Dynamic Range Day

Today is Dynamic Range Day. What is that you ask? Dynamic range, in this context, refers to the sonic quality of music and has become a prime casualty in the “loudness war.” What is the loudness war you ask? Since the 1980s record labels and some music producers/engineers have continuously increased the loudness of the music that is released to the public. So, what’s wrong with that? Well, as loudness of a recording increases, its dynamic range decreases. The highest highs and lowest lowers will begin to be clipped and distorted, giving the music a “compressed” sound. The music is often quickly fatiguing and can make it difficult to hear the subtle qualities of the instruments or make it difficult to hear the lyrics.

Here is a visual example:

Dead Can Dance is an excellent band that has produced some amazing music over the years. Here is the waveform for their song The Host of Seraphim, which was released in 1988:

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In this example, you can see the entire dynamic range; the highest highs and lowest lowers are all included in the audio tracks. At the same time, the loudness is high enough to have high perceived clarity and punch.

In contrast, here is the waveform for Dead Can Dance’s song Opium from their latest album released in 2012:

ImageThis is an example of a “brick-walled” waveform. It’s easy to see why this type of wave-form acquired this nickname. What has happened here is that the loudness has been increased to the point that the dynamic range has been severely compromised. While the song appears to have high highs and low lows, the music has taken on a tinny, compressed sound that feels unnatural. This is a very sad treatment to some spectacularly written and performed music. I can certainly understand increasing loudness for dramatic effect within in a song, but this is not the case here. This is nothing more than bad decisions by the record label, producer, engineer, and the artist to release music that (looks and) sounds like this.

Using the TT Dynamic Range Meter, we can further illustrate the relationship between loudness and dynamic range. On the left below is Opium, and on the right is Wouldn’t It Be Nice, by The Beach Boys. Notice the dynamic range number (DR) for Opium is less than 5 (the ideal DR number is 14), and the DR number for Wouldn’t It Be Nice is about 13. You can also see that the loudness between the two songs is very different; Opium has been mastered at a much higher level than Wouldn’t It Be Nice.

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To bring the example full circle, below is the waveform for Wouldn’t It Be Nice. You can see that the full range of audio is visible, that no sound has been clipped. Also, note that the loudness is less then the first song mentioned above, The Host of Seraphim.

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You would think that, with all of our modern technology and the ability to manipulate audio files much more easily than could be done 50 years ago, quality would have improved over the years. Sadly, this has not been the case. Over the past 30 years, the loudness of popular recordings has increased to the detriment of sound quality. Of course, many people are unaware of what they’re missing because they have perhaps bought into brand hype of poor quality audio equipment (such as Beats by Dre), or maybe people simply lack the appreciation for the refined sound of a well mastered album. Considering that the “loudness war” has been raging for 30 years, I suspect that many younger people simply don’t know what they’re missing.

Now that the issue has been brought to light, what to do about it?

Here are some suggestions:

  1. Educate yourself: Take a bit of time to read about the “loudness war” and what the benefits of dynamic range are.
  2. Investigate: Take a small number of your favorite CDs, and analyze the waveform of some of the songs on each one using an app such as Audacity (free). What do they look like? Are they “brick-walled” or can you see the full range of sound?
  3. Contact the artist: If you find full-range waveforms on your favorite albums, send the artist a message thanking them for their attention to detail and respect for sound quality. If the waveform lacks dynamic range, send the artist a letter expressing your disappointment and request they correct this error in future recordings

Increasing dynamic range (by lowering loudness) will only add to the enjoyment of the music we listen to and this is something worth fighting for.

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2 comments

  1. When the average listener is subjectively asked “which mix is better?” – they will ALWAYS say that the louder mix is better when the mixes are otherwise identical. The loudness war is, in a way, a direct result this response to volume. (And changes in dynamics processing is the artillery of the loudness war.)

    I compared the dynamics of an album I did on tape with Robert Monroe in 1992 (“Going Home”) with a similar (digitally recorded and mastered) recording I did with Dr. Theresa Bullard in 2012 – exactly 20 years later! – and the average increase in loudness was 19 dB. While I was doing my best to preserve the dynamic range, I ultimately found myself cranking up a compressor here and a maximizer there to “even out the sound”. I fell into the “louder mix is better” trap.

    • andrewzander

      You’re absolutely right about the average listener preferring the louder track, all things being equal. I make no claim of being a sound engineer or audio expert; enthusiast is probably a more appropriate title. That being said, on severely brick-walled tracks (along with the one mentioned in my blog, the entire album Night Visions by Imagine Dragons sounds loud, compressed, and lacking in dynamic range) I can generally spot a song that lacks dynamic range.

      In my view, there is a balance to loudness and preserving dynamic range. The first waveform in my blog appears to capture this balance well, as does the Tom Waits album Bad as Me.

      I appreciate your comments and personal experience! Thank you!

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