BUT as a mastering engineer I spend a lot of my time lifting the level of people's music so that it can compete with the high levels of other CDs out there. And, as I've said in a previous post, I feel that this is actually a positive step for most albums.
How do I reconcile these two apparently contradicting views ? The answer is something I've also said several times before here:
Louder is Better, but Too Loud is Worse
By which I mean - every track (and group of tracks) has a "sweet spot", where it's loudness (and by implication compression, level, EQ etc) is just right. It sounds the best it can be. If it's not compressed enough, then quiet passages won't have enough presence, the mix may not "gel" or have enough impact, detail may be lost, and loud passages will make you wince. Whereas if it's too loud and compressed it can sound squashed and dull (meaning bland and lifeless, not lacking treble) and ultimately fatiguing.
I wish I had examples here to play for you. If I knew we were going to talk about this I’d go through the library and find examples. Ultimately, if you listen on a car sound system or in the mainstream place where most people listen to music—cars, boomboxes sound systems you get at (chain stores), and if you “A/B” the less compressed version to the more compressed version, you pick the compressed version.
And he's right ! He also says, in response to a question about things sounding better on the radio:
Sometimes actually, if it’s too loud, it sounds worse on the radio.
Something is Too Loud when it starts to sound worse
-8.6 (-6.2) Oasis - "Some Might Say": Severe clipping distortion
-8.9 (-4.9) Metallica - "TDTNC" (CD): Massive distortion & clipping
-10.4 (-7.7) Feeder - "Pushing The Senses": Heavy clipping distortion
-12.7 (-7.7) Metallica - "BB&S" (Mystery Mix): Slight source clipping
-14.0 (-10) Katatonia - "Consternation": Awesome (clean) sound, massive choruses
-15.3 (-13.1) Sugar - "Fortune Teller": From 1993
-21.8 (-16.9) Metallica - "TDTNC" (GH3) Needs to be louder !
It's also interesting to think about what these numbers mean. The Katatonia track is only 2dB (RMS) quieter than the "Mystery Mix" of Broken, Beat & Scarred", but still has more punch, weight and impact, to my ears. This difference is vastly more apparent comparing to the Metallica CD, and looking at the numbers we can see why. Katatonia has maximum RMS of -8 dB, in the track, compared to an average of -14, giving it a "loudness range" of 6dB.