Thursday, July 17, 2008

Play It Loud

I thought I'd blogged about The Loudness War before, but I guess not. So that means you won't be at all surprised I've changed my mind.

Here's the YouTube video, The Loudness War.

In a nutshell, for those who won't or can't click, it bemoans the recent tendency for CDs to be mastered louder than before. Since there's a maximum dynamic range for a CD, turning up the basic music loses the contrast when a quiet piece of music is punctuated by something punchy, such as a drum beat.


These two frames are taken from the YouTube video (all credit goes to the uploader, Loudness War). The first one is highly dynamic, not-loud mastering. The second one is all loud, but has been 'turned down' so you're not blown away like Pete Murphy in the Maxell Ad.

You can see that the difference between the two massive peaks (the initial drum beats) and the general level of music has completely disappeared. The video uploader says this is a bad thing, because if you want music loud, you can turn it up. But once the variation in music is lost, nothing will put it back in again.

And I agreed with him or her, when I thought I'd blogged about it before.

But, I just got back from the gym. Yes, the gym again already. And I think I know one reason why people have started turning up the background grunge and losing the dynamics. I have a theory!

I was on the stair stepper watching a TV program in Spanish on a cathode ray tube TV with horribly shot electronics that made the electron gun track badly, while listening to Massive Attack's Mezzanine using a Zune with earbuds. The stair stepper is loud, I'm surrounded by the noise of running feet and the pop award program on the TV keeps egging its audience on into bursts of applause after each boy band's little dance-up. This means that the music from the mp3 player had to be loud, or I'd have heard something annoying, like Real Life, intruding. Wouldn't want that. So you have to turn it up loud.

But Mezzanine is perfectly mastered and in this track one drum sound - a sort of TOK! which I guess is the drumstick hitting the metal rim of the snare drum - is far louder than the background music. Turning the music up to the level where it obliterates the Real World means that the snare drum is acutely painful to the ears. (And I've gathered this is not a good thing.)

The next track was something from ZZ Top's Eliminator, a fast, sequenced grungy boogie where everything was pretty much the same loudness. You could turn that up to the extent that no background gym noise broke through, and yet the music never pulled any surprise loudness changes that make the ears cringe away from the earbuds. (Also it meant that my stair-stepper rate went up to a steady 120 bpm, but that's another story.)

I think that's why the loudness is going up in modern CDs and mp3s. More and more people are going everywhere with earbuds in. They enjoy smothering the real world with their chosen sounds.

Loudness War, the uploader of the YouTube video, quite likely listens in a specially designed suite where the stereo space and the dynamic range spread the music out in a marvellous vista of size, depth, peaks and valleys. So do many other audiophiles.

Meanwhile, I'm trying to drown out the ad for a soap opera called Fuego en la Sangre and a program with thirty Mexicans dressed as Hawaiians doing a dance routine on a "sand" covered stage while around me ten people run thunderously nowhere on stair-steppers. Don't need no snare drum today. Just need the constant volume.


Mike said...

The Loudness War author is absolutely right to complain of the loss of dynamic range. Audio engineers have struggled for decades to increase the dynamic range of both records and players, only to have it thrown away by record companies milking the mass market.

And no gym worth a damn should have a TV set, or piped music. They're an unwanted distraction that breaks concentration. Relics from the aerobics craze. In fact, stepper machines should be for warming up and cooling down, only. For aerobics, light weights, lots of repetitions.

Wear regular ear plugs. Turn the TV off. And tell the guitar player in reception to unload the unwanted weights.

Beatfreak! said...

It's true that higher average levels make for a more consistent listening experience in a louder environment, it's not good for your ears, Portisheads new album is a loud master for example, and while I love the music I can't listen to more than two or three tracks on my earphones before my ears start to hurt.
I’d say you’ve got it the wrong way round though, unless they’ve recently re-mastered Eliminator, it’s most definitely not a loud master; Mezzanine is far more likely to have a louder average level. The easiest way to test this is simply to open the ZZ-Top album and Mezzanine in something like Wavelab or some other wave editor, the differences should be obvious, and I think you’ll be surprised at how much louder Mezzanine is.
Must do this myself! 



Peromyscus said...

Beatfreak: I'll take your word for it. I was listening to MP3s in a gym rather than testing them on instruments. And I do use the volume control while listening. Mezzanine may be louder overall, but it still seems more dynamic range in terms of making my ears hurt for the louder bits. Are louder overall levels worse for your ears than really loud peaks? I don't know, though I guess my local council growing up thought the former, limiting live music to 96 dB and earning us the mockery of Mott the Hoople as "96 decibel freaks".


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