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What 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
only 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 bad.
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
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 Me."
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. The Finalizers
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
more. EQ Magazine January, 2002, issue.
The Myth Of Radio-Ready CDs. (mastering loud for radio)
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 see: What 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!
If You're 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 record button.
Is it better to produce music that listeners will want to turn up, or produce music that listeners will want to turn down?
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. "BRING BACK DYNAMIC RANGE!"
|Additional Resources Regarding CDs, Music, & Dynamic Range
In 2001, 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 Range?
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