CEASEFIRE IN THE LOUDNESS WARS?
ARE HYPERCOMPRESSED RECORDINGS DECREASING DUE TO LOUDNESS NORMALISATION?
A RESEARCH PROJECT DISSERTATION SUBMITTED IN PARTIAL FULFILLMENT OF THE REQUIREMENTS FOR THE HONOURS DEGREE OF BACHELOR OF ARTS (MUSIC PRODUCTION) 2015
FACULTY OF ARTS
The loudness wars, combined with varying audio levels of broadcast digital audio have together been the catalyst for the worldwide implementation of loudness normalisation to facilitate equal loudness audio playback. This study aims to establish whether loudly processed music is decreasing as a result. Data is gathered through research which establishes that the numbers of complaints from the public about varying audio levels, and the numbers of low dynamic range albums have both reduced. Research further finds that although industry practitioners generally welcome loudness normalisation, there is no consensus between them that it has had any positive effect on the quality of music recordings to date. The study also establishes that there is no correlation between sales of recordings and their respective loudness. It concludes that there are enough early signs to confirm that loud, hypercompressed recordings are decreasing as a result of loudness normalisation.
|1.1 The Calm Act and ITU-R BS 1770||
|1.3 Vickers, Robjohns and The International Computer Music Conference||
|1.4 Technology and Loudness Normalisation||
|1.5 Industry Practitioners||
|1.6 Ian Shepherd||
|1.7 Peripheral Areas of Research||
|5.1 The Calm Act and ITU-R BS 1770||
|5.2 Practice research||
|5.3 Algorithm Inconsistencies and Anomalies||
|6.Reduction in the Sound Quality of Hypercompressed Recordings||
|6.1 Listener Preferences||
|6.2 Listening Fatigue||
|6.3 Industry Practitioner Feedback||
|6.4 Industry Practitioners – Feedback Analysis||
|6.5 Dynamic Range Database||
|8.1 Future Research||
|1.1 Figure 1: RMS level changes 1991-2009||
|1.2 Figure 2: Waveforms||
|1.3 Figure 3: YouTube playlist measurement||
|2.Practice Research – Measurement of UK TV Audio Levels||
|2.3 Practice Research – Analysis||
|3.Dynamic Range Database||
|3.3 Dynamic Range Database – Results Analysis||
|4.Recording Industry Practitioners||
|4.1 Brian Hazard||
|4.2 Scott Hull||
|4.3 Neil Kernon||
|4.4 Brandon Drury||
|4.5 Kevin Hupp||
1. Literature Review
1.1 The CALM Act and ITU-R BS 1700
Sreedar (2007) reports that there is no “overwhelming industrial push” towards loudness normalisation, and that may have been true in 2007, however the introduction of the CALM Act is evidence of the recent industry implementation of loudness normalisation. It was covered extensively by both US national and international media; (BBC News, 2012 Condon, 2010; Hart, 2008; Holmes, 2012; Qualis Audio, 2011, Simon, R. 2012). The reporting was generally in agreement factually and the act itself (Advanced Television Systems Committee, 2011) helped the study to understand that loudness normalisation applies not solely to commercials, but to their accompanying programmes. However, although Eggerton (2013) reported on the reduction of customer complaints as a result of the act, subsequent post-act reporting was minimal, which was to the detriment of the study’s aim of discovering whether the initial decrease in customer complaints was a trending factor. Detailed statistics would have allowed more robust conclusions although it is acknowledged that the topic is so recent and contemporary that this data may not yet be available.
Implementation of the CALM Act was the initial inspiration for the study. Consequently, initial research focused on its history combined with the development of the ITU-R BS 1700 algorithm and its variants. Extensive documentation published by the ITU and the EBU provided full details of the algorithm’s technical specification although much of it was beyond the scope of the study, and the documentation’s detailed technical nature made it difficult to filter out the main points. However, the Music Loudness Alliance’s white paper gave clarity to the specifications, summarising and presenting them in an easily digestible format that helped to underpin the study’s background knowledge. (Music Loudness Alliance, 2012).
Research also revealed certain differences in the technical terms used by the ITU and EBU which made it difficult to present the required data within the study paper without being over-descriptive and unnecessarily detailed. If loudness normalisation is to become universal, the differences highlight the need for agreement to be reached by all stakeholders on a universal specification to avoid future formatting and digital file translation difficulties. (European Broadcasting Union, n.d., 2011a-d, 2012, 2014; International Telecommunication Union, n.d., 2011; Advanced Television Systems Committee, 2011)
Jones (2005), Vickers (2010), Robjohns (2014) and Shepherd (2011) all confirmed that the loudness wars are driven by the belief that loud recordings lead to an increase in sales. However this continuing debate is compounded by the dearth of literature on loudness-related sales, which indicates that that very little research has ever been done to confirm the belief. Viney (2008) and Johnson (n.d.) concluded independently that there was no correlation between loudness and sales, however, Johnson’s work is now only available in the Internet Archive’s database of extinct websites – Way Back Machine – and Viney’s work is a degree dissertation. Both of these facts indicate that the industry itself has never funded research on the topic, which is contrary to the study’s initial expectations, given that the industry is one of the world’s largest.
This is in contrast to Bell Labs’ commissioning of Fletcher and Munson’s seminal work Loudness, Its Definition, Measurement and Calculation (1933) in order to further advance the perfection of the company’s telephone system; (White and Louie, 2005, p.487). Bell Labs clearly recognised that research was just as important as development and was prepared to fund it; much of Fletcher and Munson’s work still bears relevance to today’s recording industry and their equal loudness curves were referenced in the study, but the lack of album sales literature of comparable quality weakened the study’s findings.
1.3 Vickers, Robjohns and The International Computer Music Conference
Vickers (2010), Robjohns (2014) and The International Computer Music Conference (2014) (ICMC) were used extensively in the study. The three papers cover similar ground, with the variation that Vickers focuses on the history of loudness up to 2010, whereas Robjohns looks to the future and the changes that loudness normalisation may bring. ICMC focuses on a similar area of discussion as the study itself, i.e. the current and contemporary effects of loudness normalisation, discussing listener preferences and highlighting issues such as arousal and emotional response to loud music. Robjohns continued the existing debates of sales driving the loudness wars and iTunes Radio’s default setting of their Sound Check feature, but he also provided topics for wider discussion, for example how loud should a contemporary track be mastered – to last year’s standards or with extra dynamics to accommodate the future effects of loudness normalisation? (Robjohns, 2014, p.126; International Computer Music Conference, 2014 pp.923-924)
Both Robjohns and ICMC give robust and unbiased accounts of their findings; however Vickers has a tendency to display bias against loudness. He describes the increasing use of compression as a “danger” and exposes his clear dislike of loudness when he states: “…hypercompression…takes the crescendo out of the “Boléro”, removes the surprise from the “Surprise Symphony,” and turns the “Stairway to Heaven” into a sidewalk”. Vickers is a member of the Audio Engineering Society; his own chairman Kevin Gross criticised the paper for its biased views when he stated: “The accomplishment of this paper is that it *finds no evidence* that louder recordings sell better. Unfortunately the author demonstrates an anti-loudness-war predisposition and so the reader can’t assume he’s highly motivated to seek such *evidence*.” In view of this clear bias, the study exercised caution when citing Vickers, cross-referencing wherever possible, although Vickers added value to the study in many areas including the history of the loudness wars and the comparison of Johnson’s and Viney’s sales studies; (Vickers, 2010, p.2, pp.5-6, p.17; Audio Engineering Society, 2012).
1.4 Technology and Loudness Normalisation
The BBC R&D Projects (2000, 2011) report the replacement of peak metering with loudness metering and the addition of loudness metadata to the BWAV file format; however loudness normalisation has triggered a series of technological advances which could form an area of wider discussion. Winslow (2012, p.4; 2013, p.16) highlighted loudness normalisation inconsistencies in the case of live sound, and the technology that has been designed and manufactured as a result, for example Shure’s Axient system. Quested (2015), too, highlighted the technical complexities for broadcasters of loudness normalisation implementation while Robjohns (2014, pp.126-128) focused on the implications for home recordists.
Drossos, Floros, and Kanellopoulos, (2014) presented a prototype system that automatically applies eq as the user attenuates playback volume in order to compensate for the human hearing system’s varying frequency perception at differing levels of volume. Although this paper was outside the scope of the study, it presents an opportunity for wider debate on loudness technology.
1.5 Industry Practitioners
Personal emails and messages from mastering engineers and producers provided primary source data (Appendix:4), for example Drury’s (2015) belief that loudness normalisation is not going to produce the fidelity that many people are predicting. While most of the practitioners agree that loudness normalisation is a positive innovation, none of them have personally experienced a decrease in loud recordings as yet. This is in contrast to Shepherd and Katz who are both certain that the loudness wars have now ended. Both mastering engineers actively campaign against loud music, and their views may be a result of extreme bias, or because they have specialist knowledge in loudness and hypercompression as a result of their efforts.
Kernon (2015) states that he has always distanced himself from the loudness wars, and operates without any compression on the master outputs of his mixes. This is contrary to common industry practice, and since Kernon is a major practitioner in the industry his methods present an opportunity for further discussion. Further, Kernon’s specific identification of artists as the driving force behind loud recordings is contrary to research expectations, Speer (2001) identifies the record companies as the main protagonists, although this view may now be outdated, as Kernon concludes that the record companies usually leave the final decision to the artist.
1.6 Ian Shepherd
Through his website Production Advice (2013), mastering engineer Ian Shepherd displays a deep knowledge and understanding of loudness normalisation and hypercompression. His writing style and the format of the site has a clear and concise explanatory nature using video tutorials where appropriate, his recent investigation revealing that YouTube is operating a loudness normalisation system was significant for the study.
Shepherd displays open dislike of hypercompressed music and is a self-appointed champion of dynamic range, establishing Dynamic Range Day (n.d.), a movement for public awareness of loudness and the issues it brings to the industry. Similar to his industry colleague Bob Katz, Shepherd’s enthusiastic campaigning has led him to declare that the “loudness war is over” on multiple occasions with each new development or implementation of loudness normalisation. This is in contrast to the primary source practitioners (Appendix:4) who were all doubtful about any meaningful progress.
Further debate and discussion is needed to establish the defining factors of the loudness war to establish concord on the events and/or measurements that would signal a definitive end to the wars. In isolation, the end of the wars would be an arbitrary declaration since the wars do not represent a historical series of events, but a philosophical descriptive term; however, such a debate would serve to bring cohesion and unity to the industry and a greater public awareness of the issues surrounding hypercompression; (Shepherd, 2009 and 2015a)
1.7 Peripheral Areas of Research
Research revealed areas of academic study which were beyond the scope of the paper itself, but which nevertheless identified important scientific fields that are connected to loudness and the human hearing system, providing a broader understanding of the topic. Bishop, Bailes and Dean (2013) conducted tests which indicated a broad ability of participants to imagine the loudness of familiar music, with expert musicians having significantly greater ability. These findings were marginally outside the scope of the study, which focuses on listener perception of quality rather than loudness itself.
The tests of Brug et al. (2010) indicated that half of the 1512 adolescent participants exceeded occupational standards of safety for exposure to noise. These findings initially seemed to provide value for the study; however the authors attributed the excessive noise exposure to playback media, and the levels of its delivery – which was often selected by the participants through the use of personal mp3 players – rather than the processed loudness of the music itself.
Reiss and Simpson (2013) explored the human hearing system’s decreasing ability to detect Just Noticeable Difference (JND) as intensity is increased, while the ability to detect the intensity itself remains constant regardless of level. They concluded that peripheral neural coding is responsible for loudness detection, and central neural coding handles intensity JND, thus proving that the two functions are processed by two different areas of the brain which each use differing processing methods. Lamb (1982) conducted research through a series of tests on anaesthetised monkeys, finding that the peripheral neural coding system was additionally responsible for tactile detection through the finger pads of the monkeys. Although these findings clearly belong in different areas of discussion to the study topic, they nevertheless added to the overall background knowledge.
Since the 1950s it has been the practice of record companies and recording engineers to produce recordings of their artists that play back louder than those of their competitors; “The assumption for many years has been that louder is better in terms of sales”; (Vickers, 2010, p.17). This practice reached a plateau in the 1970s due to the physical constraints of vinyl as a medium; (Robjohns, 2014 p.113 ), but from the 1980s onwards the introduction of CDs and digital recording techniques, combined with the technological advancement of digital processing tools provided an opportunity to produce even louder recordings by hypercompressing them. This ongoing process of producing ever-louder recordings has become known as the Loudness Wars.
The proliferation of hypercompressed recordings eventually triggered complaints from the listening public due to the variance in levels of audio playback, both in personal listening and TV broadcasting, with 22% of all complaints received by the BBC concerning the difference in programme sound levels; (Heraty, n.d.a). Additionally the reduction in the dynamic range of loud recordings means that their quality is impaired, with prominent industry practitioners such as Bob Katz and Ian Shepherd becoming champions of an anti loudness movement within the industry.
In response to this opposition to loud recordings, many manufacturers and service providers have introduced loudness normalisation to their playback systems, for example Apple’s iTunes “Sound Check” feature and YouTube’s recently implemented loudness normalisation function. This process analyses digital audio, producing a loudness rating as perceived by the human hearing system. The audio is then attenuated (usually downwards) to a pre-prescribed level, resulting in equal level playback of all audio for the listener, thus any perceived advantages of loud recordings are negated, since these recordings will no longer sound louder than any other recordings when played back. Protagonists of loudness normalisation such as Katz and Shepherd believe that it will ultimately result in a reduction in the number hypercompressed of recordings, and therefore will signal a return to higher quality recordings, with Shepherd (2009), proclaiming that Spotify’s default implementation of their ReplayGain loudness normalisation feature would signify the beginning of the end of the loudness wars.
If Katz and Shepherd are correct, then it may be possible to identify a decreasing trend in the numbers of loud commercially released audio recordings, so this study will examine customer complaints and the perceived reduction in quality of loud recordings in further detail as the primary factors behind the introduction of loudness normalisation. The study will also identify whether loudness normalisation has resulted in a downturn in the practice of hypercompression through the observance of any changes in the loudness and/or dynamic range of recent recordings, or in their perceived quality. Finally, the study will assess whether a correlation between sales and loudness can be established, as an indicator of loudness trends.
Results will be achieved by examining the current levels of customer complaints; through practice research to measure the audio levels of current digital TV broadcasts; through the exploration of primary source feedback from industry practitioners compared with the views of prominent personalities in the industry; and through an examination of the Dynamic Range Database.
Research was conducted to achieve both qualitative and quantitative data which was subsequently analysed and discussed in order to provide results for the study. Due to the ongoing and contemporary nature of the topic, most of the research centred on recent papers, media reports and websites.
Loudness is an expression of the volume of a recording compared to other recordings. It does not refer to the attenuation of a volume control, but to the inherent natural volume level of the audio as perceived by the human hearing system. To make a recording louder, audio compression is applied, and in later years the introduction of technologically advanced digital compressors and limiters allowed recording engineers to hypercompress their recordings in order to make the audio even louder.
Robert Orban first coined the term “loudness war” in a 1979 article discussing excessive compression and limiting in FM radio broadcasting; (Vickers, 2010, p.3).
Subsequently,”Loudness Wars” is the name given to this ongoing practice of increasing the loudness of music recordings – especially CDs – to make them louder than the competition’s recordings. The “war” element refers to the gradual increase in loudness of recordings year on year, with some recordings being hypercompressed to the point where they have little or no dynamic range.
There is a general assumption that louder is better; (Lawson, 2008, p.41; Martens and Taylor, 2014, p.1). The characteristics of the human hearing system are a primary factor of the loudness wars, if you play the same piece of music twice to a listener at different levels, the listener will usually prefer the louder version due to an increased perception of frequencies; (Fletcher and Munson, 1933, p.91; Milner, 2009, p.291). Additionally, the sacculus, which is part of the inner ear, responds to loud sounds by stimulating pleasure centres in the brain, especially the frequencies that are typically generated by rock music; (BBC News, 2000)
Although the loudness wars are generally acknowledged to be a phenomenon of more recent times, in reality they are a continuation of a practice that has been in operation almost as long as music recording itself; (Kernon, 2015). In the 1950s the louder recordings in jukeboxes were selected for play more often; (Robjohns, 2014, p.113), and in the 1960s the Motown record company adopted a practice named “Loud and Clear” which involved multiple processing techniques to combat the poor high frequency response of AM radios and portable record players, resulting in louder recordings. Additionally, Phil Spector developed his “Wall of Sound” production technique, which utilised multiple layers of instrumentation, resulting in increased loudness; (BBC News, 2009; Vickers, 2010, p.3).
The practice of mastering ever-louder recordings continued into the 1970s, however vinyl, which was the dominant medium of the era has its physical limitations; recordings that are too “hot” will render the album unplayable. Louder bass frequencies required wider grooves and shorter playing times on 45rpm singles in the 1960s, but the increased popularity of long-playing albums in the 1970s reduced the requirements for loud recordings due to extended playing times, and since vinyl recordings could not be played in cars, there was no pressure to increase overall loudness in order to overcome general car and road noise. However, CDs, which were introduced in the 1980s, do not have the limitations of vinyl, and their increased digital headroom gave rise to them becoming the battleground of the loudness wars soon after their introduction. Vinyl LPs increased in level by approximately 4 dB in 40 years, whereas CD levels increased by 20 dB in 20 years, Appendix 1.1 Figure 1 shows how RMS levels have increased in recent years. (Vickers, 2010, p.3; Robjohns, 2014, p.113).
In isolation, the loudness wars may not necessarily seem to be a bad thing, but two factors have driven a burgeoning “anti-loudness” movement:
- Complaints from the listening public about the differences in audio levels, both in broadcasting and in playback media.
- The alleged reduction in the sound quality of hypercompressed recordings.
5. Loudness Complaints
5.1 The Calm Act and ITU-R BS 1770
In the first quarter of 2010 the FCC fielded 132,416 complaints on electronic broadcast issues, with the majority concerning loud advertisements; (Michaels and Williamson, 2010). These complaints have highlighted the importance of correcting loudness for broadcasters, and new laws and recommendations have surfaced as a direct result of this requirement; (Qualis Audio, n.d.; Dolby, n.d.).
In 2012 it became law in the US under the Commercial Advertisement Loudness Mitigation (CALM) Act for all digital TV advertisements to be played at the same audio level as their accompanying programmes through loudness normalisation, utilising ITU-R BS 1770, which is an algorithm developed by the International Telecommunications Union used to measure perceived loudness. EBU R 128 is a European recommendation similar to the CALM Act, and although it is not yet law, it has been adopted by most European countries for digital TV broadcasts.
Customer complaints are clearly a driving factor behind the development and implementation of ITU-R BS 1770, and they indicate a basic listener dislike of varying volume levels, a factor which has also driven other implementations of loudness normalisation such as Apple’s Sound Check, Spotify’s ReplayGain and YouTube’s recently implemented loudness normalisation system, which all utilise algorithms that perform the same function as ITU-R BS 1770.
Although it can be argued that the CALM Act and EBU R 128 do not affect music producers directly, since they regulate digital TV broadcasts only, the directives are nevertheless directly involved in the progress being made towards universal loudness normalisation, and their significance is underlined by their legislative and formal nature. In 2009 Bob Katz predicted that TV and Radio networks would start to introduce loudness normalisation, and that it would cause music producers to take note, thus producing lower numbers of hypercompressed recordings as a result; (The Art of Record Production Conference, 2009, p.11).
The desire for loud recordings will probably not disappear immediately, as an attempt to circumvent or “game” ITU-R BS 1770 reported by Flock (2013) illustrates. Complaints were received about a US TV commercial advertising an “Obama Victory Coin.” The announcer in the advertisement was heard to be louder than the programme material immediately preceding it. The producers of the advertisement had achieved this by making parts of the soundtrack very quiet in order to attain the legislated average level of loudness, while still retaining short, very loud passages. This exposed a flaw in ITU-R BS 1770 which was subsequently patched, however the incident serves to illustrate that the loudness mindset is still clearly prevalent, and there may yet be further attempts to “game” ITU-R BS 1770 in order to produce louder recordings, but if the algorithm is patched each time it becomes exposed, the problem will eventually be eradicated, allowing producers of recordings to focus on quality instead of loudness.
Since customer complaints are usually logged when they are made to official bodies, they can be quantified and then utilised to monitor the success or failure of the legislation’s implementation. The FCC’s quarterly report on the CALM Act found that complaints were down 53% from the previous reporting period to 3,501; the general trend for complaints in the US was a steep downward curve, reducing from 4,777 in December 2012 to 656 in December 2014; (Eggerton, 2013).
Research did not uncover statistics for customer complaints relating to the implementation of EBU R 128 in the UK, this may be due to the fact that the algorithm was implemented in December of 2013, and the data is not yet available. However, Australia’s implementation of their version of ITU-R BS 1770 resulted in a reduction in the number of complaints to zero; (Heraty, n.d.b).
This data indicates significant success for the implementation of the CALM Act and the general implementation of ITU-R BS 1770 through the dramatic reduction in customer complaints about variations in loudness levels, which in turn indicates a listener preference for loudness normalisation. For future research, further data relating to customer complaints can be captured and collated in order to confirm the initial findings of a significant reduction in their numbers.
5.2 Practice Research
Practice research was conducted to establish whether UK digital broadcasters are adhering to recommended broadcast audio levels (Appendix: 2). Fifteen out of 16 samples (including advertisements) broadcast by seven different channels were found to be within 1 LUFS (1db) of the recommended level, indicating a high level of compliance with EBU R 128.
The research also revealed a Kerrang! Radio measurement of -9.3 LUFS. This represents a perceived playback level increase of 13.7 db over the EBU R 128 recommended level of -23 LUFS and an inconsistency in the implementation of the recommendation. Radio stations currently use compression and limiting as a means of normalising loudness levels; their priority is to attract the attention of listeners searching the dial for suitable listening, and so their aim is maximum loudness. This means that most radio-broadcast music is subjected to high levels of compression, and although there is pressure to switch from compression to loudness normalisation, no radio station wants to be the first to take this leap of faith. In this light it is no surprise to observe the high loudness level of the Kerrang! broadcast, however, the EBU R 128 specification clearly states: “Distributors that transmit radio services as well as television services shall apply the same normalisation and alignment process to radio as for television.” (European Broadcasting Union, 2011c, p.9), and the recommendation also covers DAB and FM radio broadcasts; Norway adopted EBU R 128 for DAB in 2012.
The explanation for the Kerrang! radio discrepancy is that the adoption of EBU R 128 is a transitionary process, and as such the focus has been on TV initially; the implementation is still not complete in that sector, but eventually loudness normalisation will be applied to all radio broadcasting too; (European Broadcasting Union, 2012; Robjohns, 2014, pp.120-121, Quested, 2015) (Appendix: 5). Further measurements of TV broadcasts will help to confirm global adherence by broadcasters to legislation and recommendations for loudness normalisation.
During the period that this study was being compiled, the U.S. – based Public Radio Satellite System (n.d.) distribution network implemented loudness normalisation, and although the broadcast method is satellite rather than radio waves, it could be the initial trigger needed for conventional radio broadcasting in the USA to follow suit.
5.3 Algorithm Inconsistencies and Anomalies
The demands of TV broadcast legislation apply equally to live broadcasts, and it is more difficult to control the audio for these broadcasts as it needs to be effected in real time. Manufacturers such as Sound Devices are producing processors specifically designed to cope with real time loudness normalisation, and the company is seeing a trend in the need for this type of equipment, thus not only highlighting further potential inconsistencies in implementation, but also providing further evidence of the importance and longevity of loudness normalisation through the expanding market for technological products that are being designed and manufactured specifically for its application; (Winslow, 2012, p.4).
In a recent (March 2015) publication, Shepherd (2015a) announced that YouTube had recently implemented loudness normalisation. He had measured the output of a YouTube playlist (Appendix 1.3 Figure 3) and concluded from the results that the audio was loudness normalised. This discovery has wide implications, as YouTube is the most popular online source for listening to and discovering music, representing a significant advance in the globalisation of loudness normalisation.
YouTube’s functionality raises more inconsistency issues, and as YouTube has made no official acknowledgement or given any explanation of the system, Shepherd (2015b) relies on his own investigations to draw conclusions: only the more recently published audio is affected, with older music retaining its original loudness. Additionally, the function does not take effect immediately after uploading, sometimes taking up to a week to apply the normalisation. The audio output has a variance of 2 LUFS (2 db) which indicates that YouTube may not be utilising ITU-R BS 1770, so an alternative algorithm such as ReplayGain may be at the core of the system. Finally, the prescribed level seems to be approximately -13 LUFS, which is high compared to iTunes (-16.5 LUFS) and digital TV (-23 LUFS). As YouTube’s function currently only reduces volume, and does not increase it, some tracks will still sound quieter at this level.
All of these aspects will result in imperfect loudness normalisation, which has the potential to invoke dissatisfaction amongst listeners, since differing levels of audio can still be experienced. As YouTube’s implementation is recent and ongoing, Shepherd believes that many of these issues will be resolved eventually. He also suggests that the reason for the implementation is due to Google’s recent announcement of Google Play, which will give listeners advertisement-free access to all of YouTube’s music, and Google must be aware that historically the largest single group of listener complaints has always been with reference to differing playback levels.
6. Reduction in the Sound Quality of Hypercompressed Recordings
6.1 Listener Preferences
Complaints about the quality of hypercompressed recordings are difficult to quantify as they usually manifest themselves as general expressions of discontent, and are not logged with any official body. Therefore research into listener preferences followed by an assessment of the opinions of industry practitioners and media journalists will be used to gain an insight into current attitudes towards the quality of audio, both past and current.
The reduced dynamic range of hypercompressed recordings results in lower sound quality, with distortion being apparent in some cases. Consequently the majority of industry professionals dislike loud recordings; Gary Hobish, sound engineer at A. Hammer Mastering in San Francisco sums up the issue: “Everything in the record is as loud as everything else, all the time. It’s like being yelled at”, and Bob Katz states: “We’re making popular music recordings that have no more dynamic range than a 1909 Edison Cylinder”. His point is illustrated by comparing two recordings and their waveforms (Appendix 1.2 Figure 2). The first, a 1908 cylinder recording is shown to have a dynamic range of 15db while “My Apocalypse” from Metallica’s 2008 album “Death Magnetic” has a range of just 3db. (Tesler, 2008, p.4; The Art of Record Production Conference, 2009, pp.4-6; Vickers, 2010, p.1-2; Shepherd, 2014). While these measurements may be accurate, they do not necessarily show that listeners dislike the sonic effects of hypercompression, indeed it may be that listeners actually prefer them.
Deruty (2011, pp.157-158) argues that dynamic range has in fact not decreased over the years; DR meters really measure peak variance levels, not dynamic range, compressing a recording is like turning up the brightness on an Adobe Photoshop image – i.e. although the contrast and colouring (i.e. the “dynamics”) remain, the photo is simply brighter – or “louder” in the case of audio. This extra brightness (loudness) suits some images, while other images (or audio recordings) are spoiled by it. Deruty is implying that hypercompression is not necessarily undesirable in all cases, and may actually be preferred in some. Bob Orban supports this view, arguing that the “smashed and hammered” sound is part of the style of some music; (Moss, 2014, p.18).
Some music in the years preceding the loudness wars relied on a change in dynamics rather than loudness for its impact, for example the chorus of Nirvana’s “Smells Like Teen Spirit”, modern day pop music does not rely so much on the variation of dynamics, and therefore may actually benefit sonically from hypercompression. Although many listeners want to experience the finer nuances of their music, listening back repeatedly without fatigue, other demographics – for example young males – may prefer the “in your face” aggressive effect of loud music, the club-music scene is one area where loudly mastered music may always prevail regardless of loudness normalisation. Electronic Dance Music (EDM) is a genre that was created in the digital domain in the midst of the loudness wars, it has been hypercompressed from its inception and thus the low dynamic range characteristics are an integral part of its make up, so it is unlikely that there will ever be an increase in dynamic range within this genre.
Listeners may prefer loud recordings as a result of bias towards them acquired via continued exposure to their component elements. In genres that are linked significantly to loudness and its associated processing attributes, mastering engineers are known to intentionally clip A/D convertors not only to increase loudness, but to induce distortion. Digital distortion differs to analogue distortion – which is based on frequencies – because it is dissonant and inharmonic, and this may have become a desired element of the music for adherents of these genres, who may consequently express a preference for hypercompressed music. Given this bias towards digital distortion, loudness normalisation may not stimulate any decrease in loud recordings within these specialised genres due to their desired aesthetics.
Compression has the effect of fusing individual mix elements together; the greater the degree of compression, the more the elements are fused. This effect is often used by mastering engineers as mix ‘glue’ and in the case of hypercompression, the exaggerated effect tends to produce a single common texture to the music, rather than a mix of individual sounds. This may be one reason why trained listeners complain about loud music; it is difficult to identify and monitor individual mix elements. Conversely for untrained listeners, these louder recordings can serve more as sonic wallpaper than a specific listening experience, and as a result they may struggle to cope with the intricacies of more dynamic recordings, with result of an expressed general dislike for them.
Additionally, mastering engineer Stephen Marcussen advocates loud CDs, stating that if all the stakeholders are happy with the end result, then there is no problem. The problems with loud recordings only occur when compression is abused, producing artefacts and distortion. Clearly not all industry professionals are “anti-loudness” campaigners, and this may be one reason why the loudness wars have persisted for such an extended period; (International Computer Music Conference, 2014, pp.924 925, Jones, 2005; Lawson, 2008, p.28; Vickers, 2010, p.8; Robjohns, 2014, p.122).
It is not only new recordings that are mastered for loudness. Over the years, as vinyl back catalogues have been re-released for CD and other digital formats, the producers have taken the opportunity to re-process the master recordings, increasing their loudness. The ubiquitous term “remaster” has been used as a positive advertising soundbite by the record companies; Red Hot Chili Peppers Greatest Hits, Beatles I, the Led Zeppelin compilation Mothership from 2007 and Rolling Stones albums Sticky Fingers and Some Girls are all examples of remasters that have been mastered significantly louder than the originals, and while the record companies attempt to demonstrate that these remasters are somehow better than the original, digitally uncovering fine detail that originals did not reveal, the reality is that the remasters are almost certainly further from a true representation of the original recordings due to reductions in the transients caused by hypercompression; (Lawson, 2008, p.20; Vickers, 2010, p.6). This type of marketing may be psychologically influential on listener preferences; if a listener buys a remastered version of a recording, there may be an underlying subconscious obligation to prefer this type of compressed recording due to the record companies’ card-stacking advertising techniques.
A further illustration of the difficulty in identifying listener preferences is presented by Levine (2007, p.2), who highlights Bob Dylan’s remastered CD album “Modern Times” as bucking the loudness trend, lauding its sense of spaciousness and the ability it affords the listener to single out individual instrumentation, however Curnyn (2009) describes the album as “significantly damaged” when compared to the original vinyl. Examination of the album’s audio revealed a flat-topped waveform typical of hypercompressed recordings. Dylan himself when interviewed about the album stated: “You listen to these modern records, they’re atrocious, they have sound all over them. There’s no definition of nothing, no vocal, no nothing, just like – static” (Letham, 2006). These opposing views highlight the degree of subjectivity involved when assessing the quality of recordings. If industry professionals derive opposing views on quality after listening to the same recording, any results gained from practice research could be doubtful, especially if the research involves tests designed to ascertain the opinions of untrained listeners.
Further, we have seen the gradual public acceptance through habit of lower quality sound reproduction via the proliferation of low quality mobile device codecs and low quality sound reproduction drivers, especially earbuds. Berger conducted tests that showed a preference among students for the mp3 format, compared to full WAV files or vinyl. Personal players such as the iPod, which use mp3 files are the main source of listener playback, and so the sound characteristics of the mp3 files have not only become the norm for these students, but also the benchmark for quality against which other formats are judged; Loud recordings too are widespread, and therefore their familiar characteristics combined with their low-fidelity reproduction on modern day devices may form some sort of comfort zone for listeners who may consequently express a positive preference for hypercompressed music.
The ability of music to arouse emotion in the listener was highlighted by Juslin and Västfjäll (2008) who found that psychophysical cues – for example unexpected, loud sonic events – increase emotional arousal thus supporting the characteristics of dynamic music, and suggesting that hypercompression may result in the failure of listeners to perceive louder events, thus reducing the degree of emotion that can be aroused through loud music. Conversely, loud music allows the listener to hear the quieter elements of recordings above background noise, which is prevalent in the modern day environment, and so due to its functional practicality in these scenarios, highly compressed music may be preferred to dynamic music; (International Computer Music Conference, 2014, pp.921-923; Kelly, 2009).
(Dean, Bailes and Schubert, 2011, pp.1-8) conducted tests to establish whether listeners’ arousal correlated with changes in loudness or intensity. They took recordings from multiple musical genres and reversed their loudness profiles. Both versions of the recordings were played back to listeners with the results showing that intensity (i.e. loudness) impacted the listeners’ arousal directly, indicating that the intensity profiles within recordings are a significant source of arousal to listeners of music. Hypercompressed music with its lack of transients has less inherent arousal capabilities than more dynamic music, and is a contributory factor to the aversion of loud music.
Martens and Taylor (2014) in their tests concluded that untrained listeners generally have a preference for higher degrees of compression in the pop genre than those who are trained listeners within the genre, although it should be noted that the authors also conclude that the level of compression preferred by listeners does not warrant the term ‘hypercompression’. The tests also showed that untrained listeners prefer higher degrees of compression than industry professionals, which may explain why industry practitioners such as Katz and Shepherd are such impassioned anti-loudness campaigners. Croghan and Arehart (2012) support the findings of Martens and Taylor, concluding from their tests that listeners prefer compression in smaller amounts, while very high levels of compression are judged to impair the quality of recordings. However, the definition of “smaller” is also debateable. It can only have a truly significant meaning at the time the tests were conducted, since the desired amount of compression is a perpetually moving target which is defined by the prevailing recording methods and techniques of any given moment; (International Computer Music Conference, 2014, p.921)
Further, in cases where loud recordings are played immediately before and after recordings of similar loudness, comparisons between the quality of the recordings may carry higher validity, because the user can assess the quality of the recordings on equal standings, but when music is played before and/or after quieter recordings, the effect of the loudness will have a significant effect on the listener’s perception of quality as louder music usually sounds better to the listener.
The findings of Crogan and Arehart (2012) and Martens and Taylor (2014) were achieved through studies which were conducted under conditions with listener loudness perception nullified through the use of loudness normalisation, allowing participants to make direct comparisons between the quality of the recordings without differing loudness levels affecting their assessments. Therefore the results of these tests are important to the study, as they confirm the views of many industry practitioners – that the sonic characteristics of hypercompressed music are undesirable, even to the ears of untrained listeners.
6.2 Listening Fatigue
Loud recordings have minimal transients, and the effect of this is a constant assault on the human hearing system, with reduced opportunities for the system to “breathe” or recover between transients. This phenomenon has been labelled “listening fatigue” and it manifests itself as a discouragement to the listener for continued or repeated listening. Stephen Ambrose of Asius Technologies reported that listening fatigue is also related to the use of earbuds; because they create a seal around the ear canal, the music causes oscillations within the canal that increase the sound pressure level. Hypercompressed music will exacerbate the symptoms of listening fatigue in these circumstances as the oscillations produced through lack of transients will be greater than music with more dynamics; (Lawson, 2008, p.41, Wolchever, 2011)
These effects of listening fatigue could play a part in listener preferences. The tests conducted by Martens and Taylor (2014) and Crogan and Arehart (2012) exposed listeners to music on a short term basis; had the duration time of the exposure been extended, the results could have been even less favourable towards loud music, because any study of listener preference through extended practical testing could result in corrupt findings due to the tests inducing listening fatigue. Similarly, neither Orban’s or Deruty’s support for loud music takes into account the possibility of listening fatigue affecting listener preference, so although the characteristics of hypercompressed music may be preferred by some people for short term listening, longer term listening could produce different listener preferences as a result of listening fatigue; (Vickers, 2010, p10; Moss, 2014, p.18).
6.3 Industry Practitioner Feedback
In order to gain primary source feedback from the recording industry, eighteen industry professionals were contacted to gain their views. Five replied (Scott Hull, Brian Hazard, Brandon Drury, Kevin Hupp and Neil Kernon, see Appendix: 4), and their comments combined with the views of other practitioners gained through conventional research can be compared and contrasted in order to establish a general overview.
Hupp (2015) believes that the CALM act is not relevant to his work as it does not govern music recorded and distributed for personal use. This is supported by Hull (2015) and Kernon (2015), while Hull (2015) additionally questions the need for regulation at all, advocating the use of user volume control instead. Hull’s argument is essentially for maintaining the status quo; (with the addition of increased user-definable playback settings) however the number of complaints from the public which triggered the development of ITU-R BS 1770 in the first instance indicates a need to move away from the status quo.
The views expressed by these three practitioners disregard the possibility of their work being played back as part of a TV broadcast, in which case the CALM Act and EBU R 128 certainly would be relevant to their work. Their views indicate a belief that the CALM Act applies only to TV advertisements, but not the accompanying programmes, which is technically correct, however since the CALM Act states that the advertisements must be the same loudness as their accompanying programmes, and also stipulates that the level should be -24 LUFS, this means that the programmes must, by implication, also be broadcast at -24 LUFS.
Ken Hunold of Dolby argues that the CALM Act has served to raise public awareness of audio issues and loudness normalisation; (Winslow, 2012, p16), however the absence of any other practitioner comments on the CALM Act indicates that none of the contributors attaches much importance to the Act in the context of the proliferation of loudness normalisation globally. Additionally, Hazard (2015) listens to music through Spotify’s mobile app which does not have the ReplayGain feature, so his personal experience serves to distance him from the loudness normalisation debate.
According to Hupp (2015) the practice of making music louder “to the limits” degrades the sound; Hull (2015) agrees, adding that music producers rather than listeners are the driving force behind loud music. Kernon (2015) is more specific, blaming the artists for pressurising mastering engineers into making their recordings loud, and Drury (2015) adds that the artists would struggle with sound of recordings that were not hypercompressed. Not only do the artists need convincing about the merits of dynamic recordings, but also the financial stakeholders, i.e. the record labels and the music industry management in general, and this could slow down the progression towards more dynamic music.
(Drury) 2015 expresses doubt that we will see an explosion in fidelity as a result of loudness normalisation, and although there is general agreement among the practitioners that the act of hypercompressing music usually lowers its quality, there is no consensus that loudness normalisation will serve to resolve the problem. This demonstrates a denial of the potential of loudness normalisation to be a platform for an increase in dynamic music, in contrast to Shepherd (2015a), who proclaimed that YouTube’s recent implementation of loudness normalisation would be the final nail in the coffin of the loudness wars.
Bob Katz regards the new iTunes Radio service as wonderful due to its default setting of Sound Check; Guttenburg (2013), and Hull (2014) states that he cannot understand why Sound Check is not the default iTunes setting. Luta (2012) argues that hypercompressing recordings now has the opposite effect of making them loud due to loudness normalisation systems, and Shepherd (2009), supports this view arguing: “…if you want your music to sound great and leap out of the speakers at you, it doesn’t need massive level, it needs great dynamics. Game Over”. His final comment of “Game Over” was a reference to the loudness wars, indicating that in his opinion they were – at least potentially – over, and if iTunes makes its Sound Check feature the default setting for playback, the loudness normalisation environment will be close to universal. Sylwesterzak (2014, p.59).
6.4 Industry Practitioners – Feedback Analysis
The industry practitioners, while generally denouncing loud music, nevertheless do not acknowledge that hypercompressed recordings are decreasing or that sound quality is improving. It may be that since loudness normalisation is a relatively new development, the possible effects and repercussions have not yet been understood or realised fully by the industry. However, the practitioners generally endorse loudness normalisation, not just because they prefer the effect it has on the listening experience, but more importantly because they believe it will be instrumental in ending the loudness wars. The discussion can be expanded to include more practitioners who are involved in more diverse disciplines in order to produce comprehensive feedback on the industry’s current perception of hypercompressed recordings.
There’s no doubt that large parts of the music industry are embracing loudness normalisation, and although it will take time to become the standard way of working everywhere, it looks certain that this change will become universal. Robjohns (2014, p.128)
6.5 Dynamic Range Database
The Dynamic Range Database (n.d.) is an online database of albums and their dynamic range. The database was examined to determine whether the number of loud albums released annually has reduced in line with the advance of loudness normalisation (Appendix: 4)
Results showed a steady increase of loud albums from 2009 – 2013, but 2014 revealed a decrease of 20% compared with 2013; a significant indication that loud albums are in decline, in line with the introduction of the CALM Act, iTunes Radio and the continued proliferation of loudness normalisation. Research involving the controlled measurement and logging of the dynamic range of commercially released recordings from past years compared to current releases will serve to establish in more definable terms whether the trend is for recordings to be less dynamically compressed.
Since loud recordings have the ultimate aim of increasing sales; (Lawson, 2008, p.26) this notion will be examined to determine whether sales are a true factor of the loudness wars, and thus whether they can be utilised as an indicator of decreasing loudness trends. To test this notion Viney’s (2008, p.48) research identified the effect of loudness on album sales, taking 30 randomly selected recent CD singles and finding “no significant correlation between the measured loudness and sales chart position or weeks in chart.” This was based not only on the loudness measurements but on a loudness assessment of each song made by 36 professional engineers and producers.
Vickers (2010, p.17) examines Viney’s work combined with that of a project named Evergreen by Chris Johnson (n.d.), which reports on the sales of historically important albums in relation to their dynamic range. Johnson shows that the higher the sales of one of these albums, the more contrasting dynamics it is likely to have. Vickers concludes that no available data to date shows any correlation between the dynamic range of an album and its sales in the Billboard charts.
It could also be argued that loud recordings sell better simply because the stakeholders involved in the recordings generally mandate the recording technicians to deliver a loud master; (Lawson, 2008, p.41), and as a result the majority of high-selling recordings are loud, but this notion does not take into account the fact that many commercial recordings are not loud. Genres (e.g. jazz and classical) that are not expected to register chart success are less likely to feel the pressure to make their recordings louder, and conversely the loud recordings that hit the charts may do so for reasons other than their loudness; (Vickers, 2010, p.18)
Ultimately, the presence of multiple listener preference variables may prevent any meaningful conclusions from ever being made about the correlation of sales of recordings with their loudness. While it is generally acknowledged that the music industry is in decline and has been for some time; (Vickers, 2010, p.14) it would be erroneous to cite the cause (or part of it) as the practice of hypercompressing music in the face of such lack of conclusive evidence.
This study confirmed that complaints about varying audio playback levels and a general decrease in audio quality prompted service providers to implement loudness normalisation utilising algorithms such as IBU-R BS 1770 in order to provide listeners with equal loudness audio playback. A steep downward curve in the number of complaints about loud commercials in the USA indicates not only the success of the CALM Act but also a clear listener preference for loudness normalised listening; Eggerton (2013).
Results indicating a listener preference for lightly compressed music through tests by Martens and Taylor (2014) and Croghan and Arehart (2012) were supported by the personal views of professionals such as Bob Katz and Ian Shepherd, although it was observed that some industry representatives such as Orban and Deruty believe that hypercompression can be acceptable aesthetically when it is not done solely for the purpose of making masters louder.
The views of current industry practitioners were solicited in order to gain primary source feedback, which indicated that while the practitioners are generally in favour of dynamic recordings, they did not confirm that they are seeing evidence of an increase in them, with Drury (2015) especially arguing that even if music producers were to change their approach to achieve more dynamic, less compressed recordings, the artists themselves may struggle to cope with the sonic effect of such recordings.
An analysis of the Dynamic Range Database (n.d.) revealed a reduction in the number of hypercompressed recordings in 2014 by 20% compared to 2013. This data correlates to the time period covering the legislation of the CALM Act, and the European adoption of EBU R 128 and the introduction of iTunes Radio, indicating a movement towards lighter compressed, more dynamic recordings as a result of these three loudness normalisation implementations.
The possibility of utilising sales figures of loud recordings as an indicator of loudess trends was also explored. As Viney (2008) and Chris Johnson’s (n.d.) Evergreen project both showed, sales of recordings cannot be connected conclusively to loudness, so the figures cannot be used to illustrate trends in sales of loud recordings, but perhaps more importantly, the figures cannot be utilised to support the notion that louder recordings achieve higher sales as a direct result of their inherent loudness, thus casting doubt on the veracity of the primary driving factor behind the loudness wars.
The ongoing, immediate nature of the study topic was highlighted with the announcement of two major developments even while the study was being conducted. PRSS (n.d.) announced that it is to monitor and enforce its mandatory loudness normalisation regulations for radio broadcasters, and Shepherd’s (2015) research revealed that YouTube has been operating loudness normalisation since December 2014. Both of these developments have occurred too recently to allow any assessment of their effect on audio recordings, but they do serve to illustrate the contemporary nature of the topic.
8.1 Future Research
Prior to the loudness wars differences in loudness were used as an aid to song structure, for example choruses would have a louder note on the downbeat and melodies would often be given a boost in level and an early (up to 20ms) introduction. During the loudness wars these elements were negated so music producers emulated them through volume automation and micro-nudging software capabilities. They also used eq to manipulate frequencies in order to simulate a boost in level, and they would often widen the stereo image to simulate a drop in level for the quieter parts. These legacies of hypercompression have yet to be debated, especially in the context of increasingly dynamic recordings, future research is required. (International Computer Music Conference, 2014, p.925)
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Appendix 1.1 Figure 1: RMS level changes 1991-2009
Appendix 1.2 Figure 2: Waveforms
A: “Down Where the Big Bananas Grow” (1909 Edison Cylinder), and B: “My Apocalypse” (Metallica, Death Magnetic, 2008), left channel.
Appendix 1.3 Figure 3: YouTube playlist measurement
Ian Sheperd’s measurement of the audio output of a YouTube playlist indicating that Youtube has implemented loudness normalisation.
Appendix 2.Practice Research – Measurement of UK TV Audio Levels
To ascertain whether UK broadcasters are adhering to the recommendations of EBU R 128, A sample of programmes was recorded and their digital audio was measured.
Appendix 2.2 Method
One programme (including commercial breaks where applicable) broadcast by each of seven TV channels through Freeview was recorded digitally to a standard consumer grade Fujitsu computer. The resultant video files were separated from their audio using X-Media Recode and the audio files were measured using an LUFS meter (Klangfreund). In the case of the commercial channels, each commercial break was edited out of the main programme file and measured individually.
Additionally for comparison, a 55-minute continuous programme stream by Kerrang! radio, broadcast through Freeview, was recorded and analysed in the same way.
The measurements are shown in figure 1.
|ITV Emmerdale 20:00 – 20:30||-22.30|
|Advertisement Break 1||-23.00|
|ITV 3 Two and a Half Men 20:30 – 21:00||-22.50|
|Advertisement Break 1||-23.20|
|Channel 4 Cucumber 21:00 – 22:00||-22.10|
|Advertisement Break 1||-23.10|
|Advertisement Break 2||-23.00|
|Advertisement Break 3||-22.90|
|Channel 5 The Mentalist 22:00 – 22:55||-22.40|
|Advertisement Break 1||-22.50|
|Advertisement Break 2||-23.20|
|Advertisement Break 3||-23.10|
|BBC 3 Family Guy 23:00 – 23:25||-20.50|
|BBC 2 Food and Drink 10:05 – 10:35||-23.20|
|BBC 4 Britain’s Wildest Places 19:40 – 19:50||-22.70|
|BBC 1 Countryside 999 11:00 – 11:45||23.10|
Figure 1 – Loudness measurements shown in LUFS
Appendix 2.3 Results
From these results it can be seen that with the exception of one, the measurements of all TV programmes including commercial breaks were within 1 LUFS (equivalent to 1db) of the recommended -23 LUFS.
The exception was BBC 3’s Family Guy which was measured at -20.5 LUFS. A message was sent to the BBC inviting them to comment on this measurement; Quested (2015) replied that the adoption of EBU R 128 is a transitionary process, and that the programme had been bought in and consequently was not mixed to R128 or the US CALM Act requirements.
Appendix 2.3 Practice Research – Analysis
In consideration of possible minor processing anomalies, a 1 LUFS variance in 15 of the 16 samples analysed in the practice research indicates that generally, the broadcasters are adhering to the EBU R 128 recommendation of a -23 LUFS broadcast level of all programme material.
In conclusion, the practice research results indicate adherence to loudness normalisation recommendations by UK digital TV broadcasters, and confirm that radio broadcasts – even when received through a digital TV – are clearly not subject to the recommendations.
Appendix 3.Dynamic Range Database
As the compression of a digital audio piece is increased, so the difference between waveform transients decreases, and so do the dynamics of the recording, the industry refers to the average difference between transients as the dynamic range (DR) of a recording.
The Dynamic Range Database (n.d.) is an online database populated by users. Users measure the dynamic range of an album using a dynamic range meter and then upload the resultant data to the database. Since the database is operated and maintained by the general public, its authority may questionable, however Vickers (2010, p.4) cites the database and uses its data to illustrate the decline of dynamic range in albums year on year, thus affording the database a degree of credence and authority.
Appendix 3.1 Method
A search of the database was conducted in order to establish the number of albums that have a dynamic range of 7 or less (a range rated as “bad” on the website due to hypercompression) for each of the years 2009 – 2014, covering the period both before and after the introduction of the CALM act, and the introduction of iTunes Radio in 2013.
Appendix 3.2 Results
Year – Total
2009 – 1223
2010 – 1248
2011 – 1315
2012 – 1499
2013 – 1502
2014 – 1199
The data shows a yearly increase of albums with a low dynamic range up to 2013, but 2014 shows a decrease of 20% compared to 2013.
Appendix 3.3 Dynamic Range Database – Results Analysis
The results of the Dynamic Range Database analysis are not fully conclusive, as the data for further years after is needed to expand the sample size, nor do they take into account the number of annual contributors to the database: for example, if there were significantly less users in 2014, that fact would probably account for the decrease in the number of hypercompressed albums. Nevertheless the results indicate that loudness normalisation is having an effect on the production of recordings, with significantly less albums having a “bad” dynamic range in 2014.
Appendix 4:.Recording Industry Practitioners
Appendix 4.1 Brian Hazard
Mastering engineer, clients include childhood heroes Information Society, Naked Eyes, and Heaven 17, labels: A Different Drum and Ninthwave Records, and video game developers Microsoft Game Studios and Ubisoft.
You sound much more optimistic than I feel about the end of the loudness wars. I do all my listening on Spotify via my phone, where there is no volume matching. That said, I hope you’re right!
I don’t think beating the algorithm is as easy with music as it is with that commercial. I know I won’t go out of my way to try to outwit it. That said, certain arrangement styles (acoustic, short notes) are easier on the limiter than others (sustained bass notes) in mastering, and I have to imagine the same case with volume matching. We can only hope that the algorithm will evolve to compensate.
I know that doesn’t exactly answer your question, but until I have the algorithm built into my DAW as a plug-in, which certainly will happen, I won’t know how to game it. Perhaps a plug-in can be constructed specifically to compress/limit individual tracks or busses in such a way as to sneak by at maximum volume.
Appendix 4.2 Scott Hull
Mastering engineer, clients include Miles Davis, Bruce Springsteen, Garbage, Steely Dan, Herbie Hancock, Lou Reed and Sting.
1. sound check should be the norm. I have no idea why it’s not by
2. The users don’t really want the music crushed. The process is driven
more by paranoid producers than consumer sentiment.
3. I have witnessed a good deal of push back – regarding over
modulation. It’s on a record by record basis – but at least we are
talking about it – everyday.
4. Beating the algorithm will probably always be the goal. some of our
music is more “Art”experience” than traditional pop music,. so these
pieces want to intrude, overwhelm, and cause reaction.
5. CALM act specifically has almost nothing to do with distributed music
in the US – so frankly it “never” comes up. The only time i have to
interact with it is when a live performance that I’ve mastered is being
prepared for broadcast. The CALM act recommendations are not even
being followed in DVD and blue ray production – it’s still the wild west
6. MOST importantly – i have spoken on and advocated since the CD
started that the consumer needs to be given the “option” to manage gain
o r let the hammers fly.
We came close with DVD-audio – and early DVD authoring was supposed to
have gain – steerage – or meta data that would enable the consumer to
set the playback parameters that suited them.
That approach seems best. If the Switch was in the consumers hands then
we (professional audio people) would be forced to make Great sounding
music that has all the headroom that the project demands… the listener
then would set the playback scenario – For instance – 1 Heavy gain
manipulation for Ear phones or party tape / Broadcast 2. Super wide
classical realism 3. Kitchen / casual listening that takes into
account that there might need to be a conversation happening over the
music… or any scenario that the playback device manufacture might
consider to be a selling point,.
I do not see much movement in this direction though – “we” think we can
solve this problem with regulation.. but why shouldn’t the consumer be
able to choose.
The bandwidth even exists to prove two different versions – Home theater
versions and Ipod version.. I’d be much happier about making a Crushed
– lo dynamic range versions of a recording for a pop artist – if i knew
that there was also available – for those that cared – a version that
was not so dramatically limited.
Appendix 4.3 Neil Kernon
Producer, clients include Elton John, David Bowie, Thin Lizzy, Neil Sedaka, Marc Bolan, Yes, Colin Blunstone, Hawkwind, Judas Priest, Linda Ronstadt, Mick Ronson, Queen, Strawbs, Supertramp, The Tremeloes, Stephane Grappelli, Billy Cobham and Stanley Clarke.
There appear to be several different issues here, and none of them really affect my work at all.
I am a musician, and when I write music, I play it at a comfortable volume. When I make records, I always monitor at a comfortable volume, although there were times during my career when I was assisting producers and engineers when the volume was really loud, but not deafening. Neither of these situations have anything to do with the loudness wars, however.
I am old enough to remember the original loudness wars, although they had no name back then of course. Vinyl mastering was very competitive back in the 60s, 70s and 80s, and every label and artist wanted their album to “jump out of the speakers” as it were – in other words to make their songs seem louder than the songs that preceded them on the radio, or perhaps at the party where it ws being played etc.
There’s no difference whatsover between that loudness war and the current one. The intention, or wish, today, of either the artist or the label is to do exactly the same thing – make their record sound more powerful, punchy, impactful etc. than the one played before (and hopefully) after it, simply because when something is louder than something prior, it turns the head of the listener, and the result is often something like “Oh, that sounds rather good!” smile emoticon
When I’m making records I am not driving the overall level up into those competitive areas. In my job as record producer / recording engineer / mixing engineer – or any combination of those – my job is to make the record sound as good as possible, not as loud as possible. I never use any form of overall mix compression during my work process, and the music that I present to be mastered never has any peaks that go into “the red” so to speak, and therefore never approaches any distortion levels.
I am well aware that every normal listening device has a volume control that can be adjusted by the listener, so to me the most important thing, from a technical standpoint, is to make the best-sounding record possible, and let the listener decide how loud they would like their music.
The loudness wars haven’t affected the way I work at all, and I don’t think they ever will, unless at some point people knock on my door and force me to turn my monitoring volume down (which is already very low anyway) and in any event that’s really got nothing to do with the loudness wars.
The point about TV and radio commercials being louder than the programming surrounding them is well made however, but surely that’s not really a loudness wars issue, but instead a personal annoyance issue. It’s a well-known fact in the US that advertisers want their commercials to “leap out and grab” the consumer, so their attention is captured before they rush off to the kitchen to get a drink of water etc.
I’m not sure I see that as being anything to do with the loudness wars, but more an invasive, annoying practice.
To sum up, I do think that protecting everyone’s hearing is a very good idea. As someone who went to very loud concerts from an early age, long before anyone even thought of bringing some earplugs, I can safely say that going to loud concerts was easily the biggest potential hazard to my hearing while growing up, barring accidentally standing next to a car backfiring or perhaps enjoying a weekend at the Farnborough Air Show in September.
Not exactly sure if any of this will help shed any light, but these are my thoughts on the subject.
As I mentioned before, my mixes are never redlined or even compressed / limited overall, and the mastering engineers that I work with are all 100% in favour of not destroying the fidelity of the music.
From both their perspectives and mine, the people that usually request more and more level in the mastering stage are either the record labels or the artists themselves. I think that the artists – especially those whose music is more along heavy lines – feel that if their album doesn’t leap out and grab you, and have the immediate sonic impact that a rival artist’s has, then their record is likely to be percieved as “weak”, particularly by reviewers who compare things like that.
By the same token, record labels don’t want a particular album to garner poor reviews based on the volume of the record, so there’s sometimes a push from them to compete on that front, although in many cases the labels allow the artists to make the final call.
This is a rather sad reflection of the times, but in the past – while reading metal message boards – I’ve come to understand that the word “too quiet” basically means “weak sounding” etc. and that negativity spreads quickly.
More recently though, I think even metal listeners either have become, or are becoming tired of the pummelling volume of the really loud releases. I take that as a good sign.
Appendix 4.4 Brandon Drury
Owner of RecordingReview.com and author of music production course “Killer Home Recording”
Without a doubt, learning the skill of loudness while mixing is not remotely intuitive. It’s an extra step that anyone serving people who want to sell music has to learn and we can’t rely on mastering engineers to serve the music AND the loudness goals.
I don’t have as strong of negative opinion on loudness as others. I’ve heard 2-3 recordings that I really liked that suffered, but I work all day on fancy studio monitors in the “perfect” spot. I tend to listen for fun on playback systems that intentionally induce suffering just so I get to shut my damn brain off and have some fun. (Yes, bad sounding stereos are often more fun for me.)
I came across an interview in Tape Op in which a biochemist (or something) ditched his PhD and started a big time metalhead studio. He mentioned modern hypercompression as being the sound of seeing a loud ass band live. He argued our ears do the compressing. He had a point. This particular angle shows that compression/limiting can be used as an aesthetic. It doesn’t have to be a utilitarian hoop to jump through. This facet is ignored by just about everyone but the electronic music guys. (See the The Glue by Cytomic. Their audio demos tell you everything about this.)
I always cite “I Had The Time Of My Life” from Dirty Dancing as the prototype of the uncompressed. While the song worked then and works now, the lack of compression/density/weight on the thing hurts my ears way more than anything Metallica ever released, Death Magnetic or otherwise. A bit of hyper compression on the vocals of the verses would suck out some of that BAD whiteness. Surely Eddie Murphy has a joke about this song.
My vote is 95% of my clients would struggle with the sound of “undercompressed” recordings and the things we do to make music work in the context of draconian loudness requirements. iTunes and such can normalize all the way to ensure that Dirty Dancing is the same apparent volume as the last Katy Perry song, but it wont’ change which side of the fence you are on. Old people probably like the “space” in the Dirty Dancing-type production. Younger people probably like the “density” and “in-your-face” nature of the Katy Perry song. I HIGHLY doubt that we’ll see an explosion in fidelity like some seem to imply.
In the long term, the skill of getting a mix loud without murdering the music will go by the wayside as it won’t be needed anymore. Maybe in 2025-2035 we’ll start to see music with the density of Dirty Dancing becoming cool again. I wouldn’t rule that out. We could see a resurfacing of the 60s method where indvidual tracks are often distorted all to hell (via tape or otherwise) but the mixes themselves don’t seem to be compressed at all.
I’m very interested to see how the impact of Apple’s Sound Check begins to affect power amplifier demands. In essence, they are taking headroom and flushing it down the toilet. Granted, even cheapo car stereos generally have plenty of power left, but I certainly remember picking up Boston’s 1986 cd with “Amanda” on it and realizing that my 500 watt car stereo wasn’t NEARLY as loud as it was 5 minutes before with something from the 90s on.
Appendix 4.5 Kevin Hupp
Producer, drummer, engineer, recording credits include Iggy Pop, Rufus Wainwright, John Oates (Hall and Oates), and The Blessid Union of Souls.
I don’t think the calm act pertains to recorded music for personal use. Popular music has been pushed to the limits of loudness for years, something that I think degrades the sound. It used to be when you wanted something louder you would turn up the amp which would provide rich harmonics, speaker movement etc. But in this day of i phone music there is no amp circuit involved, as well as bad earbuds, music has to be convenient and I think audio quality has taken a back seat.
Appendix 5.Andy Quested
Head of Technology for BBC HD & UHDTV, this is his reply when questioned about the high audio level of Family Guy revealed in the practice research.
First apologies for the delay, I am in Geneva at the ITU standards meetings and email can take a while to reach me. If you look at the DPP delivery document (http://www.bbc.co.uk/guidelines/dq/contents/television.shtml), you will see we are still in a transition period. Although many programmes are now mixed to EBU R128, we have a few new PPM mixed programmes and virtually all the archive is PPM mixed.
In this case the programme was bought in and not mixed to R128 or the US CALM Act requirements in ITU-R BT.1770. We do not make changes to pre mixed programmes unless absolutely necessary as post delivered normalisation can cause more problems than it solves, especially around the level of dialogue.
I can also say, it’s unusual for a programme to be louder than the junctions! But we have recently moved all Promotions and Trails to R128 and are working on the channel voice overs so maybe there will be more over time.