Loudness Wars


We have had some very well-informed feedback to the music that subscribers to Society of Sound music have so far enjoyed. One question that has been raised a number of times is the way in which the albums have been mastered.

The so-called Loudness Wars have been well-documented in the press – if you haven’t come across the idea have a look at this video courtesy of Charles Dye’s organization Turn Me UpWe spoke to John Dibb, our Senior Development Engineer, to get his thoughts on the issue of mastering compression.

“Acoustic compression, in short, tames the peak volume levels in a recording in order that the overall average level can be raised proportionately. Originally it was introduced in the studio in order to compensate for the limited headroom afforded by analogue tape before distortion occurs. !In the past ten years compression has increasingly been used during the final process of mastering a recording in order to achieve the maximum volume throughout, such that a track will always be audible even when played in noisy environments – in other words, it has become a weapon in the Loudness Wars.”

But as John points out, some acoustic compression is desirable on a recording in order to achieve a satisfactory level of volume during the quieter parts of a track such that they will be audible, for example, when heard on headphones whilst walking down a noisy street.

“What is more relevant is the way the public in general are listening to music – in the street, on the tube, in the car. In all these cases the background noise is so high that the quieter sounds of (acoustically) uncompressed music would be lost. The signal-to-noise on a CD is around 90dB – on vinyl 60dB at best – in a car 25 – 35dB !! So acoustic compression is essential, despite taking some of the drama out of the music. ”

This raises a crucial question for the music industry: should music be produced to sound good in all environments? Let us know your thoughts below!

8 Comments

  • MichaelCPE says:

    The music industry should look at what other industries do when one product can’t keep everyone happy – provide several products.

    A release could have a LOUD MP3, and maybe a LOUD CD as well, with the wide dynamic range being on a CD, via FLAC download, or SACD or DVD-A. There are so many ways it could be done!

    In an ideal world all music would have a very wide dynamic range and the compression would be applied in the player. Too late for this option now though.

    Music that only sounds decent as background music is no longer really music – its just aural wallpaper. I believe this is one reason that music is no longer valued as much as it once was.

    Cheers,
    Michael

  • Bill says:

    MichaelCPE,

    that is a good point about multiple products. Dynamically compressed MP3s (or even lossless files) could be sold a bit cheaper than a higher quality, uncompressed edition of the work.

    This should be easy to facilitate if the primary means of selling is through downloads. In fact, haven’t Radiohead and Nine Inch Nails both done something similar, offering free (or by donation) MP3 downloads, but offering CDs and even a deluxe LP for increasing amounts of money?

  • Benjamin Lehmann says:

    @ MichaelCPE & Bill it is an interesting idea to offer different versions of a recording for different contexts.

    The music industry already does this on a rudimentary level by offering ringtones, mp3s and cds of the same album simultaneously, although the mastering of the material may not always suit the designated context.

    So far this principle hasn’t really extended to audiophile recordings, and the idea of Music Club on some level was to begin to address this. Crucially though, we feel that decisions regarding the sound should be left to the artists, as our philosophy around speaker design has always been to represent artistic intention in sound as fully as possible.

    I’m playing devil’s advocate here, but wouldn’t specifying a certain audiophile sound for recordings to mimic eventually lead to a competition not unlike the ‘Loudness War’?

  • Bill says:

    Hello Benjamin,

    You have made some good points. I think that there are different issues. You wrote:

    **
    Crucially though, we feel that decisions regarding the sound should be left to the artists, as our philosophy around speaker design has always been to represent artistic intention in sound as fully as possible.
    **

    And this I agree fully with. Many recordings today are entirely studio based with no “live” counterpart. I can fully appreciate an artist wanting some degree of compression (or other effects) for artistic reasons. That is entirely their business. And, it was my impression that this was the case with Little Axe.

    This is of course quite different than post-production compression that is often applied as per the “Loudness Wars”

    I need to think more on your last question but I’ll take a crack at it in another message.

  • Bill says:

    Benjamin Lehmann wrote:

    “I’m playing devil’s advocate here, but wouldn’t specifying a certain audiophile sound for recordings to mimic eventually lead to a competition not unlike the ‘Loudness War’? “

    That’s entirely possible. I know that for many people, the audiophile “sound” would be a realistic re-creation of a live event. At least as realistic as possible in terms of dynamic range, frequency response, capturing hall ambiance and so on. And I can buy that.

    I could be wrong, but it seems to me that different music can have intrinsically different levels of dynamic range. Many classical works have enormous dynamic range which should be preserved, even though the quiet parts will be very quiet and loud passages may thunder.

    Quite a bit of rock simply doesn’t have the dynamic range that a classical symphony may possess. If one were to artificially exaggerate this in studio to match some kind of audiophile ideal, I think that could be a mistake.

    And what about music that doesn’t have a live counterpart? It all comes down (or should, at least ) to artist discretion.

    I’m in favour of allowing the artist to create what they want to create. Including any effects they feel help them achieve their artistic goals.

    I don’t actually think that judiciously applied dynamic compression is necessarily the devil that we make it out to be. After all, my favourite medium is still the LP, and those recordings all have some degree of compression to accommodate the medium’s limitations.

    But I think we are all sick of ridiculous levels of post-production compression that gets applied to many recordings today, sometimes even showing up in remasters of older recordings!

  • Nonreality says:

    We seem to be getting volume compression and size compression mixed up. What Radiohead did was release size compressed (mp3 160kbps) downloads but the volume compression was the same as the cd. Volume compression is ok for artistic purposes but unfortunately what it is most commonly used for is to make sure that music is heard on radio or portable devises. It’s not done by the artist,but the record companies to promote sales. This would be fine if there were options for the buyer to have versions as they were originally intended. But thats not the case. With most recording now you really don’t need good speakers as there is little dynamic range. It’s more of a wall of sound that all instruments are at the same volume. The quiet moments are now as loud as the noisiest moments. I’ve noticed that snare drums don’t pop and get your attention, they just blend in with the rest of the sound. I would really think that this would concern B&W and other fine audio equipment makers. Why buy the good stuff when it will sound the same because of the source material. This is not an audiophile concern, it’s a concern for anyone that enjoys the beauty of good music.

  • Doug says:

    Another solution I didn’t see scanning the recommendations above is to include the “dynamic compression” algorithms in products that play back digital audio media. A simple click of a button should suffice in rendering a compressed or uncompressed version of a track to the listener. If I can change polarity, volume, balance, codec, etc., why not dynamic compression???

    The one thing we can all agree on is we want the choice to be in the hands of the end-user, not some nameless person up stream in the production line.

  • Paul Ferr says:

    Great little discussion, but if I could add a brief view :

    I think everyone agrees that the issue is "Volume Compression" applied after the Artist has finished their work. The reason it is applied is primarily to make the track stand out (or since every label is doing it – to stand beside) other tracks played on radio stations. The commercial reasons that have driven this will continue to drive its application, since no-one wants to be the "occasionally quiet" track among the blanket of sound provided by other tracks.
    Also, there is no financial incentive to provide the listener with a switch to apply compression themselves, since the problem has been caused by aiming to differentiate one track from the other – the user is likely to just leave the switch set (somewhat like the Loudness switch on some systems).

    I think we can also agree that Volume Compression has the potential to seriously damage the emotion the careful listener aims to get from the music. Supplying music as differentiated downloads (or CD's, or MP3s) mixed to suit the listener and how they will listen is obviously possible. However, getting the message over that this can be a clear benefit without confusing people is a tricky marketing problem.

    How about B&W make a feature of their music downloads being specifically WITHOUT any post-artist engineering applied of any sort ?

    I'd buy these tracks in preference to music that has been "mucked around with" since the artist(s) signed it off . . .

    All best all
    Paul

Add a comment

We welcome debate within Society of Sound, but please keep it friendly, respectful and relevant. We have a few house rules which we ask you to abide by to keep the debate intelligent. Read more.
Product enquiry or support issue? Please click here.

Related posts

Our favourite records - album covers

Our favourite records – acoustic albums

In the first of a new series, Bowers & Wilkins Brand Manager Shaun Marin offers up his favourite acoustic albums. Don’t forget … Read more

Bowers & Wilkins Music thumbnail

Accidental Powercut sessions – a true concert for one

The first of a series of three concerts commissioned to celebrate the launch of our P5 headphone took place last Thursday and was a … Read more

Bowers & Wilkins Music thumbnail

What Hi-F? review of Society of Sound

What Hi-Fi? Sound & Vision has some very positive things to say about Society of Sound in this online review which also appears in … Read more