SECOND ALARMING TREND
CD and digital technology has fostered many wonderful improvements
in our recordings, it has also spawned a trend that is absolutely
trashing the sound quality of many potentially great sounding
albums. And that is the current trend of LOUD, LOUD and
many ways this is an offshoot of the "first alarming
trend" as described above; mastering being performed
by unqualified people. The human ear can be very easily
fooled, and differences in "perceived loudness"
is one thing that can most easily confuse our ear/brain
are some interesting facts about what we hear versus what
our brain actually interprets. (For more information do
a web search on "psychoacoustics".) First of all,
if given a choice between two altered versions of the same
sound, we will almost always choose the louder one as the
better sound. It's just a fact in the complex way that our
if a mastering engineer is compressing and limiting your
music so that it is eventually 6 to 9dB louder than the
original, and then he does an A/B comparison for you, you
are going to say that the louder version sounds better.
It will appear to be clearer, punchier and brighter.
reason for this is quite surprising. Our ears (or our brain,
rather) adjusts it's own internal equalizer depending on
the volume of what we are hearing! (For more information,
search out info on the "Fletcher-Munson Curve".)
At low volumes, we lose our sensitivity in the lowest and
highest frequencies, so the sound appears midrange heavy.
As you increase the playback volume, the music appears to
also increase in bass and treble content. At approximately
80 to 85 dB spl, we hear the signal as it truly is. (That
is why 85 dB spl is considered the ideal monitoring volume
for mixing and mastering.) As the volume increase above
this, our hearing mechanism actually boosts the bottom and
top end! So at loud volumes, we hear more bottom and top
end than there actually is.
if you lower the output of the processed signal to match
the "perceived loudness" of the original signal,
then you will be able to hear the true difference. If the
music was properly mastered, it will be noticably improved
in clarity and punch. And it will almost always be from
3 to 9dB louder than the original. If the music has been
over or improperly procesed, what you will hear in the processed
version is a loss in clarity of the upper midrange, a brittle
harshness in the high frequencies and a myriad of trashy
artifacts in the quietest musical passages being caused
by the compression, especially if it is digital.
with the very best mastering compressors and limiters, there
is no free ride in this regard. A good mastering engineer
using true master-quality gear can minimize the degradation
of the signal, but once you go beyond a certain point in
loudness, the signal will suffer in some ways. It's up to
you to decide if the trade off is worth it for the extra
few dB of level.
compound the problem, so much mastering is being done now
through sub-par equipment, whether it is the newest cheap
digital box, tube gizmo or workstation plug-in. And it is
often being performed by individuals who don't have the
experience necessary to operate the gear properly or to
be able to hear the problems they are creating.
the trend toward louder and louder CD's is pretty much an
offshoot from this; the unqualified mastering engineer has
learned that all he has to do to impress the client is to
make the music louder. And by comparing it to the original
signal without compensating for playback volume, it appears
that a significant improvement has been made, when in fact
the sound quality has been degraded. And the client is even
more impressed when this mastering genius can actually make
it LOUDER than the loudest CD you can bring in for comparison.
result of an over-compressed/limited signal is what is called
the 'loud tiny sound'. It has really hot average level,
but listen to it at medium to low volumes, and it sounds
small and wimpy. In fact, this is precisely why Muzak sounds
the way it does. The Muzak signal is extremely compressed,
but surprisingly not as compressed as a lot of current release
I will get on the soap box. We have control of this ourselves.
Do not be drawn in by the seeming allure of loudness. It
is up to you as a musician/producer to say "enough".
Of course you want your CD to be competitive in volume when
it comes up on the changer or juke box, but resist the idea
of 'louder is better'.
do I consider these two trends to be so alarming? Simply
this; we are right now ruining the sound quality of this
current era of popular music. When all of this wonderful
technology has made it possible for us to improve things,
instead we have abused it and are rapidly going backwards
in sound quality.
I first got into mastering, I used to think that the saddest
thing was that so much music outside of major releases went
unmastered. If it had just sounded right, it may have been
accepted. But these current trends are actually worse. The
reason is simple: If the original masters could be found
on the old, unmastered music, it could be properly mastered
now. But if a signal is over compressed, limited or eq'd,
the resultant loss in sound quality cannot be recovered!
And the problem is, this is often now being done during
the mixdown, so there is no unprocessed original master.
we are going to start fresh with beautiful new media in
DVD-Audio and Super Audio CD (SACD). With the surround-sound
capability of these discs, hopefully volume will not become
such an issue. Regardless, let's not allow it to become
an issue. Otherwise, 50 years from now people are going
to listen to this era of music and wonder what the hell
was wrong with our ears. Let's turn it around and make them
marvel at the great sounds we were capable of generating
way back in the early 2k's!!