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Whatever Happened to Dynamics?

Whatever Happened to Dynamics?

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Published by Ivar Løkken
Some thoughts on the loudness war.
Some thoughts on the loudness war.

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Published by: Ivar Løkken on Oct 01, 2009
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03/27/2015

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Whatever Happened to Dynamics?
A Note on the Loudness Race
Ivar Løkken, 2006
"The average level of popular music CD's continues to rise. Popular CD's with this problem are becoming increasingly prevalent, coexisting with discs that have a beautifuldynamic range and impact, but whose loudness (and distortion level) are far lower. What good is a 24 bit 96-kHz digital audio system if the programs we create only have a 1 bit dynamic range?"
 
Bob Katz, Digital Domain Studio [1]
 
Dynamics, the very soul and nerve of music, is something that in the modern age of digitalaudio seems to be disappearing more and more. This is somewhat of a paradox; both digitalformats and equipment have higher dynamic range than ever before. The technology is thereto create music with pitch silent background, virtually no distortion and a dynamic range justas high as the one we enjoy in the concert hall. Still, what we get from CDs, especiallymodern pop recordings, is music that is massively compressed and also clipped, leading todistortion and loss of detail.This trend has been dubbed “The Loudness-Race” and an internet search will show that manycritical voices are raised, both from consumers and professionals. Still, this seems to be anongoing trend that is not going to turn anytime soon.
The Loudness Race – Reasons 
“We aim very much towards radio reproduction when producing and especially when mixingmusic, because ultimately it is through such media that music is mostly played today.”
Hallgeir Rustan, Stargate Studios [2].
Music, especially popular music, is sold through mass media. This means that it is exposed tothe public through radios, car stereos and music videos on TV. It also means that these mediaserve as sales channels. TVs and radios are low-quality playback systems with high distortionand low dynamic range. Thus, low level detail is very hard to notice. Since the units serve assales channels, the record companies want their product to be noticed first. As stated by Dr.David Robinson [3]
“Quite simply, when a listener is flicking through radio stations, a louder station is more likely to catch their attention. Also, it is well known that if two different  presentations of the same audio signal are compared sequentially, then the louder one issubjectively preferred.
” However, he also writes: “
The advantage is transitory: once alistener has chosen a station, they adjust the volume control on their audio equipment todeliver a comfortable listening level.
In the current world of information and mass media overload, it is all about being noticed.When exposed to music through TV or radio, the majority of the audience is not in a positionto make any critical assessment of sound quality. Consequently the producers are targeting themost basic of all psychoacoustic mechanisms; if it’s loud, we’ll hear it. However, hearing andlistening are two very different things; for a listener the loudness-race will mean distortionand loss of natural dynamics, it simply won’t sound like real music.
 
The Loudness Race – Consequences 
“One of the gross areas is level; to get their records noticed, people want them to be louder than the next guy's, and to get level, there's a lot of processing that goes on. The by-product of that is a form of distortion. It usually isn't blatant [distortion], but it doesn't sound natural and it sounds less musical; it sounds almost mechanical.”
 
Bernie Grundman, Berne Grundman Mastering [4].
 To achieve the high average volume that is used on modern popular music recordings, twoprocesses are mainly used;
dynamic compression
and
limiting
[5].A compressor is a unit that amplifies the low-level signals and reduces the loud ones. Thisbrings low and high level parts closer together and thus reduces the dynamic range of thesource material allowing it to be boosted in level. To avoid harmonic distortion a compressoris usually realized as a time-variant linear amplifier, i.e. an amplifier whose gain variesslowly, dependent on the power of the input signal averaged over time. This is called dynamiccompression. A dynamic compressor is characterized by its power gain curve and its dynamicbehaviour, the
attack 
and
release
time. Dynamic compression is something that has been donesince the earliest days of music recording and is considered absolutely necessary. Apercussion set or an 8x12” guitar rig recorded with near-field microphones has much too highdynamic range to be reproduced by any home audio system. This is equipment designed to fillbig halls with very loud sound, few listeners would use such levels when sitting in front of their hi-fi. But with the digital processing available today, there is almost no limit to howaggressive a dynamic compressor might be. In many modern recordings, the SPL is constantlybetween -6dB and 0dB referenced to the full scale range. When an average hi-fi system iscapable of perhaps 60-80dB dynamic range, it is obvious that its potential for reproducingpianissimos and fortissimos is not in any way utilized. As mentioned it’s tailor-made forradios and TVs.When recording, there are bound to be transients that overshoot the input range. A limiter isused to ensure the input is not overloaded. A digital system is self-limiting since it will justsaturate when the input is overloaded. However, the engineer can use soft limiters which willproduce less distortion than pure clipping, called soft limiters. They can also amplify weak signals and act as a static compressor. Limiters are usually characterized as having “hardknee” or “soft knee” responses. Static compression/limiting and dynamic compression isusually combined in one unit.
Figure 1: Hard knee (left) and soft knee compressor/limiter 
 
So what does this do with the music? Obviously, it adds distortion products, since it issymmetrical odd harmonic ones. Although a soft-limiter has a somewhat gentler distortioncharacteristic than pure clipping, significant amounts of harmonics are produced. Figure 2shows a pure sinewave run through a limiter with -15dB threshold and 4:1 compression in thesound editor Audacity. As can be seen, the harmonic content is gross.
Figure 2: Signal run through -15dB 4:1 compressor/limiter, Audacity.
Distortion due to clipping is very much something that can be found in commercial releases aswell. Figure 3 shows a 10ms measurement of a clip from Jennifer Lopez’ CD “J-Lo”(Columbia Records SME- -5005507). We can easily see very much clipping present.
Figure 3: Example of clipping in commercial audio material, Jennifer Lopez ”J-Lo”
In addition to the above, and as mentioned earlier, dynamics is what constitutes the very nerveand soul in music. The nuances in the playing is what separates a great pianist from a

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