mastering engineer, Bob Speer, wrote the following article
about the abuses of compression in modern recordings.
The article (with several updates) is as relevant today as
it was then.
|What Happened To Dynamic
happened to dynamic range is a question that
should be asked of record labels, producers, artists, and
last but not least, recording and mastering engineers.
The question needs to be asked because we're the ones
responsible for what's happened to our music. Much
of the music we listen to today is nothing more than
distortion with a beat. Great music is suffering
because it lacks dynamic range. When music lacks
dynamic range, it lacks punch, emotion, and clarity.
The record labels blame digital downloads, MP3s, CD
burners, and others for the lack of CD sales. While
there is some truth to their constant whining, they
have themselves to blame for the steady decline in CD
sales. The record labels need to reevaluate what
they consider to be good music.
Much of the music being produced today isn't music at all.
It's best described as anti-music. It's anti-music
because the life is being squashed out of it through over
compression during the tracking, mixing, and mastering
stages. It's simply, non musical. It's no wonder
that consumers don't want to pay for the CDs being
produced today. They're over priced and they sound
In 2005, CD music sales in the U.S. slid to their lowest
level since 1996, ending all hopes that the music
industry's downward sales trend may have bottomed out.
This is according to sales data released by Nielsen
SoundScan a tracking
firm that measures point of sale purchases across the U.S.
Although there was a slight upturn in sales in 2004, total
CD sales fell 7.2 percent from 2004 to 618.9 million units
in 2005, the lowest since 1996, when they were 616.6
million. It's time for all of us in the music
industry to wake up! Our musical heritage is being
threatened by this wave of anti-music.
What is dynamic range? Dynamic range is the
difference between the softest and loudest sounds we can
hear. Or, to put it another way, the difference
between the softest and loudest sounds in a recording.
Dynamic range is measured in decibels (dB). For
comparison, the typical dynamic range for a cassette
recording is around 60 dB, while CDs can reach a dynamic
range of 96dB.
For years we've tried to recreate the excitement of a live
performance by trying to maintain as wide a dynamic range
as possible. This has always been difficult with
analog recording. We had to keep the softest signals
above the noise floor while keeping the loudest signals
below the level of distortion. To keep the soft
signals from being buried in tape hiss, we had to record
with as high a level as possible. To keep our loud
signals from distorting, we had to compress the signal
which resulted in a restricted dynamic range. As the
years went by, many improvements were made in recorder and
tape technology. This, along with various types of
tape noise reduction systems, helped to improve the
dynamic range of our recordings, but it was still
Then one day we awoke to a new technology, "digital
recording." Wow, now with a dynamic range of
over 90 dB, our recordings could almost rival a live
performance. Well, in theory, yes. However,
the music industry had other ideas.
Rather than use this new technology to take advantage of
it's wide dynamic range, the music industry went in the
opposite direction. They decided that louder is
better. Suddenly, we found ourselves in a race to
see whose CD was the loudest. The only way to make
CDs louder was to keep compressing the signal more and
more. That's where we are today. Everyone's
trying to make their CD sound louder than everyone else's.
The term that is used for this process is called, hot.
Yes, most of today's music is recorded hot. The net
result, distortion with a beat.
In December, 2001, several prominent individuals in the
recording industry served on a panel to judge the best
engineered CD for the Grammy's. After listening to
over 200 CDs, they couldn't find a single CD worthy of a
Grammy based on the criteria they were given.
Everything they listened to was squashed to death with
heavy amounts compression. What they wound up doing
was selecting the CD that had the least amount of
engineering. In reality, the winner didn't win
because of great engineering, he won simply because he had
messed with the signal the least. On second thought,
that was great engineering. For the record, the
winner that year was Norah Jones' CD, "Come Away With
Here's a quote from the late Roger
Nichols one of the
participants on that panel. "Last month, I
listened to all the CDs
submitted to NARAS for consideration in the 'Best Engineered
Non-Classical' Grammy category. We listened to about
3 to 4
cuts from the 267 albums that were submitted. Every
single CD was squashed to death with no dynamic range.
and plug-ins were cranked to 'eleven' so that their CD
would be the loudest. Not one attempted to take
advantage of the
dynamic range or cleanliness of digital recording."
- Roger Nichols Grammy winning engineer for Steely
Dan, Beach Boys and
The Myth Of
Radio-Ready CDs. (mastering loud for
Radio ready is an ambiguous term created by marketing
professionals whose goal is to sell a product or service.
It's in your best interest to be an informed artist or
producer. Radio is the great leveler. It takes
songs that are soft and dynamic, and brings them up in
level to compete with the so called loud songs. In
doing so, the dynamics of these songs are greatly reduced.
But that's not all. Radio compressors are designed
to drive peaks down. They will view a loud song as
one huge peak and will
reduce it's overall level. This can make a loud song
lower in level than a properly mastered recording.
Loud songs don't sound louder on the radio. They
sound softer and distorted. The exact opposite of
what was intended. So, why do many believe their CD
needs to be mastered loud to sound good on the radio?
One reason is artistic insecurity. Combine that with
misinformation and the enthusiasm of ignorance, and you'll
have the recipe for disaster that has plagued the music
industry. The truth is, recordings need no special
processing to sound good on the radio. Mastering
music specifically for radio (making it loud) only serves
to make it sound worse. For a further explanation
Happens When My Song Is Played On The Radio?
There's no excitement in today's music. There's no
texture, and certainly no reason to buy it. Many
people today accept this hot sound because that's all they
know. They weren't brought up on music that sounds
"musical." I can't believe what we've done
to our music. We've somehow allowed radio, with it's
limited dynamic range and frequency response, to become
the standard for what sounds good. We want the CDs
we buy to sound like they do on the radio. What
happened to recreating the excitement of a live
performance? Does any of this make sense? Is
it possible that we've moved forward with our technology,
but backward in our thinking? The loudness wars have
been with us for a long time. With analog, there was
a loudness limit. Digital technology, however, has given
the music industry the tools to destroy it's own product.
And it's doing a good job!
Producing Music, Don't Fall For The Loud CD Trap.
Below is an animation showing how the level of CDs has
increased over the years due to the loudness wars.
We have gone from the dynamic CDs of 1985, to the
distorted, solid block (wall of sound) CDs of 2007.
In the animation, the average level
of 1985 has become the peak level of 2007. Study the
animation and think about it for a minute. What do
you think happens
to the original peaks when the average level is raised
until it becomes the peak level? Do you realize
what's happening here?
We need to reconsider what the
average level of CDs should be. I believe we should
go back to the level of 1990. This would give us a
healthy level as well as enough headroom to generate the
musical peaks that would reestablish what's missing in
today's music (punch, emotion, and clarity).
There's one question that artists, producers, and record
labels should ask themselves before they even hit the
Is it better to produce music that listeners will want to
turn up, or produce music that listeners will want to turn
Hopefully, one day we'll wake up from this nightmare.
Then we can record, mix, and master music the way it was
meant to be.
It's high time we took advantage of what digital
technology has given us. The ability to make
recordings without noise or distortion, while at the same
time preserving the natural dynamics of our music!
Say it with me, very loud.
BACK DYNAMIC RANGE!"
Resources Regarding CDs, Music, & Dynamic Range