Maybe I’m just excessively geeky, but I found this fascinating. Someone measured the dynamcic range (difference between the loudest and quietest notes) on one band’s entire recorded catalogue, and asked "why are your newer albums so much louder:
(Would have been clearer if they had sorted by release year, but you can still see the trend.)
Without knowing the technicalities, I’ve always thought modern rock music is “louder” than it used to be. Or, as I put it in my musical ignorance, “more dense”, i.e. with less quiet bits to give you a breather. And I don’t think it’s such a good thing.
Anyway, through the miracle of the Internet, the band’s bass player, Al Barrow, gave us the answer he got from his sound engineer, and again it’s fascinating if you’re of a geeky persuasion and wonder about how these things work:
OK Here is a answer for how Magnum do it and Sheena Sear Magnums studio engineer sees it. Hope this helps.
Ok so - digital audio always has the same absolute maximum volume which is 0dB. You can’t push it louder than that. Things were a bit different back in analog days where with tape you could push it over the ‘maximum’ and it would saturate (this is where it rounds the top of the waveforms). That’s actually a kind of distortion but a sort of pleasing one. It’s the same thing with valves, but as you know if you drive them so much they add warmth and texture but if you drive them a lot what they output sounds completely different from the input was, which is obviously not desirable on a whole mix. So similarly tape saturation gets to the point where it no longer sounds pleasing, but everyone had a different opinion on how much did sound good. And with vinyl there was a physical limit to how deep you could cut the groove, and as I understand it if you made the master too loud the needle would physically jump out of the groove.
When we create a raw mix as it comes out of the control room it’s got a really high dynamic range, that is the difference between the loudest and quietest sounds is very large which would result in a very big number in that table. But because in the digital world the peak can only be 0 to the end user this basically means the mix would sound quiet. Ok so they can turn it up, but imagine if you’re listening to the radio or your iTunes and one rock track finishes and another one starts and it’s noticeably louder. Those who know nothing about sound and mastering might go - ‘wow I love this band they’re so heavy and LOUD’. So in order to sound louder than the next band people started to compress their mixes - making the quiet bits louder and the loud bits quieter, which is reducing the dynamic range, and making smaller numbers in that table. Because the peak is always the same the overall effect of this is that the mix as a whole sounds louder. The louder you go it becomes hard to do well as you’re constantly fighting distortion and most engineers would argue it is not a good thing as by removing the dynamic range you are losing a lot of the depth and subtlety of the music.
To give you a photography analogy it’s like producing a deliberately high contrast colour-saturated photo in order to make it stand out on a magazine page. It might draw the eye but a lot of detail will have been sacrificed.
This went on for years with people pushing their mixes louder and louder all the time. Up until around the turn of the millennium when it got so OTT that even the general public started to notice it (google RHCP Californication mastering and you’ll get the point). Since then the overall volume of masters has remained roughly the same.
I do master loud - i.e. near the top end of what has become normal. I make no apologies for it, Tony likes it and it’s kind of the case of we didn’t start the war but we can’t undo it either. If everyone in the world was producing high contrast over saturated photos would you want to be the one trying to publish natural ones which would look wishy-washy by comparison? If I was a top mastering engineer in a top studio I might be brave enough to fight the cause a bit but I’m not and at the end of the day most people still like their rock bands to sound loud. It would certainly make my life a lot easier if overnight everyone went 3dB quieter but it’s not really going to happen.
More to the point if you went to that resource and looked up any band with a back catalogue spanning 30-40 years you would almost certainly see the same thing.
So there it is. The loudness wars and mastering in a nutshell.
Hope that helps!
The loudness wars have been a thing for quite some time, and it’s even effecting remastered versions of classic albums. The top image in the Wiki page for it is quite telling, being three subsuquent releases of Black or White by Michael Jackson and how remastering is effecting the song.
I’m surprised you’ve never heard of the “Loudness war”, David. This article pushes it back to '80’s but I’ve also heard it talked about in the '70’s. Supposedly, the first pressing of Led Zeppelin II made needles jump on cheap record players because of the dynamic range. So much so that after it happened to the daughter of one of the head guys at Atlantic, he made them remix it. I still have my eye out for a pressing with the “hot mix”.
Edit: Dammit. Lorcan beat me to it.
Very cool, thanks Dave.
Well I just stole the link from the article that Lorcan and Ronnie linked to.
This is the one I’m looking for. Look in the notes section.
This is the guy from Atlantic Records. He plays a pretty big part in the film Ray!.
Give me a chance, the article is in another tab waiting for you guys to stop posting so I can read it
So you need people to stop replying to you now?
Right now, I think.
That was superb! See what happens when our brains figure out what’s going on, but we simply do not have the words in proper order to define it and then communicate it. It can be depressing. I have been reduced to calling things “thingys”.
Having crap speakers does not help!
On repeat, Rockin’1000 is very effective;
Old guy in camo playing a custom guitar.
It’s Favourite Album Friday #5 and today I have been mostly listening to Machine Head (1972) by Deep Purple.
Roger Glover (I think) said back in the day that this combined the energy of In Rock with the musicality of Fireball, and I don’t think that description can be improved on. It’s pretty much the “perfect” rock album. Smoke on the Water has become an overplayed cliche for a reason. It’s a textbook on how to construct a rock song. And it’s actually the least interesting song on the album. This is what rock bands used to sound like in the days before rock forgot how to be subtle:
Ironically, most fans will tell you that they prefer either In Rock or Fireball
I´ll bget you be humming this ALL NIGHT!