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Why Music Really Is Getting Louder 388

Teksty Piosenek writes "Artists and record bosses believe that the best album is the loudest one. Sound levels are being artificially enhanced so that the music punches through when it competes against background noise in pubs or cars. 'Geoff Emerick, engineer on the Beatles' Sgt. Pepper album, said: "A lot of what is released today is basically a scrunched-up mess. Whole layers of sound are missing. It is because record companies don't trust the listener to decide themselves if they want to turn the volume up." Downloading has exacerbated the effect. Songs are compressed once again into digital files before being sold on iTunes and similar sites. The reduction in quality is so marked that EMI has introduced higher-quality digital tracks, albeit at a premium price, in response to consumer demand.'"
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Why Music Really Is Getting Louder

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  • by mi ( 197448 ) <> on Saturday June 09, 2007 @01:46AM (#19448447) Homepage Journal

    You are too old!

    • by Sigma 7 ( 266129 ) on Saturday June 09, 2007 @02:07AM (#19448585)

      You are too old!
      Can you repeat that? I have trouble hearing you... </joke>

    • by ahbi ( 796025 ) on Saturday June 09, 2007 @02:39AM (#19448721) Journal
      I have noticed that the older I get the louder I need music to be. Especially voice.

      In fact I am 35 and I watch all DVDs with the subtitles. (Of course, part of that is that I watch a lot of DVDs at 1.2x to 2x speed, but ... Really who the Hell could actually stand "A Scanner Darkley" at normal speed?)

      But back to my point, as I age I am less and less able to sift background noise from speech.
      And we now live in an aging society.
      • part of that is that I watch a lot of DVDs at 1.2x to 2x speed

        How do you do that? I haven't seen a DVD player that continues to show subtitles while on fast forward, so I'm interested to know how you have this going.. sounds like a great idea!
        • by ahbi ( 796025 ) on Saturday June 09, 2007 @03:07AM (#19448829) Journal
          Yeah, I have to use a PC. Well, my laptop.

          I usually copy a DVD or 3 to my laptop before going on a business trip. NetFlix has gotten me so DVD dependent that I can't watch normal TV anymore. So, the hotel TV is out (unless HBO just happens to have something on). (I am always stunned when I watch CNN that that is what network news has devolved into. 2-3 people screaming.)

          My wife would never handle the 1.2x speed for things she watches.
          My actual DVD player appliance that I bought ... mmm ... 5 years ago when they finally dropped below $100. It doesn't do sound or subtitles during fast forward. Nor does it do 1.?x speeds. Just 1, 2, 4, & 8x. Whereas PowerDVD has 1, 1.1, 1.2, 1.5, 2, and up to 32x. Normally I watch at either 1.1 or 1.2x.

          I used to hook my laptop up to the TV via the S-Video port, but that is cumbersome.
      • Re: (Score:3, Interesting)

        by unitron ( 5733 ) I age I am less and less able to sift background noise from speech.

        Try comparing an old movie on Turner Classic Movies with something from the last few years, or an old (late '50s, early '60s) TV show with modern ones, and see if you have as great a problem with the old stuff.

        For some reason current movies and television, even PBS stuff, are being mixed and mangled so that the dialogue is getting buried under the background music and sound effects (although part of the problem is probably actors who mumble and can't enunciate worth a damn. It may be more realistic and t

      • Re: (Score:3, Interesting)

        by Fordiman ( 689627 )
        You're not imagining it. 'course TFAuthor seems to misunderstand the difference between signal compression and data compression.

        Signal compression is a simple matter; basically you run this over each data sample:
        if (abs(signal[i])<threshold) signal[i]=sgn(signal[i])*(threshold+(abs(signal[i] )-threshhold)*factor); (where 0<factor<1)

        Then, you run a normalization reoutine over the whole data set. When run over PCM data, it's a good way to get quieter portions of a track up into the audible level.
        • by leenks ( 906881 ) on Saturday June 09, 2007 @10:06AM (#19450301)
          Except this is a gross oversimplification. Compression is typically done in a number of bands independantly for mastering. Some bands get compressed to hell and back, others are barely touched - the effect is much the same as "TFAuthor" described - some bands totally go missing. Some get deliberately removed by filtering them out prior to the compression too so that they sound good on the widest range of hardware.

          In reality, all three compression techniques (compression, multiband compression, perceptual coding) are highly lossy because you lose the relationships between individual components in the sound. Whether you can hear that with the latter is up to the audiophiles though :)
          • Re: (Score:3, Insightful)

            by joto ( 134244 )

            Whether you can hear that with the latter is up to the audiophiles though :)

            Correction: Whether you can hear the latter is something that is best settled in double blind test experiements. Most people can't, at least if they're older than 30. If you ask an audiophile, the answer will of course be YES, but the same audiophile will probably also tell you that the quality of the power cord from the wall socket to your amplifier matters, with the more expensive power cord sounding "warmer", "richer", and "mor

      • by DerekLyons ( 302214 ) <> on Saturday June 09, 2007 @10:50AM (#19450557) Homepage

        I have noticed that the older I get the louder I need music to be. Especially voice. In fact I am 35 and I watch all DVDs with the subtitles. (Of course, part of that is that I watch a lot of DVDs at 1.2x to 2x speed, but ... Really who the Hell could actually stand "A Scanner Darkley" at normal speed?) But back to my point, as I age I am less and less able to sift background noise from speech. And we now live in an aging society.

        If you are experiencing significant hearing loss at 35... one of three conditions exist; a) you work in a job that has damaged your hearing (unlikely with OSHA etc...), b) you have a medical condition (unlikely, but possible), or c) you've been listening to loud music/tv/whatever for so long you've damaged your own hearing.
    • by saskboy ( 600063 ) on Saturday June 09, 2007 @03:07AM (#19448831) Homepage Journal
      It's tough being able to hear. Unlike many of my peers, I'm not going deaf, and so going to a bar is painful, since I haven't spent years ruining my hearing like they have. Yes I'm old, but their ears are older, and they wouldn't need it up so loud if they'd cared for their ears like I have done for mine.

      I try to congratulate DJs that don't cross the pain threshold with their volume level. There are even some restaurants like Boston Pizza in some locations, that play their music loud enough to damage hearing after not a long exposure.
      • Cranked up to 11 (Score:5, Insightful)

        by tbo ( 35008 ) on Saturday June 09, 2007 @03:29AM (#19448889) Journal
        It's tough being able to hear.

        I know what you mean, and I'm not even old and wise. I went to a concert for the first time in a few years, and was reminded of why I stopped. I had to wear ear plugs most of the time, which, since they don't attenuate all frequencies evenly, totally messed up the sound.

        Imagine if, when you entered an art gallery, they stabbed out one of your eyes. That's how much sense it makes to destroy people's hearing when they go to concerts.
        • Re:Cranked up to 11 (Score:5, Informative)

          by Eideewt ( 603267 ) on Saturday June 09, 2007 @03:48AM (#19448949)
          Hearos make a good pair of reusable ear plugs for only $15. They're not as good as custom molded plugs, but they're fairly flat and don't even come close to totally messing up the sound. If you plan to go to a concert ever again, think about picking up a pair. Heck, just carry some in your pocket all the time, since you never know when you'll meet with loud noises.
          • by tbo ( 35008 )
            Thanks, I just looked at the Hearos site, and the listed attenuation data actually looks pretty reasonable.

            What I don't get is why it has to be so loud in the first place.
            • Re: (Score:3, Interesting)

              I think it started with the Beatles and the fact that you couldn't even hear them in their concerts because of all the screaming fans.
          • Re: (Score:3, Interesting)

            A word of warning regarding ear plugs: put them in a plastic bag or some other sort of container when you're not using them. I set a pair of plugs down on my piano, and the literally melted the lacquer underneath, right down to the wood.
          • by bl8n8r ( 649187 ) on Saturday June 09, 2007 @07:44AM (#19449687)
            > just carry some in your pocket all the time, since you never know when you'll meet with loud noises.

            Will my wife be able to tell I'm wearing them?
      • by KlaymenDK ( 713149 ) on Saturday June 09, 2007 @05:14AM (#19449207) Journal
        Your post reminds me of the film "All Gone Pete Tong (The Legend of Frankie Wild)". Odd title, but a light-yet-deep story about an Ibiza DJ who deals with the effects of a deafening work environment. []

        Watch it if you like.
      • Re: (Score:3, Informative)

        by Cadallin ( 863437 )
        I hear that. I was listening to some music with a friend recently. "Your EQ is messed up," he says. He proceeds to rework it into a smiley face bumping the bottom bass up about to about +9db. I had had bass on 0 and treble up about +3db to compensate for some roll off inherent in my speakers, which admittedly are cheap at the moment.

        If you don't understand what's wrong with a smiley face EQ, you've probably damaged your hearing pretty badly already.

        • by Andy_R ( 114137 ) on Saturday June 09, 2007 @10:20AM (#19450361) Homepage Journal
          The 'smiley face' EQ curve is actually desirable if you are listening at lower than usual volume levels. It's a known property of the human ear (discovered by Fletcher and Munson in 1933) that we are better at hearing midrange sounds at low levels. While it's true that the eq will have been set by the professional engineers who recorded the music, since they do not know the volume level you will be playing it back at, they cannot compensate for the changes in eq perception at low levels (or indeed high levels). To get back to what they intended, the 'smile curve' should be applied at low levels and it's oppostite at high levels.
          • Re: (Score:3, Interesting)

            by Cadallin ( 863437 )
            Low volume levels nothing. Humans are worse at hearing low bass than other frequencies period. That still doesn't mean 150db of 30hz tones won't blow out your hearing just because it only sounds as loud as 300hz at 90db. And yes, I'm exaggerating. The problem with your point is that people aren't just applying a smiley face EQ to listen to light classical or talk radio at low volumes. They're not applying the opposite at high levels at all, They're applying a full +9db or more at both ends while listen
            • by iluvcapra ( 782887 ) on Saturday June 09, 2007 @02:55PM (#19452161)
              Hello, I'm a film sound designer and I LIVE for when the occasional sound article comes up on slashdot.

              The parent poster is completely right, hearing damage is a function of Sound Pressure Level and time, and sound pressure level is a measurement of energy in the air, and not a measure of your perception. Something people don't recognize along these lines, is that a lot of people do terrible damage to themselves by simply driving with the car window down on the freeway, as (in our modern aerodynamic cars) the turbulent airflow can pummel your ears with LF, though it doesn't bother you because it's below 20 Hz. And the wind noise makes you turn up the radio louder.

              With regard to graphic EQ, the things were invented, partly, to help engineers correct the acoustic characteristics of rooms -- if your room has a mode at 400 Hz, turn down 400 Hz, if it has some high ringiness due to some resonance, turn down the high end. A 30 band graphic EQ is ideal for this sort of work because some rooms have a bunch of little peaks and troughs on an RTA and you'd need a ton of parametric EQs to do the same goofiness. A 5 band graphic EQ is just for show, you need at least 10 before you can do anything particularly fun, and even then in a car I can't imagine where it'd get you. Maybe you could shape the music over the engine noise or something :P If you want the music to stay loud over engine noise, you're better off using the automatic level control, if your car has one (it's basically a compressor, the audio kind, not the data kind).

              It should go without saying, if you want to hear the song the way the band mixed it, they listened to it with a flat EQ, and if you want to enjoy the nuances of a piece of music, don't listen to it in a car. Also, the standard practice in music mixing since forever is to record the song as loud as possible without distorting on the medium. Compression (the audio kind) is a style thing, and bands have been using since the beginning of rock and roll, and particularly with CDs, the music is physically incapable of getting any louder on the medium. You kids have just been cranking up your damn volume knobs.
      • Re: (Score:3, Insightful)

        so that the music punches through when it competes against background noise in pubs or cars.

        I find nothing more annoying than a bar or pub with no dance floor cranking the music. I don't want the music to fucking punch through the conversation I'm trying to have. I go to the pub to talk to people, why the hell is the music so loud that i have to yell to the person beside me?
  • by antdude ( 79039 ) on Saturday June 09, 2007 @01:47AM (#19448451) Homepage Journal
    VideoSift [] mentions an one minute and 52 seconds YouTube video [] showing big-name Compact Discs (CDs) [and other audio sources] manufacturers are distorting sounds to make them seem louder. At the same time, sound quality suffers.
  • Dubious reasoning (Score:5, Insightful)

    by Puff of Logic ( 895805 ) on Saturday June 09, 2007 @01:48AM (#19448455)

    The reduction in quality is so marked that EMI has introduced higher-quality digital tracks, albeit at a premium price, in response to consumer demand.
    Odd. I was under the impression that the higher quality tracks were incidental to releasing non-DRM'd tracks in iTunes. Essentially, the higher quality eased the pain of another $.30 per track.
  • by Spazntwich ( 208070 ) on Saturday June 09, 2007 @01:49AM (#19448463)
    but if the music keeps selling, the labels are providing exactly what the cloth-eared idiot masses want, and in the end they're out to make a profit, not "quality music."
    • by Tablizer ( 95088 ) on Saturday June 09, 2007 @01:58AM (#19448525) Journal
      Most people listen to music while doing something else, such as driving, ironing, gardening, trolling slashdot, etc. The quality does not matter that much during those activities. It is noticed by audiophiles far more than Joe Blow.
      • Re: (Score:3, Informative)

        by Hal_Porter ( 817932 )
        Most people listen to music while doing something else, such as driving, ironing, gardening, trolling slashdot, etc.

        The best music to troll to is alternative rock like Laibach since everything they did was a troll to dim witted lefties. Most real punk rockers would appreciate the concept of trolling too - consider Sid Vicious in his Swastika T shirt. Sid probably didn't like the Nazis, he just wanted to trigger a debate on their alleged crimes. Post Dead Kennedies however punks have a simplistic worldview w
        • by Lorkki ( 863577 )

          The best music to troll to is alternative rock like Laibach since everything they did was a troll to dim witted lefties.

          I thought they were more of a satire of dim-witted "righties", but to each his own I suppose.

    • Re: (Score:2, Troll)

      by timmarhy ( 659436 )
      that's a terrible attitude to have in any business, people like you are whats wrong with the world.
    • RTFA (Score:3, Informative)

      by weighn ( 578357 )

      but if the music keeps selling, the labels are providing exactly what the cloth-eared idiot masses want

      "The brain is not geared to accept buzzing. The CDs induce a sense of fatigue in the listeners. It becomes psychologically tiring and almost impossible to listen to. This could be the reason why CD sales are in a slump."

      The <b> is added for emphasis. The "buzzing" is clipping - where the audio signal peaks and the wave is squared off. Cloth ears don't make you immune to that.

      • Finally you get to the heart of the matter.

        Get Audacity. Import a few tracks off of modern CDs. Look at the squared off waveforms. Then take a CD from, say, the late 1980s or early 1990s and look at the waveforms on that. Note the less clipped waveforms? Then take a listen. You will be amazed.

        Oversaturating analog tape is fine because the clipping is more organic and less buzzy. In fact, you get a bit more presence from "recording hot." Oversaturating digital recording media? You get ugly digital clipping,
  • by aaron p. matthews ( 96130 ) on Saturday June 09, 2007 @01:51AM (#19448477) Homepage Journal
    This video explains the effects of audio compression quite clearly, albeit the sound quality is only what YouTube can allow. []

    • Re: (Score:3, Informative)

      by weighn ( 578357 )

      This video explains the effects of audio compression quite clearly, albeit the sound quality is only what YouTube can allow. cheers.

      you can do this yourself using Audacity. Rip part of any rock album produced prior to c.1993 (from what I can recall it has been happening for this long) and compare it to any form of rock recorded in a studio since the "Seattle sound" came to the fore.

      the older stuff has some dynamic range - the corporate rock produced during the past 15 years can virtually be defined by the shapelessness of the wave.

    • I've been wondering for quite some time why most rock music doesn't have any punch to it anymore. Now I know.

      When you compress the dynamic range of song with drums you seem to completely destroy the feeling of the music and it just comes out flat.
    • by NeMon'ess ( 160583 ) * <flinxmid AT yahoo DOT com> on Saturday June 09, 2007 @04:57AM (#19449167) Homepage Journal
      Some albums like Soundgarden - Superunknown from 1994 and Foo Fighters from 1995 still had much of their dynamic range. What changed in the late 90's was the overall volume was increased so much the peaks of the drums and bass got clipped. Doing that also deletes any other vocals or instruments playing during the clipped time. It's more like an analog volume adjustment of just sliding the volume up too high when mixing.

      What's different now that the video shows is the peaks are not getting clipped anymore, instead they reach 0.0 db but the entire mix is digitally volume maximized so almost every single peak is that loud. Vocals and instruments like guitars are always the same maximum loudness. If the singer sings louder or plays harder the volume the listener hears doesn't change.

      It's also why the theme song to Casino Royale, You Know My Name by Chris Cornell sounds so weak. Not only is it rock with orchestral backing, so it's already a wall of sound, but since everything is maximized, when Chris starts singing his lungs out there's no change in the volume. The power and energy of his voice and the music is just destroyed. []
      • by philicorda ( 544449 ) on Saturday June 09, 2007 @09:17AM (#19450049)
        "What's different now that the video shows is the peaks are not getting clipped anymore, instead they reach 0.0 db but the entire mix is digitally volume maximized so almost every single peak is that loud."

        No, they are getting clipped. Have a closer look for flat topped peaks.
        The damage is being done by look ahead limiters like Waves L2, which are the last process in the mastering chain.
        These limiters work on psychoacoustic principles, employing some of the temporal masking ideas used in lossy audio compression to make the artifacts of very fast peak limiting as inaudible as possible.
        It's known that humans cannot hear short periods of clipping distortion (less than 2ms or so), so these limiters allow that to happen, clamp down a millisecond later, and increase the subjective loudness of the signal without losing 'punch'. As this kind of limiter incorporates a delay line in the audio output path, but not the side chain, it's always looking a few milliseconds ahead and so knows how to react to a peak in advance.

        The problem is that if you push a limiter of this kind really hard, it cannot keep it's artifacts inaudible, the clipped periods get longer, and the music starts to sound harsh and tiring.

        It's a shame as they a beautifully clean limiters if used correctly, you can knock 4-6db of pop material without the kind of artifacts a traditional analog limiter would produce.
  • by megabyte405 ( 608258 ) on Saturday June 09, 2007 @01:52AM (#19448483)
    Is it just me, or does that article (intentionally?) confuse the two meanings "compression" can have with regards to digital audio? The loudness bit is audio compression: reducing dynamic range (which they do talk about). Then, they bring in the bit about data compression and the EMI iTunes Plus downloads, which is entirely different (admittedly, it also introduces artifacts, but of a completely different nature). The bit about the Los Lonely Boys album "compression-free" could easily be free of either (or both!) kinds of compression.

    While the logical part of me chalks it up to confusing terminology being misunderstood, part of me wonders if those meanings are being intentionally conflated to make the article more impactful... it would sound less impressive if EMI wasn't "admitting there is a problem with compression"
    • by mypalmike ( 454265 ) on Saturday June 09, 2007 @01:57AM (#19448521) Homepage
      You are completely correct in your analysis. Compression [] isn't really related to compression []. But it makes a good "double whammy" for the article.
      • by Rimbo ( 139781 )
        It makes a good double whammy for the article, and the effect in both cases is that sound quality degrades.

      • by Penguin ( 4919 )
        Yeah, guess they really raised the whammy bar on this one.

    • by dgatwood ( 11270 ) on Saturday June 09, 2007 @02:09AM (#19448589) Homepage Journal

      Never attribute to malice what can be explained by incompetence just as easily.... The whole thing strikes me as an article written by someone who simply doesn't understand the difference between psychoacoustic-based data compression and dynamic compression....

      I'd be amazed if any album other than classical music were made without compression. A drum kit or other similar drums without at least some compression sound pretty silly. Basically, you end up burying the entire mix in the mud to keep the drums from clipping... unless you record on analog tape and just let it clip (soft saturation), but in that case, you're really compressing the signal, just without calling it compression. The peak of the sound is just too soft compared to the meat of the sound to give you a usable volume without either adding compression or limiting (which is just a special case of compression).

      • Don't psychoacoustic models involve dynamic compression to increase the quantisation of the signal, thus making it more susceptible to data compression?
  • by Bob54321 ( 911744 ) on Saturday June 09, 2007 @01:55AM (#19448501)
    The problem is that todays speakers go up to eleven. That one louder...
    • Amps that go to 11 are old news. Nigel confirmed it himself that he now has amps that go to infinity. On The Satch Tapes []. Or was he saying that Satriani had those amps? I forget. Whatever the case may be, somebody has amps that go to infinity dammit. Top that you evil volume level compressors!
  • Peaking (Score:5, Insightful)

    by zerocool^ ( 112121 ) on Saturday June 09, 2007 @01:56AM (#19448511) Homepage Journal

    We always called it "peaking", and it's something that everyone who's recorded an album in the spare bedroom of their band mate's house can attest to - if you record with fewer peaks (places where the sound wave maxes out at the top of the available volume area), it sounds better. It just plain sounds better.

    But, take songs off that CD and slam them onto a mix-tape style rotation or an iPod, and you'll be reaching to turn up the volume every time your song comes on.

    From what I can tell, recording engineers are responding to the bands who don't want people to have to turn the music up (in particular record execs). It's one of those terrible problems - if everyone would agree on such-and-such date to back off the recording volume and get less peaks (say, no more than 7 per album), everyone's music would instantly sound better. But the fact that everyone's competing, and you don't want your copycat pop punk band to be the quiet one, means it's a self perpetuating problem.

    • Re:Peaking (Score:5, Informative)

      by varkatope ( 308450 ) on Saturday June 09, 2007 @02:34AM (#19448699) Homepage
      The issue isn't the peaking itself. A peak happens when a signal has surpassed what the receiver of that sound was designed for. If you pump a really loud signal into a preamp on a mixing console (even a small cheap one these days) and the "peak" light has come on, it means the signal is too loud for the equipment. It results in audible distortion and you should turn it down. What a compressor would do in this case is take the full spectrum, from lowest to highest point of the sound frequency and compress in a way that in effect, makes the highest and lowest frequencies squish into a tighter waveform. It's like trying to fit a square peg in a round hole, but then shaving off the corners of the square peg to make it fit. In effect, you're avoiding actual peaking or overloading of the equipment so you can turn the signal up louder without overload. Therein lies the problem.

      Compression is a necessary part of recording. Judicious use of compression can make a mix really come together and fit everything into it's right place. Notice that I said judicious. It's unfortunately a very useful tool which can easily be abused. OVER compression starts to result in the degradation of the signal. Sometimes you can hear it "pumping and breathing." Over compression is nasty, plus it destroys dynamics. Forget that crescendo on the second movement. Your violin solo is now exactly as loud as your entire orchestra. Are you excited yet? It's also extremely tiring to listen to. Take a pure square wave and pump it through a speaker. Look at that speaker and notice how fast and constantly the speaker cone is vibrating. Take your newfangled over compressed rock/pop CD and extract audio into some sort of multitracking software like Pro Tools or Ardour even. Expand the view a bit and look at the wave form. Looks a lot like a square wave the way the tops and bottoms of that wave form are chopped off doesn't it? Extract audio from a cd you really like from say, the mid 60s. Look at the wave form. There are peaks and valleys and quiet parts and loud parts, the tops and bottoms of the waveform are not chopped off. Now imagine what that new over compressed pop/rock record is doing to your eardrum even at low volume while keeping in mind the speaker cone. Your ear works a lot like that speaker cone. It's vibrating exactly as fast as that speaker cone. It's a mechanical part. There is fatigue involved. Plus it's just boring to listen to. It sucks out emotion and excitement.

      By the time you hear your average top 40 hit on the radio, it has been compressed during recording twice (on individual sound sources and probably again when a stereo mix is produced), during mastering, then again at the radio station. Radio stations want their station to catch your ear, plus it helps in keeping signal strength over long distances. Labels want louder songs to compete with the other loud songs, bands want their record to sound like this other loud record, mastering engineers are asked by either the band or the label to make it as loud as possible. You know who's paying the bill so they do it. Recording engineers can be pressured to over-compress by the band or label or just by wanting to have a job in the next year and they might do it as well. Even if they turn in a good balanced mix for mastering, it's a crap shoot whether their mixes will sound the same when the record actually gets put out.

      It's a shite state of affairs all around.
      • I beg to differ! (Score:3, Informative)

        by haraldm ( 643017 )

        Compression is a necessary part of recording.

        Nay, nay, and nay. The CD by its architecture has a dynamic headroom of 96 dB. Make it 90, to compensate for poor AD/DA converters. No pop band will ever use this full headroom, no matter what. Maybe classical music does, but not always. It's plenty. As an audio engineer, you can play with it just fine. The artist can express herself by using loudness levels - louder parts, quieter parts, depending on what you want to say. What happens here is audio engineers

        • Re: (Score:3, Informative)

          by radish ( 98371 )
          Simply not true. While yes, you could (potentially) get away without the limiter/compressor on the master bus you still typically want them on most of the individual tracks to make it sound "right". For example, use of compression can really alter the sound of a kick drum, and depending on the kind of sound you want in your track you will need a compressor to make it sound punchy and come through the rest of the mix.
    • by djw ( 3187 )
      Not quite. It isn't the number of peaks that counts, it's the ratio of peak to "trough" -- how much louder the loud passages are than the quiet passages. If that ratio is high, then since the peaks are relatively rare, listeners will have to turn up the recording to hear the rest of it at a satisfying level.

      The problem is that in digital recording you never want to "max out" as you put it -- you'll lose part of the sound due to an unpleasant kind of distortion called clipping []. So the mastering techniq

    • I never reach for the volume control from song to song, because all music I listen to has been ReplayGained. They're all the same average volume after that processing, so I just set my desired listening level, and that's that. One song isn't louder or quieter, overall, than the next one. CDs should be mastered to meet ReplayGain's levels to begin with. Older CDs with nice mastering are actually pretty damn close. I don't know how this issue is taking so long to deal with, lots of us have been complaini
  • Good audio example (Score:5, Informative)

    by Guanine ( 883175 ) on Saturday June 09, 2007 @01:56AM (#19448515)
    Here's a great audio and visual (narrated) example of the "loudness wars" [] and the way that reduction in dynamic range reduces the quality of the recorded sound. Keep in mind, this isn't audiophile mumbo-jumbo... this is a very real and very unfortunate trend in what the engineers who master albums (specifically pop albums) are required to do to keep their albums "competitive" with all the other loud albums.
  • Couldn't we just add a tag to every track with a floating point number by which to multiply the magnitude of all the samples in that track by default.

    That way the track could be recorded with it's full dynamic range preserved, so people who care about dynamic range can hear it clearly. And as the loudness war progresses that one multiplier could just be incremented, so that people who don't care about dynamic range will hear the track loudly.
    • Re: (Score:2, Informative)

      by astromog ( 866411 )
      So... replaygain []?
    • by Erris ( 531066 ) on Saturday June 09, 2007 @02:51AM (#19448777) Homepage Journal

      Couldn't we just add a tag to every track with a floating point number by which to multiply the magnitude of all the samples in that track by default.

      You already have a built in upper limit, normalizing the range to that limit fixes the problem.

      Normalize-audio is a package that does this. Here's what the Debian repository says:

      normalize-audio is a tool for adjusting the volume of WAV files to a standard volume level. This is useful for things like creating mix CDs and mp3 databases, where different recording levels on different albums can cause the volume to vary greatly from song to song.

      The package also works on ogg vorbis and mp3. You can do it on ripping, or playback. Each song can be normalized individually or as a collection. The result is that you don't have to reach for the volume knob all day.

      You are SOL if the record company has already applied dumb techniques to the CD before you get it. Peak "compressing", where all of the peaks are maxed out is a real distoriton of the original sound. When you add a heavy handed turn up that clips as well, you get Californication as mentioned. As the article also notes, it's difficult to digitize clipped audio. A clipped wave is like a square wave - it has all frequencies and takes lots of bandwith.

  • It's an interesting fact, but one that people on usenet groups frequented by aesthetically-minded audio engineers have been talking about for years. The earlier post in this thread shows some pictures of the sound that are interesting.
  • I've come to the opinion that modern vinyl records often sound in some respects better than their digital versions - even though vinyl is an inferior medium, today's records presumably aren't "engineered to death" like the CDs and MP3s that are the subject of this article; radio stations don't play records any more, so the same pressures that factor into the digital masters don't apply.

    Of course, this could be entirely in my head. I don't really know anything about the mastering process. Can any audio eng

    • Re: (Score:3, Interesting)

      by Lisandro ( 799651 )
      Sadly, you don't have to go back to the vinyl days for examlpes of this.

      The "engineering to death" that you talk about is usually dynamic range compression [], where you artificially limit the difference between the softest and the loudest sound reproduced in the media. Compression is very useful in certain situations (guitar compressors are fairly popular to "focus" the sound of the instrument, and compressing vocals is a common practice), but nowadays it has become popular to over-compress pretty much everyt
  • Not just music (Score:3, Interesting)

    by Sigma 7 ( 266129 ) on Saturday June 09, 2007 @02:12AM (#19448605)
    It's involves all audio devices in general, although it could have to do with unintentional design specifications.

    More often than not, I find that I need to set the Windows master volume to an extremely low level - one or two pixels above silence. After that, I need to set the wave volume to that same region - near the bottom. Next, my speaker volume is set to low as well. After all this, I'm actually comfortable with the standard operating system sounds.

    Unless there's some boost or gain that I haven't noticed, it's more than just the music industry that's having problems.

    • TV, too. There's one certain station I watch every now and then where the ads are consistently *much* louder than the content. I've emailed them about this and got a bunch of bafflegab back about relative sound levels. OK, so if they're right, why do other stations not exhibit the same annoying volume level changes?

      This pissed me off, so I bought a sound pressure level meter, a camera that I can record video with and a domain name with hosting. The next time I get irritated with this station's fluctuating s
  • by Eideewt ( 603267 ) on Saturday June 09, 2007 @02:12AM (#19448607)
    I find the notion that people are unfamiliar with their volume knobs ludicrous. Putting together tracks with more dynamic range isn't going to make people listen to them at whisper quiet levels -- they're going to turn it up to normal listening volume.

    I suppose the good news is that we literally can't compress music more than we are now. We've hit the wall, and the only way to go is the right direction.
  • Slightly misleading line: Songs are compressed once again into digital files before being sold on iTunes and similar sites.

    The first "compression" is traditional audio compression where the dynamic range of the track is "compressed" the second "compression" is digital data compression. These are two completely different things with no relation to each other - the only thing they share is the name.
  • this just in... (Score:2, Insightful)

    by wordsnyc ( 956034 )
    if your music sounds good on an iPod, you're listening to crap.
  • by mrjb ( 547783 ) on Saturday June 09, 2007 @02:21AM (#19448649)
    Some studios indeed attempt to make the end result of their recordings louder. Why? For one, because the client wants their recording to sound as loud as the other recordings they own. Another, better reason is because it will lift up some detail from below the noise floor into the audible range. Only thing is, there is such a thing as the 'maximum amplitude' that one can represent on the medium. Let's call it 10, these people want to push the volume up to 11 because it will give them a richer listening experience. Now there are various way to do that in the studio. Simplest way is just to make it 'one louder'. Something along the lines of 1. select all, 2. amplitude->maximize, 3. amplitude->amplify->110%, 4. file->save 5. Profit! However this will clip the sound (most likely the bassdrum, in the case of rock bands). This is what the article is complaining about. Example: the Californication album from the Red Hot Chilipeppers. With good (monitoring) speakers you can hear the clipping in the bassdrum. But it's trivial to see this clipping with a wave editor. A better way to up the average volume is to use a dynamic range compressor- smooth out peaks to make them less high, then do amplitude->maximize, and the result is a louder sounding recording without audible artifacts (when properly done). Unless you have a trained studio ear, you'll rarely notice the loss of dynamics, because, that is what a dynamic range compressor is for. However, in extreme cases we *do* notice. In classical recordings, louder passages may not "jump out" so much anymore). So instead of having a richer listening experience, you end up with a poorer one. So it's all a tradeoff. The problem depends on the material that is recorded. You can't go and treat all music styles in the same way. Usually classical recordings do not contain as many 'little detail sounds' as current studio recordings, so you want to do as little as possible to the dynamic range and let the listener decide how loud (s)he wants it. Pop recordings usually do not need as wide a dynamic range, so the sound level is upped artificially. Either way, the sound engineers and record companies are aiming for the richest possible listening experience, albeit in different and opposite ways. In that sense sound engineers and programmers share one thing: they usually have big egos and like to badmouth their competition. Geoff Emerick doesn't seem to be an exception to the rule.
  • by daBass ( 56811 ) on Saturday June 09, 2007 @02:23AM (#19448663)

    Songs are compressed once again into digital files before being sold on iTunes and similar sites. The reduction in quality is so marked that EMI has introduced higher-quality digital tracks, albeit at a premium price, in response to consumer demand.

    Basically, TFA is written by someone without the first clue about the difference between dynamic range compression [] and lossy audio data compression [].

    The two have absolutely nothing in common and yet they are somehow grouped together by the author.
  • EMI's reasons... (Score:5, Interesting)

    by nick_davison ( 217681 ) on Saturday June 09, 2007 @02:26AM (#19448671)

    The reduction in quality is so marked that EMI has introduced higher-quality digital tracks, albeit at a premium price, in response to consumer demand.
    Hmm. Anyone else remember this post [] only 9 days ago?

    To our subjects' ears, there wasn't a tremendous distinction between the tracks encoded at 128Kb/s and those encoded at 256Kb/s. None of them were absolutely sure about their choices with either set of earphones, even after an average of five back-to-back A/B listening tests. That tells us the value in the Apple's and EMI's more expensive tracks lies solely in the fact that they're free of DRM restrictions.
  • by __aaclcg7560 ( 824291 ) on Saturday June 09, 2007 @02:38AM (#19448717)
    There's a version of the 1812 Overture [] with real cannon fire that will blow out your speakers if the volume is too high. I been trying to get my friend to play that on his 1969 Marshall amp to see if that would happen, how many windows it would take out in the neighborhood and how fast the landlord would kick him out.
    • Re: (Score:3, Interesting)

      by Kattspya ( 994189 )
      I may have that recording. That's one of the few classical songs that I really would like to see more compressed. You turn the volume way up on the quiet parts because you're so used to flat music and then the goddamn cannon try to blast your eardrums out. It's a wonderful piece as long as you don't abuse the knob.

      It's called "Cincinnati Symphony Orchestra - Erich Kunzel - [Tchaikovshy 1812 Overture - Telarc 1979 Digital Recording #01] 1812" in my playlist. Wikipedia confirms that Eric Kunzel was one of t
  • Loudness (Score:5, Informative)

    by steveha ( 103154 ) on Saturday June 09, 2007 @02:48AM (#19448755) Homepage
    You can read more about the loudness war here: []

    It really is true: if you apply too much sound-level compression to a recording, the recording sounds worse. Music is more interesting with some dynamic range. Some of my favorite classic rock songs sound much better from the CD than they do when played on the radio, because the radio station applies sound-level compression.

    On the other hand, it's not really wrong for the radio station to apply the sound-level compression; you wouldn't thank them if you set your volume control knob for one song and then the next song was much louder. And the compression helps the music "cut through" the background noise of driving, so you can hear it better. But it is a pity if the CD is mastered with that kind of sound-level compression from the beginning!

    Here's another really good web page about this. ics.htm []

    Just take a look at the Ricky Martin song. The gain was set far too high, and as a result many waveforms went outside legal bounds; when you try to master a CD with a wave that is simply too extreme to be legal, it is hard-clipped to make it legal. That sort of clipping makes an unpleasant sound, and makes the CD sound even louder. And hard-clipping means discarding audio data; there is no way to reconstruct it later.

    The above is one of the reasons why vinyl LPs still have their fans. You simply cannot push an LP so hard that it's playing hard-clipped square waves. But a well-mastered CD will have more dynamic range than even the best-mastered LP, and less distortion. (Some of the distortion you get with an LP can actually improve your music, and that's another of the reasons why LPs still have fans. But you could apply a digital effect that sounded like LP distortion, if you wanted to.)

  • Oh God. (Score:2, Insightful)

    by rhizome ( 115711 )

  • by yroJJory ( 559141 ) <> on Saturday June 09, 2007 @04:07AM (#19449011) Homepage
    WHY are albums mastered so damn loud?

    It's a vicious circle and it is caused essentially by one feature: shuffle mode.

    Here's how the problem reveals itself:

    Band A decides they want to have the "heaviest, loudest album ever made", so they tell the mastering engineer to make their master louder.

    Band B is hears Band A's album and wants to be louder (or at least AS LOUD) as Band A. So they tell their mastering engineer to pump up the volume, too.

    Assume the same thing happens with Bands C through L.

    Now Band M comes along and they've had these other 12 albums playing on iTunes while they're mixing their album. Band M isn't so concerned with being "the loudest", but when the put their ref CD into iTunes and are listening in shuffle mode, their songs get completely drowned out by a factor of 6-12 dB of amplitude difference.

    So Band M now asks their mastering engineer to make their master louder so they'll match up with everyone else's.

    And Bands N-Z follow suit.

    It's a very difficult domino knockdown to break out of, since no one wants to make the album that is super quiet and requires intervention with the volume knob. (Yes, I'm aware of the "Sound Check" feature in iTunes, but that's just a lousy attempt to solve the problem with technology.)

    In 2005 I recorded an album for a Hawaiian band. It was gorgeous and I convinced the band to master the album at Universal because I knew the main mastering engineer and was adamant that he was the ONLY guy who could do the record justice. I was also adamant that the album did NOT need (and would avoid) any compression.

    We only boosted the overall level of the album by 4 dB and that was purely using a limiter to ensure no overs.

    I then sent the first ref CD to the band member who couldn't be present. He was thrilled with the mastering but had just one question: Do they make it louder when the CDs get pressed?

    I told him that it was at the level I was recommending and that Mastering was the time to change levels, but that we really wanted it to sound good, not loud. His response? "Oh. But it's so much quieter than every other CD I own."

    And he's right. Compared to every CD that has come out in the past 5 years, his album is seriously quiet. Possibly as much as 8 dB quieter than current albums. And maybe we did it TOO quiet. But it matches in amplitude to CDs that came out in 1989, back when some dynamic range was still an OK thing in music. Nowadays we don't like ANY dynamics.

    So who is right? And can we go back?

    I've been a HUGE advocate of dynamic range and NOT destroying our months of hard work at the last step in the process. But I can only do what my clients want. And I was really hoping we had a chance with DVD-Audio and other surround formats, but the over-compressors are winning out there, now, too. And it's a bigger problem on that format, since you are now forcing people to change levels between movies and surround music, when both are calibrated identically.

  • Competent Artists who've heard of Dynamic Range:

    Sigur Ros
    Rufus Wainwright
    Belle & Sebastian
    DJ Shadow
    Goldfrapp [Felt Mountain]

    Competent Artists who've heard of Dynamic Range, but choose to use a lot of compression anyway:

    Daft Punk

    Compression is not the death of an album, and there are still artists who do not use it every song.
  • Psychoacoustics (Score:5, Interesting)

    by Sparohok ( 318277 ) on Saturday June 09, 2007 @04:31AM (#19449095)
    In blind testing of audio equipment, it is critical to match volume levels within a fraction of a decibel. That is because people have a strong tendency to prefer a slightly louder source. In blind testing, listeners will describe the louder source as better in all sorts of subjective ways that have nothing to do with loudness: brighter, richer, warmer, etc. This happens with any kind music, from chamber music to stadium rock.

    I think the article oversimplifies somewhat by casting this as a matter of taste for loud rock music, rather than a more subtle issue of psychoacoustics.
  • by Alioth ( 221270 ) <no@spam> on Saturday June 09, 2007 @04:31AM (#19449097) Journal
    It's been going on for years - Oasis albums are basically unlistenable: horribly engineered, and they actually sound clipped. The newspapers wheeled out the example of Californication (Red Hot Chili Peppers) last week and they are right. Not quite as bad as Oasis, but half of the tracks are unlistenable. It ruins good songs like Californication itself.

    I also find it really annoying to have the volume level OK, then suddenly everything is too loud and distorted when the next album comes on, because some asshat of a recording engineer pushed the levels up until the waveforms clipped.
  • This is why God gave us volume controls on the steering wheel.
  • Just listening the Islands LP while reading the posts... I feel sorry for those who don't have the chance to listen old good music in the old fashioned way...
  • by thogard ( 43403 ) on Saturday June 09, 2007 @06:31AM (#19449449) Homepage
    While most people here think if RIAA as an evil anti-sharing group, back before they turned to the dark side, they used to set decent audio standards. Too bad that was in the era when hi-fi records were new.

    The volume compression crud is one of their more recent "technology advancements". Volume compression is isn't data compression but reefers to horizontally compressing the waveform or boosting the quiet bits and cutting the loud bits.

    This is why modern music has no emotion. The soft bits get boosted and the high energy bits get clipped. It is why most remastered CDs suck so bad.

    Its also why rap is so popular. Rap's verbal beat messes up the auto-compressors and break them and since rap is about the only modern music that has an energy, its got a huge younger following.
  • by Entropius ( 188861 ) on Saturday June 09, 2007 @10:44AM (#19450511)
    Classical music public radio stations are supposed to be bastions of sanity and concern for quality, right?

    Well, the choir I'm in collaborated with another choir and the local symphony orchestra to put on Carmina Burana. So we did -- great show and such. The recording was broadcast by the local public radio station the next day. I recorded it off the air (with decent equipment that isn't the culprit), since the symphony wasn't going to make their recording available to the singers (something about union rules).

    Carmina starts (and ends) with the piece "O Fortuna" -- you've probably heard it. Theme song to Excalibur, used and spoofed in tons of advertisements, etc. There is a short (~15 second) ridiculously loud introduction, about a minute of very quiet music, thirty seconds of loud, and then forty seconds of extreme loud -- if you know the piece you know what I mean. All the dynamic changes are sudden. It's the poster child for dynamic range, and the effect is wonderful.

    I get the recording, and the quiet bit is just as loud as the rest. WTF? I pull the waveform on Audacity -- flat.


    Then I started listening, and you can hear it all over the place in much of their music. Peak limiters and such kick in to reduce the level whenever there is a high-amplitude sound... so you can actually hear the rest of the orchestra suddenly get softer when the bass drum goes off. The bass drum isn't that *loud*, thanks to the response curves of human ears and the frequency-power connection, but it is high-amplitude and triggers the peak limiter like nobody's business. (Orchestral bass drums have a very, very deep sound.)

    It's ridiculous.
  • by John3 ( 85454 ) <> on Saturday June 09, 2007 @04:10PM (#19452555) Homepage Journal
    The reference CD for amazing dynamic range on a popular rock album is Pink Floyd's "The Wall". We can argue about the music, the lyrics, the message, but there's no arguing that the recording, mixing and mastering of this album is second to none in the pop and rock world. The quiet birds chirping just before the girl says "Look mummy, there's an airplane up in the sky" contrast sharply to the smashing of the televisions or the deafening helicopter.

    As far as truly loud rock and roll albums, Robert John "Mutt" Lange (aka Mr. Shania Twain) has a long tradition of producing punchy, loud rock albums that still manage to keep a decent dynamic range....Def Leppard, The Cars, even AC/DC albums produced by "Mutt" are layered with music without compressing it beyond listenability (if that's a word). :)

  • by gig ( 78408 ) on Sunday June 10, 2007 @08:26AM (#19457329)
    When you talk about digital audio "compression" you have to be careful because compression means a different thing at different stages of audio production. I have yet to see an article on the Internet about digital audio and compression where the author didn't mix this up at least once.

    DYNAMICS COMPRESSION (compress the audible dynamic range)
    During mixing and mastering, the dynamic range of the audio content is compressed. The softest sounds are made louder and the loudest sounds are made softer. This is what music and audio people think of first if you talk about compression.

    Dynamics compression has nothing at all to do with bits, this can be done acoustically, electrically, or digitally, it is about audio. The human ear does outrageous dynamics compression. Analog tape machines have a built-in dynamics compression that is considered to be musically useful and that is imitated today by digital. If you don't do that, you don't have "rock" music. Take away a rock band's dynamics compression and you have a really lame jazz combo, it is all the same instruments, the difference between the sound of jazz and rock drums is 98% dynamics compression. For rock vocals the compressor/limiter is more important then the microphone. Whether the singer whispers or screams it should all be the same volume. If it is not, you can't believe the complaining you will hear about it from everybody because that is not what rock singing sounds like. It is all the same volume. Go and listen to your records, the singer is right there in the front of your skull the whole time.

    If you want music with a broad dynamic range there is plenty of it around, it just doesn't sell very well. With a broad dynamic range you have to turn up the volume high to catch the low sounds, and you have to shut the fuck up so you can actually listen to the musical presentation like you would a concert performer. This covers at most 10% of music listeners who are going to do that. Most people listen to music as an accompaniment to their lives like a movie soundtrack. They are running or partying or dancing or reading or whatever while they listen. For that purpose you want the dynamic range to be tight or you will miss a lot of music.

    DATA COMPRESSION (compress the amount of disk storage used)
    After mixing and mastering, you can make a mix that takes up about half the file size by compressing the data in the file, same as making a Zip archive. This is what computer people think of when you say compression. The bit stream that the player sees is the same as raw audio, but on disk it is compressed data.

    LOSSY COMPRESSION (compress the amount of playback bandwidth required)
    Finally, you can encode a mix into a lossy format, and the encoder will throw data away in order to compress the bandwidth the file requires to play in real-time. This is how MP3 and MP4 do it. This is what video people think of when you talk about compression, because this is also how DV and many other video-related formats keep their file sizes low enough to be practical.

Disks travel in packs.