of my hero's--Bruce Springsteen--just for example.  Ironic that he scores well with Born in the USA in the graphic above.  Visit the excellent Dynamic Range Database page: http://dr.loudness-war.info/album/list/album?artist=springsteen

     

    Sadly, the Boss has allowed his great work to be steadily compressed over time.  The recent versions of his classics have deteriorated into the "amorphous wall of sound" (as opposed to the great Spector-inspired wall of sound).

     

    It's not just the data--it's easy to hear the new versions of Born to Run et al have been severely compromised.  One irony here is the the official bootlegs of live performances sold on Bruce's website have better fidelity than his studio albums.  Of course, when I say fidelity in this context, I mean truth.  The bootlegs have all sorts of imperfections. But--unlike so many of the remasters--they are true to the music.

     

    Hope this isn't too much of a rant.  I love music and I love Springsteen.  

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    I have to say, nothing has contributed to me NOT purchasing new music as much as the loudness wars and lack of dynamic range. 

     

    For example, when a new album is released, I just listen to it on Tidal frequently because the dynamic range is so bad. If there was a remaster with good dynamic range, I'd purchase the high resolution download from HDtracks without thinking twice. 

     

    About a year ago I purchased Peter, Paul, and Mary's In The Wind from Audio Fidelity because it was a good master. I hate purchasing physical discs and waiting for UPS to arrive. These are the hoops many of us are willing to jump through because the alternatives simply suck. 

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    51 minutes ago, The Computer Audiophile said:

    I have to say, nothing has contributed to me NOT purchasing new music as much as the loudness wars and lack of dynamic range. 

     

    Bingo!

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    This problem is not news to anyone here. But how anyone could ignore the issue baffles me.

    I would rather pass on a new release from an artist I like than pay $15-$20 for a CD, or up to $25 for a download that I can't listen to comfortably. If it says, "remastered from the original tapes" I run twice as fast.

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    1 hour ago, The Computer Audiophile said:

    I have to say, nothing has contributed to me NOT purchasing new music as much as the loudness wars and lack of dynamic range. 

     

    For example, when a new album is released, I just listen to it on Tidal frequently because the dynamic range is so bad. If there was a remaster with good dynamic range, I'd purchase the high resolution download from HDtracks without thinking twice. 

     

     

    +1

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    22 minutes ago, wwaldmanfan said:

    This problem is not news to anyone here. But how anyone could ignore the issue baffles me.

    I would rather pass on a new release from an artist I like than pay $15-$20 for a CD, or up to $25 for a download that I can't listen to comfortably. If it says, "remastered from the original tapes" I run twice as fast.

     

    I'd say the audiophile community at large is woefully under informed about these issues. Case in point:

     

    http://www.stereophile.com/content/communication-breakdown#LQWzKCiFDDd7mmAV.97

     

    Not to pick on Steve G. too much, but in this article he depicts audiophiles like myself as luddites who can't adjust to the "crunch" of a new Spoon record (thinking about what I'm listening to now - Dodecahedron's latest - it's kinda funny). I get what he was saying though, and I fully understand his point that DRC is also a tool for artistic expression and we need to accept that fact.

     

    However, he misses what I feel is the main issue at hand: Put simply, if you asked artists and engineers what they would have done if volume was not a concern, would they have produced the same master? I'll bet the answer is mostly no for a lot of popular releases. It was volume driving a lot of the production decisions, not artistic intent.

     

    Anyway, I will have more to say soon....I don't want to give away too much now! :-)

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    I've now "blacklisted" most pop and rock music, in terms of buying HD versions of the albums.  I saw so many DR5 and lower, and didn't know how to tell before buying (grateful for the link to the database...)  The last straw was an Alabama Shakes album. JRiver said DR of 5 but it sounded much, much worse than that.

     

    I experimented a bit with different files ranging from 24/96 down to MP3 at 320k and found that if the DR is really low, the album sounds no better in high res than it does in a compressed format.  The better the DR, the more there is in the high res version. Not sure I'd attribute it all to the DR, I think that albums with a wider DR also show many other signs of concern about musicality and engagement - a sound engineer that cares about DR cares about a lot of things.

     

    Now, I buy pop and rock the cheapest way possible.  If it sounds better than the average iTunes file, I may re-buy in HD once I know how frequently I listen - I have heard enough comparisons now to be able to tell what is likely to be worth the extra $ for high res.

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    4 minutes ago, ednaz said:

    I've now "blacklisted" most pop and rock music, in terms of buying HD versions of the albums.  I saw so many DR5 and lower, and didn't know how to tell before buying (grateful for the link to the database...)  The last straw was an Alabama Shakes album. JRiver said DR of 5 but it sounded much, much worse than that.

     

    I experimented a bit with different files ranging from 24/96 down to MP3 at 320k and found that if the DR is really low, the album sounds no better in high res than it does in a compressed format.  The better the DR, the more there is in the high res version. Not sure I'd attribute it all to the DR, I think that albums with a wider DR also show many other signs of concern about musicality and engagement - a sound engineer that cares about DR cares about a lot of things.

     

    Now, I buy pop and rock the cheapest way possible.  If it sounds better than the average iTunes file, I may re-buy in HD once I know how frequently I listen - I have heard enough comparisons now to be able to tell what is likely to be worth the extra $ for high res.

    Good post. I'm with you. As you say, it is really sad when the artists themselves don't know or don't care.

    Your mention of the Alabama Shakes reminds me of a friend. He considers himself an audiophile, and has a  high-end, five-figure system. He loaned me a few recently- released albums on a flash drive to check out, including that paticular record, and every one was horribly compressed. I asked him how he can possibly listen to this crap, and he replied that it doesn't bother him...

    I guess you can't change the world singlehandedly, but I am mitigating my frustration by contributing to the Dynamic Range Database.

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    2 hours ago, AlexMetalFi said:

     

    I'd say the audiophile community at large is woefully under informed about these issues. Case in point:

     

    http://www.stereophile.com/content/communication-breakdown#LQWzKCiFDDd7mmAV.97

     

    Not to pick on Steve G. too much, but in this article he depicts audiophiles like myself as luddites who can't adjust to the "crunch" of a new Spoon record (thinking about what I'm listening to now - Dodecahedron's latest - it's kinda funny). I get what he was saying though, and I fully understand his point that DRC is also a tool for artistic expression and we need to accept that fact.

     

    However, he misses what I feel is the main issue at hand: Put simply, if you asked artists and engineers what they would have done if volume was not a concern, would they have produced the same master? I'll bet the answer is mostly no for a lot of popular releases. It was volume driving a lot of the production decisions, not artistic intent.

     

    Anyway, I will have more to say soon....I don't want to give away too much now! :-)

    Well yet one more article where I don't agree with Steve G.  Nothing against him I simply usually don't agree. 

     

    Some compression is needed for most music to be used in a moving car.  It actually sounds better and lets you hear more.  Most amplified music will sound a bit better imo with some compression even at home.  You don't need anywhere close the levels of compression/limiting that is the current fashion even in a noisy car.   Nor have I run across music that benefits from that.  I like Jimi's distorted guitar just fine thank you.  That isn't compression to these levels and adding compression to that distortion would have made it unbearable even back then when I was a teenager

     

    I have done this for friends I recorded.  Add a bit of compression maybe a touch of reverb.  Let them hear it and the original.  Compressed is preferred.  Add a bit more compression and compare the two compressed versions where more compressed is preferred by them.  Rinse repeat a total of about 6 times.  Then play them the first compressed version and the last most compressed version.  Noses wrinkle, eyes squint, then they say something like what happened to that one.  The least compressed version is preferred and the highly compressed version in comparison sounds 'wrong'.  I wonder how often this accidentally happens and the last comparison never takes place side by side.  Your ear always prefers the slightly louder sound, and compression raises average loudness.  If comparing two already very compressed versions you still may go for the louder even at the point it is very messed up because both are messed up. 

     

    I have seen many mastering guys say it is a tool and using it makes for better sound.  Sorry, not buying it.  Maybe it is old ears, but even if I like it you can't listen to much music for it just wears your ears out.  By the level of processing to limit (god I hate limiters) and compress that is the norm these days I can simply stream the music off of youtube.  It wouldn't sound much if any better at 384/24 when it is so compressed and limited.  I find a fare amount of music I like, but it is so badly recorded I vote with pocketbook by keeping it closed.  Youtube is free and all you need for the bulk of new music.  Truth is 32/8 is enough for most of this stuff now.

     

    I was at the studio where my friends recorded their CD.  The monitors in the control room were very rolled off having no treble and limited upper midrange.  I thought maybe it was for working all day every day to protect the guy's hearing.  And maybe it is if you crunch everything though we were listening to the mic feeds.  My friends went to hear the first mix (I wasn't with them), and said it sounded pretty okay in his studio, but when they took it to their vehicle to hear it over a car system they weren't sure if their speakers were broken.  So were I go talk to that guy again I would ask if he has measured his monitors or has them rolled off on purpose. 

     

    Sorry for the long rant, it is depressing we have the best fidelity possible in history by far, and you really have to search to find something not crunched to DEATH.  Some jazz and much classical is about your only refuge.

     

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    I actually get angry when I hear some new releases (via TIDAL) where the loudness just ruins the art. In my mind, I see a record company executive arriving at a mastering session threatening to withhold payment unless he or she gets the levels desired.

     

    I will then retreat into dynamic range bliss like this...

     

     

    Screen Shot 2017-03-31 at 3.12.11 PM.png

    71TZ7GlvwAL._SX355_.jpg

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    The ending paragraph from the quoted site hits a chord so to speak.

     

    Here is also another sad truth, or if you prefer, perspective: More often than not, the weakest link in your playback chain is not what format you use, but rather the source material you are pumping through it.

     

    That is so true, sound reproduction comes alive with great recordings, even for the earbudphile. Linking the bad DR numbers to the engineer or producer and calling them out is one step to avoid giving them cash. As usual though, the artists and the listeners suffer, as always.

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    I can agree with SG's stance to an extent, especially with modern, pop, hip-hop, rock - it is supposed to sound like that, so WE need to accept that or just not listen  to it. Complaining about it doesn't make much sense.

     

    Where he's totally wrong: a) legacy material - why should e.g., a Springsteen album that had DR of 14 in the 80's be remastered to have DR of 6? It makes no sense, and claiming that the remaster VC is an "artistic" decision is a pretty weak one. And don't mention "hi-res" releases that this is done to; b) acoustic instruments - jazz quartets, etc. They are also starting to appear with volume compression to bring the DR from 16 to 8. Not unlistenable, but why? I'd guess even the people that buy them would prefer them without the added VR. And it adds NOTHING to the "art" - it merely reduces our ability to hear the subtleties of the playing. 

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