LOUDER isn't always better
July 21, 2004 2:35 PM   Subscribe

Where did dynamic range go? Compact discs seem to keep getting more and more compressed in an effort to make them seem louder. Didn't the compact disc promise greater dynamic range than vinyl? Then, some record label exec comes along and makes the recording so hot we lose the dynamic range. People have been complaining about this for some time. Papers have been written about it with proposed solutions. Where will it end?
posted by caddis (38 comments total) 1 user marked this as a favorite
A technical article.
posted by kenko at 2:52 PM on July 21, 2004

as someone who makes records, I have to admit: I love compression. it can make a sorta-ok sounding mix really come alive. but I do notice the phenomenon mentioned in the article with the all-caps analogy and I make a conscious effort to avoid it, although I'm but one small fry in a very large happy meal.
posted by mcsweetie at 3:09 PM on July 21, 2004

The articles and the comments all seem to miss one major detail, although some come close. Most people do not have an 'educated ear' for quality sound production, nor do they buy quality equipment. A heavily compressed sound source sounds better to them when played on their $50 tabletop CD players or $20 computer speakers.

In the 80s and early 90s, I read dozens of interviews with musicians who said they transferred a potential mix to cassette so they could listen to it on a car stereo and in a boombox. I can easily imagine the same happening today with the difference being the medium is mp3 and the player is an iPod with earbuds.
posted by mischief at 3:15 PM on July 21, 2004

it's not only affecting the sound, but the way people listen to and play music ... there's no subtlety left or expected ... and musicians think you have to put the hammer down constantly or people won't like it

compression destroys nuance and dynamics and the current crop of recordings are setting a bad example for the next generation of musicians
posted by pyramid termite at 3:16 PM on July 21, 2004

If listeners are thrilled by the occasional loud climax, that doesn't mean that sustained loudness is continually thrilling—sorry, Red Hot Chili Peppers fans!

So true. I read somewhere (EW?) that the loudest single last year was Celine Dion's "I Drove All Night" (or something). Case in point.

Though, my oft mentioned band had this one theory when we were starting out. We weren't that tight yet, so we rented a wall of Marshall's so that people would have to leave the room, the whole time thinking "These dude's are fucking loud!" And if that was our first impression, that it would be better than "These dudes fucking suck." We failed to account for the fact that the guitar and bass overpowered the drums and vocals, and people ended up thinking we were "fucking loud" and that we "fucking sucked" at the same time. And then we got kicked out of the club. (literally, the bouncers carried our equiptment to the curb), but that is another story for another day.
posted by Quartermass at 3:20 PM on July 21, 2004

Where will it end?

posted by alms at 3:20 PM on July 21, 2004

A very good set of links, thanks caddis (and kenko).

I've noticed this trend also. Power seems to mean less dynamics!!!

But it is not only mastering problem and it has long roots. We can easily compare the "ideal" drum set dynamics from, for example Black Sabbaths Paranoid in the seventies where every kick drum hit has it's own volume to any rock recording from the 80's or 90's where if not triggered, the dynamics have been gated/compressed to the minimum. The same applies to the whole drum set.

The ideal sound and dynamics of the "rock kit" changed from acoustic to only loud. It is very rare to hear drummers today that use the whole dynamic (and thus emotional) scale that their instrument has. It is either piano or forte fortissimo. Nothing in between.

In a way the technical "advantages" changed the music profoundly.

Why CDs nowadays are Maximized? Because 95% of people buying records don't give a damn about dynamics and have sound equipment that just isn't up to the whole 100db that the CD could offer.

I've noticed that for example Robbie Williams sounds far better in my car than in my studio Genelecs.
posted by hoskala at 3:21 PM on July 21, 2004

So true. I read somewhere (EW?) that the loudest single last year was Celine Dion's "I Drove All Night" (or something). Case in point.

That wouldn't suprise me. The Cyndi Lauper version is one of my favorite songs about road-trips to get laid. My one encounter with Dion's version came from the cinema advertisment that both compressed the emotion, cut out the offending key line of the chorus, and seemed to be a dynamic monotone.

I wonder if the same thing is happening to DVD dynamics as well.
posted by KirkJobSluder at 3:28 PM on July 21, 2004

Actually alms, iTunes just makes the problem worse - mp3's and other lossy audio format's don't go well with dynamics. You can easily hear that if you encode classical music. Passages with high and stable volume sound far better than passages in pianissimo and rapid changes in volume. So in a way iTunes helps to maintain status quo, not end it.
posted by hoskala at 3:32 PM on July 21, 2004

One reason I always prefer the movies to the home theater that most consumer DVDs (especially rental) are as compressed as hell.

I remember a scene in Black Hawk Down where (on dvd) bullet sounds clicking on a table (high peaks) made the conversation and ambience duck like crazy. And that film won the Oscar for best sound!!!

Many people complain about loud volumes (loud peaks) in cinemas, but they do not usually take into account the wide dynamics most movies offer. (Good movies :)

Of course there are painful exceptions. Some films, especially "action" films seem to be mastered with the "more is more" -principle in mind. (Lately Van Helsing, Hellboy...)
posted by hoskala at 3:43 PM on July 21, 2004

Heh, it's funny to see the Bob Katz article -- he's the one that mastered, and maximized, our band's CD!

Some sort of maximization/ultra-limiting is essential IMHO for a CD these days. It's just really easy to turn it up "to 11".
posted by lupus_yonderboy at 3:45 PM on July 21, 2004

I'm always curious when I see the utter butchering that happens to a lot of hip hop tracks. Really really nice original beats compressed to buggery resulting in loads of clipping.

The thing I wonder is if the vinyl's similarly clipped or full spectrum? What's vinyl mastered from nowadays anyway?
posted by Flat Feet Pete at 4:27 PM on July 21, 2004

This isn't a technical issue at all. It has more to do with trying to oversell your product.

Just like how commercials get louder and louder to overshadow the previous one, then a local ad comes along that doesn't have the volume dampering that's on the network feed and it's blaring a car insurance ad at a gazillion decibels.

I can easily assume any album that uses this is probably trying to cover up how bad the music is.
posted by destro at 5:00 PM on July 21, 2004

What's even worse is when you take made-for-radio and MTV music that's hyper-compressed to begin with, and then you encode it into those harddisk playback and library systems most commercial radio and TV stations use these days and then even further compress the outbound feed.

Next thing you know some wrongheaded cheeseburger eating motherfucker with a bad haircut and dubious taste in - well, pretty much everything - is blasting this crapcast through a 500 watt no-crossover, no bi-amp swapmeet special car audio system with the bass boost and EQ cranked to like... fourteen and a fucking half.

Stuff rattling all over the car, two dollar stick-on dashboard dome tweeters killing overflying birds in seconds, bass cones farting and bleating like possessed, diarhettic goats and somewhere underneath this clusterfuck of mulletish-ness there's nuance and midrange holding hands looking rather sad and bruised, whispering "WTF, mate? I thought we were friends and partners and stuff?"

Did I mention I live in Los Angeles? That might explain a little.

However, I can't really see anyone doing high quality but mid-range pro audio sound reinforcement (Live PA or DJ) without tools like the world-famous BBE Sonic Maximizer series of tools. Not really a true compression filter as far as I vaguely understand those things, but they can be equally abused if you're unsubtle.

For MP3s I use the DFX Audio Enhancement. I just have it set at about 0.5-0.8 on the dynamic boost and about 0.7 to 1 on the fidelity, leaving the rest of the mushy gimracks like hyperbass and "ambience" (read, nasty echo hall effect) off. I really wish it had a fine-control interface, because you really don't need much more than about 1 or 2 on both the dynamic boost and fidelity. So, yeah, I've got my sliders on that plugin set below 1 usually. There's no real interface for "0.7".

But it's a fine plugin. It freaks me out to listen to mp3's without it now. They sound so muddy and flat without it. (I welcome suggestions on better (hopefully free) dynamic range expansion plugins that'll work with winamp.)

Seems to be a fine company, as well. I actually bought a full use copy at about version 3, lost the serial number in a drive crash and lost the email address I had registered it with, emailed them explaining the situation, and they sent me back a serial for version 5 within 24 hours so I could reinstall it. (I think it was actually like 3 hours or something fantastic like that.)
posted by loquacious at 5:31 PM on July 21, 2004 [2 favorites]

Those fucks will never get my Beethoven.
posted by Keyser Soze at 6:03 PM on July 21, 2004

What's vinyl mastered from nowadays anyway?
I do not know, but I hope they use less compression as vinyl has now become sort of an audiophile market. Nevertheless, there appear to be some differences in how different formats are engineered. Stereophile found differences between the SACD and CD layers of the recent Pink Floyd rerelease of Dark Side of the Moon.
posted by caddis at 6:13 PM on July 21, 2004

loquacious, thanks for reminding me to remove those crappy sounding tweeters from my car.

But there no way you're getting the PYRAMID car audio out of it!
posted by shepd at 6:21 PM on July 21, 2004

I hate this trend too. I don't even understand the logic behind this, if I'm listening to a radio station and they throw on some song from the 70's or 80's, I never say to myself "Man is this quiet."

What I do notice is nowadays if a arpeggio is being played it's now as loud as the full on distortion pedal chorus. Hoobastank's "The Reason" does this, the verse is as loud of the chorus, same with Nickelback. No ups and downs, just one long hum. Like I wouldn't mind it if they were doing some wall of sound shoegazer or Phil Spector thing, (Oasis' Morning Glory) but loud arpeggio?
posted by bobo123 at 6:24 PM on July 21, 2004

I'm much more interested in the DVD range. At least I can turn down a CD and listen to it, but if I don't have my receiver at 8 I wont be able to hear the dialogue in most new movies and if an action scene starts, well my neighbors will be well aware of it.

Even with my DVD player normalizing the sound I still can't hear squat for vocals. The stopgap fix is to turn your middle speaker (if you have one) up real high. Sorry Hollywood, not all of us have a killer sound system and would like to hear the dialogue.

I wish I can just return my Matrix II and III DVDs.

The "explosions are kewl" mindset is the same as the "max loud" on a CD mindset. No thanks to both.
posted by skallas at 7:22 PM on July 21, 2004

if I'm listening to a radio station and they throw on some song from the 70's or 80's, I never say to myself "Man is this quiet."
bobo - i do believe that radio stations compress their audio signal at some point before it gets to your receiver...
posted by bluno at 7:31 PM on July 21, 2004


Um, no, skallas, actually it's kind of the opposite. You're bitching about too much dynamic range, while the FPP is about not enough.
posted by keswick at 7:44 PM on July 21, 2004

mischief didn't go far enough with his "educated ear" comment. The industry long figured out that you have to sift sound quality through *several* standard deviation curves.
The first is objective fidelity. That is, how many people will listen to music with good equipment, in a quiet environment, on one end of the scale; and with tinny, decayed speakers on an AM radio in their car in a traffic jam in a big city, on the other. Say 50/50.
The second is the music itself. If it is a violin etude, you would probably want better sound quality than something being performed by Brithney Shpears. But how does high quality music *sell* compared to crapola? Say 2% to 98% of sales?
Third are the music listeners. Again with the SD Curve, they assume that 50% of music listeners have "below average" hearing. Of those, a good percentage don't really hear much of the music at all, just the thump thump of the percussion. Many more have just a limited range of middle range hearing--they lose most high notes.

So what do the great majority of listeners want? Starting from the bottom, they want to be able to "name that tune" (how about that for low standards?); second, they want "a beat", a thump-thump-thump to dance or keep rhythm to.
Third, they want volume enough to avoid "fade out" wherever they are--which often means loud; fourth, they want mid-range music so they can hear more notes.
Fifth (getting more elitist here), they want better fidelity, to catch complex melodies and harmonies, along with other musical qualities, such as dynamics; and sixth, they want high fidelity, to catch the finesses of a particular artist, or even to catch particular performance qualities.

The bottom line is that the music industry counts on white noise and volume to sell most of its stuff, then catchy tunes with hook lyrics to round out its sales. The rest is extra.
posted by kablam at 8:10 PM on July 21, 2004

I was thinking more of a pyramid, kablam, but yeah, your explanation works.
posted by mischief at 8:21 PM on July 21, 2004

>You're bitching about too much dynamic range

Yeah, I am. When it comes to the home market it should be compressed a lot more. As far as the CD argument goes, well if thats how the artists want their CDs to sound, thats fine. But I doubt most directors want their movies to sound like ass in the home market.
posted by skallas at 8:40 PM on July 21, 2004

"Oh, there's your problem... you're listening to Rush."

- Easyjoke McChanic
posted by kevspace at 9:17 PM on July 21, 2004

Radio compression annoys me no end. Over the last few years, I've found myself switching to more and more obscure community / university radiostations as the big-boys crank the compression.

I remember the first time I heard Pearl Jam's "Better Man" - on a CD. When the loud chorus kicked in, it really kicked in (as much as it's possible for a Pearl Jam song to kick in).

Then I heard it on the radio. When the chorus came, it almost seemed quieter. The compression made the guitars the same volume as in the verse, instantly reducing the volume of the drums and vocals. Actually, not quite instantly - their compressor must have had a quite long attack time - you could actually hear the life being sucked out of the music over the space of about half a second. And they think this helps sell records? Smart move.
posted by Jimbob at 9:31 PM on July 21, 2004

I knew there was a reason why I've fallen in love with these guys.
posted by rory at 1:50 AM on July 22, 2004

I welcome suggestions on better (hopefully free) dynamic range expansion plugins that'll work with winamp.

Izotope kicks a fair bit of bum, but it's not free.

I still use an ancient copy of wowthing for winamp (but it doesn't work as well with Winamp 5.x, sadly), which was discontinued when Microsoft bought the company and integrated the tech into WiMP.
posted by stavrosthewonderchicken at 2:59 AM on July 22, 2004

Sorry, here's the plugin.
posted by stavrosthewonderchicken at 3:01 AM on July 22, 2004

I have a solution. Buy vinyl and CDs from independant artists; fuck the large record labels. You could start with Bob Log III.
posted by password at 4:43 AM on July 22, 2004

What a nutjob! The guy who wrote that main article clearly doesn't know his music, given the examples he used.

'Hello' by Oasis is MEANT to be a stomping heavy track, whereas 'Country House' is not. What's more, he uses these two songs to show the difference between the early and late 90's.. but both tracks came out in 1995!!
posted by wackybrit at 6:40 AM on July 22, 2004

Can anyone recommend a fairly inexpensive DVD player with musicality? My CD player was kept by my Ex-, and I'm thinking of getting a DVD player (and television!).
posted by ParisParamus at 6:56 AM on July 22, 2004

I've been noticing more and more compression "artifacts" on the radio these days, and also noticing the amazing clarity one seventies station around here has. There was something with a simple guitar and it sounded amazing. It was some horrible prog-rock opus but I was riveted just for the good sound quality on my cheap Mitsubishi factory stereo.
posted by codger at 7:47 AM on July 22, 2004

PP: Check out the discussion at the digital asylum. They are crazy for the sound of the Toshiba 3950 and 3960, with the 3960 being slightly preferred unmodified. I have the 3950 and it sounded pretty good. Following the advice of John Swenson on the asylum I modified it to sound even better. It still can not compete with high end gear, but it is cheap and it is very musical, even unmodified.
posted by caddis at 8:25 AM on July 22, 2004

Wired has a nice article that explains this all:


It seems the overcompression trend has come along nicely with the general drop in the quality of popular music.

Nirvana, Pearl Jam, Soundgarden, Faith No More--those were pretty good bands.

Nickelback, Creed, and their clones are pretty bad.

I shudder to think what will be next...

We've got a music fest coming up here that reads like a list of garbage:

Flaw, Skillet, Earshot, Drowning Pool, DamagePlan.

Sadly, I'm not willing to get lots of tattoos, a billy goat, learn my power chords and front a band like "Broken" or "Cracked" or "Smashed", or whatever negative two syllable word the label chooses for us.

Listening to the classic rock station, even though they never play anything new, is still preferrable to today's overcompressed sludge.
posted by 4midori at 9:55 AM on July 22, 2004

One reason why especially small commercial radio stations like to compress their signal is because they can reach more audience with a compressed/ultra-maximized signal. - Their programming is "audible" to longer distances.

Our national broadcasting corporations "pop"-channel is notably less compressed than most commercial hit-stations. And our national (and non-commercial) classical/jazz-station is nearly compression free. The difference to a commercial classical station is huge.

General drop in the quality of popular music? Nah, you're just getting old, that's all.
posted by hoskala at 3:35 PM on July 22, 2004

Can anyone recommend a fairly inexpensive DVD player with musicality?

Under digital connections and with night-mode off, it shouldn't matter. The dvd deck is just going to send the red-book, dolby digital, or DTS bitstream to your receiver, and the receiver will not care in the slightest what kind of player is sending 1001010110 into it. Bits is bits.

The point being that's money better spent on a receiver, or speakers, or dealing with room acoustics.

Get a dvd deck that pumps out a good picture and has the features you want. You want a dvd deck and tv that will talk to each other through component inputs. Or, if you're blowing the big bucks for a big-screen, through a DVI cable.
posted by ROU_Xenophobe at 11:49 PM on July 22, 2004

The thing is that compression is NOT really the issue that is causing these problems. It is the use of the limiter, which is different. Overuse of compression sounds bad in other ways, but the compressor is generally your friend. Joe Meek invented it to make vocals and bass sound good and compression is used to wonderful effect on every track of every song that you hear, with very few exceptions.

So to say that you are down on compression as a thing would be a misnomer. The over-use of limiting in the mastering stage is the culprit here.

Oh, and BTW, when audio is prepared to be cut in vinyl, it is compressed MORE than for CD or Tape because of the laws of physics that must be obeyed to recreate sound from a groove. Many people who like the sounds of wax more than CD actually like the tighter compression that the recording has gone through in the vinyl mastering process.
posted by n9 at 10:20 AM on July 23, 2004

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