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Loudness Wars Coming to an End?
Many audio professionals believe the days of hyper-compressed recordings may soon end. Ian Shepherd, a British mastering engineer, says broadcast audio standards may help expedite the process.
Metallica’s “Death Magnetic” album was widely scrutinized for the amounts of compression used on the album. The mastering engineer who worked on the album, Ted Jensen,says he is not proud of the way the album sounds, but the results are what the clients (producer Rick Ruben and Metallica) wanted.
By Robert Archer, June 25, 2012
The roots of the loudness wars can be traced back to the 1980s when music engineers in Nashville, Tenn. tried to make recordings as punchy as possible for radio airplay.

The negative effects of the loudness wars, which can be described as methods to make music sound “louder” on electronics that are limited in their ability to playback dynamic content, have reached a zenith level in today’s consumer audio market.

This recent emphasis on loudness ties into how consumers buy music. Digital downloads are the preferred music delivery method. And with the combination of low-resolution digital audio files and heavily compressed music (the tool/techniques used to limit the dynamic range of music), the visceral impact of music has been lost.

To counteract the effects of heavily compressed music, Ian Shepherd, a U.K.-based mastering engineer, Blu-ray and DVD author and owner of Mastering Media, Ltd, launched Dynamic Range Day (DRD), a grassroots movement to end excessive compression. DRD 2012 experienced its highest levels of interest since it debuted several years ago.

Awareness Slowly Growing
Outside of the professional audio community, more people are learning about compressed recordings, but Shepherd says little has been done to address the problem.

“Now pretty much anyone who is making music knows about [hyper compression]. In terms of public awareness, there is some growing awareness; mainstream media have covered the issue from time to time, but in terms of what has actually been released, I’m not sure there’s been much overall progress,” Shepherd asserts. “There have been some great sounding, dynamic releases, but super-loud, low-dynamic-range music is still the norm in many genres.”

Photos: Albums That Lack Dynamic Range

Shepherd says professionals within the recording industry are doing the best they can, but ultimately they are doing what the record labels tell them to do. He does point out, however, that an increasing amount of professional audio equipment manufacturers are stepping up to support his DRD cause, includingSolid State Logic (SSL), TC Electronic, Bowers & Wilkins (B&W), PSB Speakers and NAD Electronics

“Sound quality is of vital importance to Bowers & Wilkins. Our founder, John Bowers, was a passionate music fan and he started making loudspeakers because he felt poorly served by the loudspeakers that were offered to him as a consumer,” says Shaun Marin, brand manager, Bower & Wilkins. “Decades later we continue to make world-leading loudspeakers - loudspeakers that bring music to life and reproduce sound as close as possible to what the artists created in the studio, although maybe not always as it was mastered to compact disc.”

New Standards may redefine Market
The first major step towards the elimination of heavily-compressed music could be the International Telecommunications Union’s (ITU) ITU-R BS.1770-2 standard recommendation for the measurement of loudness that was introduced in 2006 and revised in 2011.

Following the ITU’s recommendations, the European Broadcasting Union(EBU) released its Loudness Recommendation EBU R128 in August of 2010. Acting to rectify the problem on the broadcast side of the issue, many European and Asian broadcasters are adopting loudness standards that are based on the criteria first introduced by the ITU.

Here in the U.S., the federal government has also been proactive to improve the quality of broadcast television. By the end of 2012, the broadcast community will have to follow the Commercial Advertisement Loudness Mitigation (CALM) Act that requires commercials to be played at the same volume as broadcast television.

In terms of music and recording, these broadcast standards do not apply. But Shepherd theorizes the measurement standards will be applied to the production of music.

“Measuring loudness, in general, isn’t easy. Now the ITU has agreed on a new ‘loudness unit:’ the LU. You can measure short- and longer-term loudness over a whole song. They’ve also agreed on guidelines for broadcast; what the average loudness should be and how much you can vary it. The recommendation has been made law in the U.S. for advertisements and is also being adopted in the U.K. and all over the world. All the major broadcasters here - Sky, the BBC, ITV - have agreed to follow the standard.

“In the future the loudness of music and audio will be measured by this standard. Quiet stuff will be turned up and loud stuff will be turned down to get consistency. What this means is that if you take a super loud CD like ‘Death Magnetic’ [Metallica] and play it against [Michael Jackson’s] ‘Thriller’, they will play back at the same volume. But because ‘Thriller’ is more dynamic, it will actually sound louder, because it has more punch and headroom for musical impact.”

Making the Best out of a Bad Situation
Despite the record industry’s continued sales and marketing of heavily-compressed music, there are avenues music fans can pursue. Shepherd says technically-adept music enthusiasts can test the quality of their CD collections with software solutions like Audacity and the TT Meter plug-in tool. He also says that other solutions such as the Tone Boosters EBU loudness meter are also pretty affordable, and for those less technically inclined there are also less scientific methods available.

“In terms of listening, if after a while that you find yourself fatigued by what you are hearing, then the music may be heavily compressed,” Shepherd explains. “If there’s no contrast - no light and no shade - the choruses don’t lift, that’s a clue a song has been squashed. A great way to learn how this [compressed audio] sounds is to watch the meters [in these programs] while listening. This will help develop your critical listening skills.”

Shepherd says the key to building a quality music library comes down to how the music was produced. “There’s so much space on modern devices and users have the option of using FLAC and lossless formats, and that presents an opportunity to get the highest quality replay,” he emphasizes. “The file format, however, doesn’t reflect on the dynamics: It’s how it was mixed and mastered.”

Shepherd suggests that if music fans want an alternative to downloads and CDs, vinyl may be the solution they seek.

“It's ironic that some people are actually ripping vinyl because some labels are releasing vinyl with more dynamic mastering. The Chili Peppers last album, ‘I’m With You’, was rated at DR4 [dynamic range 4 rating], but on vinyl it measures DR9,” he says. “Adele’s album ‘21’ is more dynamic on vinyl than CD, too. This is nothing to do with any limitations of either format - the whole CD versus vinyl debate is a red herring. They’re different formats and they have different sound qualities. These differences in dynamics are choices made by the labels, artists and engineers.”

Pro-Tools Vs Other DAWS

Pro Tools is my least favorite, between hardware limitations and workflow problems. Being a small project studio owner, it's not worth the expense of shelling out for PT friendly gear when the program isn't any more powerful or streamlined than the other big players out there (to the contrary actually).

Studio One's a solid program, especially if you're talking about using a 64 bit OS with multi-core. It is definitely user friendly, but not quite as powerful as some of the others. It has an integrated mastering solution, if that's a feature you're looking for (basically, imagine cubase with wavelab built into it or acid with soundforge built in). It has recallable channel presets and patches, media browser, etc.

Cubase 5 is my recommendation between the three. It has so many useful and well-thought out features. It's user friendly, especially for making quick edits and managing plugins, channel presets and automation. It comes with a bunch of FX plugins, synths and Halion One (which is not an amazing sampler by any means but still a nice thing to have if you don't own a copy of Kontakt or something similar). Another thing I dig about Cubase 5 is Variaudio (pitch and timing correction). It's built into the sample editor which makes it easy to access and tweak (but it also is applied non-destructively). It sounds great - not quite as good as Melodyne - but still awesome.

But, I have a fourth suggestion - which, honestly, seems like the solution for your situation - Reaper. Once you take your time to familiarize yourself with UI and workflow, it competes with any of the more expensive, professionally endorsed DAW's out there. REAPER can perform basically any audio or midi task you need it to and everything is user definable from your hot keys list to the actual program appearance ("skin"). You can route audio and midi signal (IMO) prob better than any other program. Track grouping, automation, multi-timbral instruments, audio looping, timestretch, tempo mapping, whatever, it's all there. It's by far the cheapest one and technically, you can download the program and use it for free without it being crippled in any way by the software developer.

In The Studio: The Battle of Technology Versus Good Music
Nov. 16, 2012, by Joe Gilder

I love technology. It is a beautiful thing.

However, while there’s nothing wrong technology itself, we need to consider the role that technology should play in our lives.

I’m mainly referring to technology as it pertains to making music, particularly in the recording world. These days everybody and their dog can have a home recording studio.

Don’t get me wrong, that can be an awesome thing. Thirty years ago it simply wasn’t possible to spend a couple hundred dollars and be able to make high-quality recordings at home. The technology wasn’t there.

Technological advancements of the last few decades have brought a new, massive percentage of the population into the world of studio recording. My life would certainly be dramatically different if I couldn’t record my music (and the music of others).

Without the onset of new technology, the entire recording industry would consist of the select few who could drop $400,000 on a huge recording studio, fully equipped with analog tape machines and massive recording consoles.

Today an average Joe can pick up an interface and a microphone and do a lot of things the big analog studios of the past could do, and a lot of things they couldn’t!

This leads me to my next point — the misuse of technology.

Here’s what has happened. That average Joe with his interface and microphone has been told he can “do a lot of things the big analog studios of the past could do, and a lot of things they couldn’t!” (Where have I heard that before?)

Now what does average Joe do? He interprets this as “you can make a record that sounds JUST as good as the professionals…with a $300 interface…and a $100 microphone.”

What average Joe doesn’t realize is that technology, while playing a huge role in his ability to create, has nothing to do with talent and ability.

Now imagine that we picked up average Joe and plopped him down behind a huge Harrison console in 1982, introduced him to a nice young man named Michael Jackson and said, “Joe, we need you to engineer this young fellow’s next album called Thriller.”

What would happen? Would our fearless hero be able to achieve Bruce Swedien-like results? Would the album still become the best-selling album of all time?

The answer is a resounding NO. But you may say, “Well, he has all the same technology that Bruce had, surely he could make it work.”

That’s like saying, “Hey, here are all the colors and brushes Michelangelo used on the Sistine Chapel. Why don’t you go ahead and paint a version for us, okay?”

Let us not forget the importance of talent and God-given ability. Just because you can record a hundred original songs in your bedroom doesn’t necessarily mean you should. If the songs are bad, or if the recordings sound awful, what’s the point?

I firmly believe that technology was meant to enhance creativity, not replace it.

If your songs aren’t that great, put down the laptop and go work on your songwriting. If your recordings sound consistently bad, stop working on that epic record and work on your microphone placement instead.

Don’t take this the wrong way. I’m not saying you have to be an insanely amazing engineer or musician before you are allowed to dabble in recording. That’s the beauty of technology. You don’t have to land a record deal before you can record your music. You don’t have to work for a big studio to become a recording engineer.

Becoming a good engineer or musician takes time. Everyone has to start somewhere, and technology has made that a relatively inexpensive endeavor.

Keep in mind, though, that this is all about the music. Be careful not to sacrifice creativity on the altar of technology. If you produce the most technologically advanced album, utilizing all the latest fancy digital trinkets and do-dads, and yet your music is lifeless and lacking any emotion, you have failed. Technology wins.

Don’t let that happen. Viva la musica.

Joe Gilder is a Nashville-based engineer, musician, and producer who also provides training and advice at the Home Studio Corner.