Many audio professionals believe the days of hyper-compressed recordings may soon end. Ian Shepherd, a British mastering engineer, says broadcast audio standards may help expedite the process.
The roots of the loudness wars can be traced back to the 1980s when music engineers in Nashville, Tennessee tried to make recordings as punchy as possible for radio airplay.
The negative effects of the loudness wars, which can be described as methods to make music sound “louder” on electronics that are limited in their ability to playback dynamic content, have reached a zenith level in today’s consumer audio market.
This recent emphasis on loudness ties into how consumers buy music. Digital downloads are the preferred music delivery method. And with the combination of low-resolution digital audio files and heavily compressed music (the tool/techniques used to limit the dynamic range of music), the visceral impact of music has been lost.
What is being done?
The first major step towards the elimination of heavily-compressed music could be the International Telecommunications Union’s (ITU) ITU-R BS.1770-2 standard recommendation for the measurement of loudness that was introduced in 2006 and revised in 2011.
Following the ITU’s recommendations, the European Broadcasting Union (EBU) released its Loudness Recommendation EBU R128 in August of 2010. Acting to rectify the problem on the broadcast side of the issue, many European and Asian broadcasters are adopting loudness standards that are based on the criteria first introduced by the ITU.
“Measuring loudness, in general, isn’t easy. Now the ITU has agreed on a new ‘loudness unit:’ the LU. You can measure short- and longer-term loudness over a whole song. They’ve also agreed on guidelines for broadcast; what the average loudness should be and how much you can vary it. The recommendation has been made law in the U.S. for advertisements and is also being adopted in the U.K. and all over the world. All the major broadcasters here – Sky, the BBC, ITV – have agreed to follow the standard.
“In the future the loudness of music and audio will be measured by this standard. Quiet stuff will be turned up and loud stuff will be turned down to get consistency. What this means is that if you take a super loud CD like ‘Death Magnetic’ [Metallica] and play it against [Michael Jackson’s] ‘Thriller’, they will play back at the same volume. But because ‘Thriller’ is more dynamic, it will actually sound louder, because it has more punch and headroom for musical impact.”
Making the Best out of a Bad Situation
Despite the record industry’s continued sales and marketing of heavily-compressed music, there are avenues music fans can pursue. Shepherd says technically-adept music enthusiasts can test the quality of their CD collections with software solutions like Audacity and the TT Meter plug-in tool. He also says that other solutions such as the Tone Boosters EBU loudness meter are also pretty affordable, and for those less technically inclined there are also less scientific methods available.
“In terms of listening, if after a while that you find yourself fatigued by what you are hearing, then the music may be heavily compressed,” Shepherd explains. “If there’s no contrast – no light and no shade – the choruses don’t lift, that’s a clue a song has been squashed. A great way to learn how this [compressed audio] sounds is to watch the meters [in these programs] while listening. This will help develop your critical listening skills.”
The future is vinyl?
Shepherd says the key to building a quality music library comes down to how the music was produced. “There’s so much space on modern devices and users have the option of using FLAC and lossless formats, and that presents an opportunity to get the highest quality replay,” he emphasizes. “The file format, however, doesn’t reflect on the dynamics: It’s how it was mixed and mastered.”
Shepherd suggests that if music fans want an alternative to downloads and CDs, vinyl may be the solution they seek.
“It’s ironic that some people are actually ripping vinyl because some labels are releasing vinyl with more dynamic mastering. The Chili Peppers last album, ‘I’m With You’, was rated at DR4 [dynamic range 4 rating], but on vinyl it measures DR9,” he says. “Adele’s album ‘21’ is more dynamic on vinyl than CD, too. This is nothing to do with any limitations of either format – the whole CD versus vinyl debate is a red herring. They’re different formats and they have different sound qualities. These differences in dynamics are choices made by the labels, artists and engineers.”
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