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Loudness Wars: Dynamic Range Strikes Back with Campaign, Plug-in

Published: Tue March 24, 2009  News Feed

Are you sick of the death of dynamic range? Are you mad as hell at squashed audio that means to be “loud” and only wind up with the actual sounds smooshed out? Alternatively, are you guilty of some detail-squishing dynamic abuse yourself?

A campaign is on to get the dynamic war out of comment threads and forums and onto the streets. Taking a positive tack, the Pleasurize Music Foundation isn’t simply attacking overcompression and dynamic distortion: they’re suggesting an alternative path, in which restored dynamic ranges bring back joy to your life. There are opportunities to sign up as listeners, labels, producers, mixing and mastering engineers, even the consumer electronics and music tech industries.

There’s also a free (Windows-only) plug-in for checking the dynamic range of your mix. There are plenty of other tools that do the same thing, but the idea is nice.


Now, the idea of crushed dynamic range is nothing new. But via comments, mastering engineer Tobias Anderson points out that it’s not always the mastering that’s to blame — some people are actually distorting at the digital conversion stage. (That’s, incidentally, not the fault of digital recording, either - to screw that up, you have to be really careless, which evidently people are.)

Tobias’ comments below. Now, obviously, this is an issue that can generate some controversy. But start talking about simply preserving dynamic range? I think just about everyone can get behind that. The idea of “quality” can often be loaded, but talking about dynamics as pleasure is as universal as hearing.

As a mastering engineer, it has become increasingly disconcerting to both work on and listen back to much of todays’ music. Distorted, compressed & messy sounding to say the least! However, 2 points I must make:

Firstly, compression and brick-wall limiting are NOT the only factors involved in making a record loud and / or distorted. The clipping of the ME’s ADC (analogue-to-digital-converter) is the most aggressive form of distortion you will hear on todays’ loud records. Digital limiters are generally (hopefully) not cranked too much (between 1-3db), but rather the load should be spread across more than 1 unit, making the effect less obvious than if the same amount of gain reduction had been employed with a single unit. The signal is then fed back to the ADC, and ‘clipped’ to achieve the final loudness increase. The maximum peak level of digital audio is 0dbfs, however when clipped, the incoming audio exceeds this value (up to 6db, maybe more in ridiculous cases!) and the loudest peaks of the music are literally shaved, or ’squared’ off. With the upper end ADC’s, this process can be fairly transparent, if used ’sensibly’ (if that is possible..) however when abused, it sounds truly awful as you all can hear. One example (many are available) that springs to mind is the Foo Fighters’ Nothing Left To Lose album. Every time the snare is hit, the digital distortion is unbearable, the high frequencies sound grainy and harsh ect ect. However, audibly, the effect of clipping differs greatly from the effect of brick wall limiting, which can, as previously mentioned, and subjectively speaking, benefit or compliment a particular style or genre of music. Dance, hip-hop & drum n bass coming to mind especially. This processing DOES impart a certain sense of power to the sound which is very different than simply using compression alone on the mix buss or on the individual elements in the mix.

Secondly, music is never ‘cut’ or HPF’d (high-pass filtered) at 80hz. 40-45hz maybe, a gradual roll-off from 80hz-20-30hz probable, but there is still a lot of important musical information below 80hz that is needed in modern music, even if it can’t be reproduced by poor consumer listening equipment. The 60hz(ish) peak in a hip-hop kick for example, would sound completely wrong and hollow if the fundamental frequency lived in the 100hz range for example. I can’t think of a commercially released modern record that has been released with very little or no musical information below 80hz, not impossible, but certainly not the norm by any stretch. Lastly, having a ‘pre -mastering’ chain is really not a good idea, and will probably do more harm than good in most situations, unless: the listening environment is very good and the engineer is very skilled. Using a particular compressor for a desired character on the mix buss prior to mastering, is a very valid ‘mix’ technique, but again the engineer must be very competent for this to be worthwhile.

I hope this has shed some additional light on the loudness war for you all.

If you would like to express your dislike for the practice, in hope of eventually stopping it, please visit and register for free at

 
 
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