The Loudness Race

This’ll start a controversy

Dynamic Compression and the Loudness Race
By Bob Katz

Bob Katz has recorded and mastered more than a thousand recordings, including three Grammy Award winners. He’s best known in audiophile circles for his recording on the Chesky label. He has written a popular book, Mastering Audio: The Art And the Science.

The article below is copied from the February/March 2005 issue of the absolute sound magazine.

“One of the topics I wanted to cover in our discussion [elsewhere in the magazine - ed.] was the loudness race which has been ruining the sound of compact discs since about 1990. This problem won’t go away with DVDs, DVD-As, and even SACDs. While SACDs cannot be clipped (overloaded) in the same fashion as PCM recordings, the loudness race still applies to them.

In the “olden days” of LPs, audiophile discs and “normal” popular music discs could coexist in the same changer and produce the same apparent volume within a few dB. This is because the physical limits of the medium prevented engineers from making the record “too loud” or the stylus would skip out of the groove. Unfortunately, the digital medium is not subject to the same laws and limitations. It is possible to apply dynamic compression (using a compressor and/or limiter to reduce the dynamic range and impact) to make a CD recording 17db louder than a non-compressed recording. Seventeen dB is the difference between a whisper and a shout! With all this freedom to make a recording louder than its competition, mastering engineers and producers did not hesitate to do so. (The goal was to make your record sound louder than a competitor’s on the radio.) This is accomplished by squashing the musical peaks so that the average level can be brought up.

You can put on a well-made pop recording circa 1990-1994 and hear open, clear sound and generally good dynamic range and transient response. But later years of pop music have not fared so well, on the average. Examine successive releases, even from the same artist – each year’s release is louder than the previous, more compressed and limited, and usually sounds worse. The lack of an average level standard and the loudness race mean that a listener can be bombarded with sound from one CD at a volume-control position of 7 o’clock, and then be forced to turn it up to 2 o’clock for the next CD.

So far, DVDs made from movie soundtracks, on the average, have not succumbed to the loudness race, provided that the original film was well mixed. This produces ironic results like the Yellow Submarine soundtrack sounding much better on the DVD than it does on the CD, because the CD was over-compressed. At this point, many CDs of popular music groups are so distorted and overloaded that the sound is extremely fatiguing and distorted. It’s hard to find one that you can tolerate played at any volume level over “background music”.

What can we do to stop the loudness race? It’s impossible to stop it, but perhaps we can slow it down and try to move levels back to where they were several years ago. There is no “enforcement squad” that tells engineers to back off the level but if you, the consumers, complain to the record companies about the fatiguing sound of any CD that you buy, perhaps there will be a change. The complaints have to come from you, the record-buying public. Fortunately, there are also many very good technical reasons for backing off the level, one of which is that these modern CDs do not sound good on the radio; in fact, the oldies stations sound better than the top-40/alternative stations because over-compressed CDs overload the compressor/limiters at the radio stations. Begin your education by visiting http://www.digido.com and click on “CD Honor Roll.” Other articles about the loudness race can be found at http://www.audioholics.com/techtip…P1.php. Also http://www.soundmirror.com/articles.html#current, and http://www.geocities.com/mjareviews/rant7.html.”

There. That’s my controversy-starting contribution for the day. Go for it.

hee hee hee – we had it out over this one a number of months back - Katz has had that list posted for a while - do a breakdown of the dates on his “honor roll” list and see if it supports what he claims.

Yeah, a few months back there was a long thread about it. Probably got lost in the forum crash. Regardless, I agree whole heartedly with Katz. MANY CD’s are just about unlistenable for more three songs without a break. Even at moderate volumes the “in your face” smash gets on my nerves. BRING BACK THE DYNAMICS!!

TG

I said to a friend (ex-friend now, I think) that he could either record LOUD or he could record MUSIC but not both at the same time. Funny; he isn’t speaking to me any more.

Quote (andycoburn @ Feb. 12 2005,09:19)
Fortunately, there are also many very good technical reasons for backing off the level, one of which is that these modern CDs do not sound good on the radio; in fact, the oldies stations sound better than the top-40/alternative stations because over-compressed CDs overload the compressor/limiters at the radio stations. Begin your education by visiting http://www.digido.com and click on “CD Honor Roll.” Other articles about the loudness race can be found at http://www.audioholics.com/techtip....P1.php. Also http://www.soundmirror.com/articles.html#current, and http://www.geocities.com/mjareviews/rant7.html.”

There. That’s my controversy-starting contribution for the day. Go for it.

I've always thought so, but never knew why the Oldies sound better to me.
I thought it had to to with the whole analog, digital thing.
Also I thought it might have had something to do with AM broadcasting.
Either way oldies do have a warmer glow IMHO,
and I can turn them up without all the anoying high end you get with modern recordings.


Thanks for the links and info,
BTW what can I tell my engineer to do during recording to avoid this snafoo?
He has the older larger tape reels, and all the digital pro gear.
I want to be loud, but I want to sound warm as well.
Also, what limits should I put for the mastering engineer guys? Throw me a bone here people, I hit the studio in March!

jerm


jerm




The top window is The Travelling Wilburys - "Handle With Care"
The wav form has plenty of room for musical sounding dynamics.


The bottom window is Korn - "Word Up"
All of the information in this wav form has been pushed to the very loudest point that it can go. There is almost zero dynamic range, and it sounds like shit. If your wav files look like this, you deserve a good flogging.



Please don’t do this to your music, it hurts my ears!

-John
:cool:

Quote (jeremysdemo @ Feb. 12 2005,13:03)
BTW what can I tell my engineer to do during recording to avoid this snafoo?

This sort of damage is done at the mastering stage.

There you go John. I have done that little test many times in WaveLab Lite. The CD’s that start to grate on my nerves have waveforms that are a solid band of smashed goo. It’s a shame really. The reason I can’t listen to the music my son likes is not the content or the performance especially. It’s because of the psycho-acoustic assault of over compression. Two songs and I’m like…“OK! Boy, get that CRAP OUTTA THERE!” :D

TG

<!–QuoteBegin>

Quote
There is almost zero dynamic range, and it sounds like shit. If your wav files look like this, you deserve a good flogging.



Please don’t do this to your music, it hurts my ears!



What he said!! :D :D :D

Boy o’boy - that korn file is fugly as uck !!

The message for me is that compression followed by normalization is not desirable. Classical music has soft parts and it has loud parts and these must remain in the same relation to each other that the musician intended. I have a wav file that I want to post here but can’t figure out how John did it. Any help? I will confess that if a particular file has just one or two “spikes”, which would render normalization ineffective, that I will simply delete them. Nobody notices a few thousands of a second. Better this than compression.

The normalization isn’t the problem, it’s the over-compression and extreme limiting.

Frankly, you have to work pretty hard to sqash music that much and still have it sound like music. Don’t worry about this happening by accident. If you don’t do it on purpose, it won’t happen (unless you send it out to be mastered and aren’t clear about it).

Handling a few spikes is what limiting is for – especially the kind called a “brick wall limiter”, which isn’t really like a brick wall but more like a padded one. It won’t let anything past the limit, but rounds off the peaks that would have exceeded it.

Quote (learjeff @ Feb. 12 2005,14:34)
The normalization isn't the problem, it's the over-compression and extreme limiting.

Right. I read a pretty lengthy article on mastering in EM magazine. One of participants said he likes to ASK clients this;

"On a scale of 1 to 10 with 1 being the most musical and dynamic and 10 being AS LOUD as possible, what do you want this piece to be?" Most people chose 8.

That's still too much IMO.

TG

I posted some interesting findings on http://downloads.phootoons.com a while back. Scroll down and look at the clipping on comercial cd stuff (two different places) and zoomed, etc down at the bottom.

Hee hee, it’s called the tape worm. If it looks like a tape worm, then it will probably sound like one too… Though I have to say, over compressing has it’s uses. I have recently started using a lot of loops and samples on stage and for some of the more trip hop sounding stuff I’ll smash the snot out of a drum loop. It gives this real mushy lofi sound. But I am using it for an effect. These poor jerks crushing their mixes are missing the boat. Though, Korn does sell a lot of records… ???

Hey Phoo… I like the way this one looks:



No major spikes, but it still has some range to it; it’s nice and fuzzy…, as opposed to the giant square wave looking Korn song that I posted.

-John
:cool:

John,
How do you copy the pictures into this site?

Quote (andycoburn @ Feb. 12 2005,21:54)
John,
How do you copy the pictures into this site?

In answer ro this question.

This picture really isn't on this page.
Right click the image above, provided by John, thanks...

scroll to Properties,A gray board should show up that has this Url on it:
http://downloads.phootoons.com/zoom1.jpg

That's where the picture is.
To make it appear on this page click the image icon in the post reply box.
When it comes up put the Url of the image you want in it,
that's it.

I recomend, photobucket.com
they give you lot's of free space and help organize your images.


keep trackin'



jerm

He doesn’t it’s a link to http://downloads.phootoons.com/zoom1.jpg

That’s the example where it looks squished when zoomed out but the more you zoom in the more it doesn’t looks squished at all. In fact, it’s not squished.

Korn is a PRIME example of what many CDs look like these days, and that IS a real shame when it’s done wrong or badly.

The funny thing is that I like some music to sound that way - not distorted but squished. There’s a reason to hard limit sometimes - musical reasons - emotional reasons. The Sex Pistols were very hard limited to make them sound like they were loud. Your ears interpret pumping and limiting in a way that can make something sound louder without it actually being louder, and even when the electrical energy actually goes down. A lot of these bands are going for that sound, but are missing the boat (for the record I don’t how to do it either). So, it’s not necessary TO BE LOUD that they are going for but TO SOUND LOUD, like a really loud band playing really hard. It’s like removing contrast to make something look brighter, like when the light is so bright it starts glaring.

All that said, you can add the all-ending-limiter-from-h-e-l-l and push the faders until you are banging and limiting the whole time, bit no new distortion is added - no new clipping happens - nothing happens that causes those flat spots to appear on the wave, depending on the limiter and settings. When clipping is added or the settings aren’t just right, or the equipment or plug-in can’t handle it, stuff happens and you’ve royally screwed the sound. But THAT is what the CD mastering guys are doing, and that’s why it sounds so bad.

Listen to Innuendo (the song) by Queen. That is some of the most masterful hard limiting I’ve ever heard. I have not looked at the wave yet, but it sounds hard limited and it sounds like the band is getting louder in one section of the song when the actual volume is saying the same or going down a little. The same thing happens in RA by Utopia.

Limiting is used as an effect, not a cruch.

I couldn’t resist. The results aren’t surprising AT ALL. The surprising part is how much this CD sticks to what we preach (and find very hard to do ourselves). You’ll understand after hearing and seeing.

I clipped out the first minute of Innuendo…

Audio (Hear it): http://downloads.phootoons.com/innuendo_clip.wma
Wave (see it): http://downloads.phootoons.com/innuendo_clip.jpg
Spectrum (EQ range): http://downloads.phootoons.com/innuendo_clip.gif

It’s hard to believe this is from a CD considering what we get these days.

I probably should have used a higher quality wma, but it gets the point across.