DIY Mastering Part 1: Loudness Wars - Mastering Media Blog

Thursday, 28 February 2008

DIY Mastering Part 1: Loudness Wars

Probably the hottest topic in mastering in recent years is loudness, and certainly one of the most important jobs for a mastering engineer is to achieve a satisfying, consistent level between all the tracks on an album. However the arrival of digital signal processors during the 90s, coupled with the perception that "louder is better" has led to the infamous "loudness wars" - a gradual increase in the loudness of albums over the years, to the point where some are hugely distorted and very fatiguing to listen to.

If you come to SRT wanting your CD loud, we'll be happy to oblige, but my own personal motto is "Louder is better, but Too Loud is worse" - meaning I believe there is a "sweet spot" for every recording where it's loud enough to "work" given the limitations of the original mix, but is not so loud that it suffers. Push something too far beyond this sweet spot and the effects are only negative.

Why is Too Loud bad ? Apart from problems like distortion, pumping or dynamic inversion, a great way to answer that question is to point you here:

Just check out the video for a great, simple demonstration of why louder is not necessarily better, plus a great selection of "loudness war" links at the bottom of the page.

In a later post I'll discuss how loud is "just right", and the best way to achieve it, but there's other ground to cover before then.


ledevelyn said...

I must say I disagree with the whole idea that every record should be incredibly dynamic... The whole idea of 'mastering' for commercial listening is that not everybody has studio monitors and or mid-high range hifi...

There is a great argument for plenty of dynamic range for eg classical recordings.. where the recording is meant to reflect the sound of a live performance... but take heavy metal for instance... in particular I draw your attention to Death Magnetic by Metallica... Without the slight clipping and overthetop brickwall limiting, the record loses alot of guts.. As is the case with so many new bands paying thousands for studio time only to come out with a CD that can only be described as 'safe sounding'... I'm not saying let's push the sliders into the red at the recording stage... But when it comes to mastering, that pumping compression is something alot of music needs in order to sound 'complete'... Particularly loud Metal/Rock and Dance music.

Remember HDCD? I had a Lenny Kravitz album where you would have thought they would have taken advantage of the increased headroom to make the album more dynamic... nah, they just pushed it up louder...

And 24/96 dvd-a and blu-ray? Great for movies but so much music out there is reliant on heavy compression to make it sound 'vintage'...

Again, there are good ways to push the envelope and there are bad ways... but when you have to cater for everything from an ipod travel speaker to a Mark Levinson hi-fi... your hands are pretty much tied.

:) that's my 2 bits... but feel free to argue.

ianshepherd said...

It may surprise you to hear that I agree with you. This pre-empts a post I've been wanting to write for a while now, and will probably be the next one, all about loudness.

Mastering engineers spend a lot of time managing the dynamics of recordings to give the best results - from the most basic level of setting the level of each track, right through to deciding the overall loudness for the CD and using limiting and compression to achieve it.

Personally I believe that every album has a "sweet spot" or "centre of gravity", where the dynamics work best for the material - and for rock, it's pretty loud, to be honest. Metallica's earlier albums exactly match my opinion about where that sweet spot is. The problem is that once you start to push past that "optimal loudness" point, everything starts to go downhill. The trend at the moment is to push everything so far beyond the sweet spot that it all falls apart and the music just sounds horrible.

I'll post on this in detail in future, but for the time being check out my post comparing "Death Magnetic" with other Metallica albums, and why I think it's just much too loud:


mqbitsko said...

This may be a dumb question, but since it would be technically easy to 'watermark' a track with a "play this track at volume NN%", why hasn't that happened yet?