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The Loudness Wars

Thursday, January 10, 2008

If you think albums today sound louder than those recorded a decade ago you’re just not imagining things. Recording technology can now make even the softest parts of a song sound big and boomy. We ask Rolling Stone contributor Robert Levine and producer David Bendeth about "the loudness wars," the fight to grab the attention of listeners.

Guests:

David Bendeth and Robert Levine

Comments [24]

Joe Frank from Basye

There was a lot of misinformation on your show "Loudness Wars".

The engineer said compression wars started with the advent of mp3 files.

The mp3 format uses data compression not audio compression. Those two things are *not* at all related. An engineer should know better than that. I listen to classical music ripped to mp3 files all the time and I can tell you there is plenty of dynamic range.

Maybe you guys need a fact checker or something.

Feb. 14 2008 10:37 AM
Jason Ward from Chicago, IL

Oops, "are completely untrue." (Hit enter too fast!)

Jan. 12 2008 11:25 PM
Jason Ward from Chicago, IL

The comments by David Bendeth on compressing your music so the radio station's compressor "can't touch it" is completely untrue. Nothing you can do to your mix will keep a radio station's limiter from "touching it." In fact, highly compressed music with clipped waveforms actually fares MUCH, MUCH poorer than music with large amounts of dynamic range. Why does Led Zeppelin (at least pre-the latest remasters) ALWAYS sound better than (insert new artist "X" here)? For more on this, please follow this link:

http://www.omniaaudio.com/tech/mastering.htm

Jan. 12 2008 11:24 PM
Dave Bunting from Brooklyn, NY

I know I'm totally blabbing on the subject, and there are probably 3 people who are even going to read this, but I also found it interesting that there was no mention in the piece about "exciting" audio signals by using gear like the Aphex Aural Exciter, which adds odd harmonics to an audio signal to increase the perceived loudness, but not the actual loudness. This another part of the mastering process that has a tremendous effect on the perceived volume of the program.

Jan. 11 2008 04:29 PM
Dave Bunting from Brooklyn, NY

Captain Radio, I will definitely check those out. I'm still fairly certain that you're referring to analog distortion, and not digital clipping. In any program that lets you view waveforms graphically, square waves are not necessarily caused by distortion or clipping at all. In fact, that is a perfect visual representation of what compression does: it compresses the dynamic range of the mix. Technically, it's actually called "limiting," which prevents the program from going beyond the voltage rails, at which point it most certainly will distort, and nastily! Anyway, I don't know of an example of digital clipping that I can link to from here, but believe me, it's FAR more offensive than analog distortion, and you definitely know it when you hear it. The first time I ever experienced it was when I was mixing the first song I ever recorded (I was 15, and didn't own a compressor yet, to my dismay) down to a portable DAT machine (remember those?). I mixed it far too loud, and had the input gain on the DAT totally cranked, and the result was horrific. There are a lot of groups out there that actually use clipping as an effect or sample. Check out Autechre for an example.

Jan. 11 2008 04:25 PM
Brian sheppard from New York

I have to say every record that was played on this show sounded like garbage to me. As much as I wanted to believe the guests and their opinions the station itself is one of the worst out there sonically. Unless of course you go under a bridge, then there is nothing to listen to. This was a really bad way of explaining the sound wars with a max compressor across the audio supplied by the station. Bad idea.

Jan. 10 2008 09:45 PM
Captain Radio from NY

Oh, forgot to mention that I can see the square waves using Sound Forge 6E, and they are truly there.

Jan. 10 2008 05:21 PM
Captain Radio from NY

Check the Supremes boxed set released a few years ago. The stereo copy of I'm Living In Shame has a bad bit of distortion at 1:59. You can't really hear it over speakers but through headphones it's awful. One of the MCA engineers involved with the production of this set was kind enough to contact me as a follow up to an e-mail I sent. The problem with the Supremes cut isn't evident on the mono mix of the song. Another MCA comment. For years their 45 vinyl biscuits were very noisy som much so that a mint single would be filled with pops and clicks. That's what comes when you don't press on virgin vinyl. By the way, my playback system consists of a Rotel CD player, A Macintosh MA-6100 amp and Infinity reference standard 2 speakers. I stand by my comment, the MCA release of Who's next deluxe edition is distorted.

Jan. 10 2008 05:18 PM
Captain Radio from NY

I highly doubt that any mastering house (especially one rereleasing a Who album) would let a glass master with digital clipping out of their hands. Perhaps what you're referring to is analog distortion, which, while not necessarily sounding good, sounds worlds better than a digital clip. Granted, most studios have their tracks pegged ("brickwalled" or "slammed") to compete on the radio and ...

OK Dave I'll provide the catalog number of the Who album., (MCA 113 0562) The clipping is a terrible problem. I have the original CD release and while it isn't a sonic glory, it is much better than the remix. MCA has a tendency to release material which is less than great sonically.

Jan. 10 2008 05:18 PM
Lounge Lizard from Yonkers

why does Soundcheck always write back here? How weird is that?

SOUNDCHECK SAYS: Is it so weird? Really? :)

Jan. 10 2008 04:20 PM
Dave Bunting from Brooklyn, NY

PS - I also found it kind of funny that since the piece aired on NPR (which, being a radio station, is compressed), most of the comparisons were lost since the whole thing was pegged anyway. Heh.

SOUNDCHECK SAYS: Hey Dave! Thanks for your thoughts! We deliberately avoided side-by-side comparisons since they'd be "lost in translation."

Jan. 10 2008 03:41 PM
Dave Bunting from Brooklyn, NY

Look, compression needs to be applied in the mastering process. It's a fact of life, especially when you're talking about reproducing CDs of the music. I'm going to address Captain Radio for a second: I highly doubt that any mastering house (especially one rereleasing a Who album) would let a glass master with digital clipping out of their hands. Perhaps what you're referring to is analog distortion, which, while not necessarily sounding good, sounds worlds better than a digital clip. Granted, most studios have their tracks pegged ("brickwalled" or "slammed") to compete on the radio and television, and it always has the effect of drowning out some of the more subtle elements of a song. However, with certain types of music, like hard rock or house, the "wall of sound" is the desired effect, so why fault it? With classical, jazz, or any other kind of music that is more dynamic by nature, it certainly becomes a problem. Now, to respond to Eligit, I actually think the Waves L2 is one of the most effective and transparent digital limiters around. It's easy to overdo it, however, because it works differently than most compressors. In my opinion, it makes the Waves Bundles of plug-ins worth it. Also, thank you for pointing out the difference between mp3 compression and mastering compression: I had a feeling those signals were getting crossed in the piece today, and I was getting frustrated that nobody pointed that out!

Jan. 10 2008 03:37 PM
Captain Radio from NY

Coding methods have improved greatly in the past 15 years or so. Actually I-Pods don't default to MP3 coding; they use a variation on the new AAC codec. Try comparing a 128 Kbps MP3 with a 128 Kbps AAC file and the difference is startling. Going back to the subject of limiting the dynamic range in an audio recording, it can serve multiple purposes. In the days of analog tape limiting the low passages would lessen the amount of hiss audible in a recording. The same held true for pre-emphassis. Ask any record man (or woman) about the old RIAA curve. Today what has happened to recording is that rather than limit dynamic range; certain CD's have been released with clipped audio. That's distortion and has little to do with limiting dynamic range. Give a listen to the 2 CD remix of Who’s Next. The recording is terribly distorted and the wave forms when looked at in software are all flat topped. Heaven by Sammy is another example of a distorted recording. There is some dynamic range in these releases but it’s the distortion which makes the record almost unlistenable.

Jan. 10 2008 03:03 PM
Captain Radio from NY

I couldn't believe much of what I was hearing on this program. Loudness started a decade ago? How about the Raspberries? We can go back to the 1960's for the Girl Friends, My One & Only Jimmy Boy and just about every record on the Motown label. These records were produced for top 40 AM radio, which was already loud and heavily compressed and the sound was exciting. The loudness sucked the listener into the music Compression as it relates to dynamic range and how it is defined when it refers to MP3's, AAC and other coding schemes are totally different things. The issue with applying compression or dynamic limiting to MP3's and such is that you end up making every element of the song equal in level and so that which was removed becomes more noticeable. The key to digital compression is to rid the audio file of those sounds which are buried in a mix. Most of the public can not notice the introduction of digital compression. It’s used to a great extent in broadcasting. Any radio station using an ISDN feed for air is using a compressed digital data feed and unless a station is using only linear T's, compression is being introduced.

Jan. 10 2008 03:03 PM
eligit from astoria

@drew

the Mp3 compression of the internet release of "in rainbows" should not be confused with the mastering "loudness dynamic compression" of the mastering.

both are destructive to great sound...but not in the same way.

i have the mp3s and the CD versions of in rainbows...the CD sounds better....but the dynamic range is comparably squashed.

Jan. 10 2008 02:31 PM
jill from summit, nj

Rather than analog signal, I meant analog radio.

Jan. 10 2008 02:29 PM
Lewis Weisblum from USA

Killling the Dynamic Range in the recording is a shameful change of the artists original intention. If the music is meant to be heard unifomly loud then so be it, but to arbitrarily change their vision is indefensible. Automatic gain control has been part of consumer audio products since the 1950's and it can be used or defeated by the listeners according to the environmental needs or the listeners taste. This is likely pouring a ton of salt into ALL the food you cook without giving the person eating a chance to adjust it to their own taste.

Jan. 10 2008 02:29 PM
drew

What you're talking about right now with hearing the subtle background noises is something I was thinking when I downloaded Radiohead's In Rainbows...Was I missing anything?.. because I had a feeling I was.
And wondered if the CD version, now released is significantly, or at all different?

Jan. 10 2008 02:27 PM
Andrea from NYC

The clip of Elvis sounded like the poor man was singing thru water! It seemed to waver around and was actually quieter than the real one.I recently listened to the original and it is so much better and certainly is not dated.

Jan. 10 2008 02:25 PM
jill from summit, nj

The WNWYC signal here is getting drowned out by the super power of the "family Christian radio" station. It is so LOOUDDDDDD on my analog station that I can't tolerate the cross signal that exists on NYC anymore, and sometimes turn off my digital radios in other rooms too where it causes more or less static.

What can I do?

Jan. 10 2008 02:24 PM
Scott Alexander from Brooklyn

perform indie folk rock in Manhattan but I have a background as a classical bassoonist.

For hundereds of years DYNAMICS were an essential element of music. I try to keep dymanics in my music but I can rarely convince live sound engineers to actually let the soft music be soft and the loud music loud.

I'd also like to suggest that since LIVE shows have become increasingly loud, that it contidbutes to an exclusivity at many venues. A lot of worthy listeners simply avoid going to live shows that literally hurt and damage their hearing.

Thanks so much for bringing light to the conflict and revolution!

Scott Alexander
www.scottalexandermusic.com
myspace.com/scottalexander

p.s.Dr Mark Katz at the Peabody Conservatory wrote an excellent book on the effect of recording on live performances. Capturing Sound

Jan. 10 2008 02:24 PM
Randy from San Francisco

If I burn a mixed CD...my new (loud!) CDs blow my old (Soft!) CD's out of the water...and I constantly have to adjust the volume. THAT'S clearly a drag. My burn program is supposed to compensate for volume....but not very well....Hmmmm.

Jan. 10 2008 02:22 PM
eligit from astoria

not to be annoying but that last radiohead album IS too compressed. luckily the engineering is so nice that it is still listenable...but really if you import the wave forms into an audio editor....it is practically a solid band of color...loudenized to the point of monotony.

Jan. 10 2008 02:20 PM
eligit from astoria

Granted this story in rolling stone is about 5-10 years late....but better late than never.

I give lots of thanks to the writer for writing this article and the editors for bringing this issue into the mainstream.

Just to be specific one of the single MOST destructive audio tools in this war is the DIGITAL LIMITER. The "waves L2" and other comparable devices have destroyed more mixes than i can count.

Jan. 10 2008 02:16 PM

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