Everything Louder Than Everything Else

Back in January 2004, Wired ran a piece on how the average volume level of commercial CDs has been steadily rising for the past two decades (Pump Up the Volume). Check out the visual waveforms on that page comparing AC/DC’s 1980 “Back in Black” to Celine Dion’s 2003 “I Drove all Night.” Amazing difference.

Compression is the act of reducing dynamic range during the mastering stage. Rather than making the overall volume louder, the loud/quiet peaks and valleys are brought closer together so there’s less delta in the waveform. The result is that the average volume is greater, even though the loudest sounds aren’t louder (though engineers do push the total volume to the max — at customer insistence — as well). Just as TV commercials seem louder than normal programming — their average volumes are higher, even though peak loudness is not.

In the days of LPs, pushing recorded volumes too far could result in the needle jumping out of the groove, and pressing plants would reject recordings that included clipping artifacts. After the advent of the CD, the needle problem went away. Artists quickly realized that louder overall volumes made a bigger impression on listeners … so louder music had a higher chance of becoming a hit. But despite the “impact” that louder music makes, the ultimate result for listeners is fatigue. Human auditory perception just wasn’t designed to listen to sound bereft of dynamic range.

Today, audio engineers are “exhausted” from trying to resist clients who insist on high compression levels. Either they do it, or the artist goes to an engineer who will. What’s unusual is that the vice president of a major label (Angelo Montrone of A&R) recently wrote an embattled plea to an industry newsletter, basically asking engineers to stop the madness.

Austin 360’s Everything Louder Than Everything Else summarizes the letter and provides an excellent overview of compression and its effect on humans. What I found particularly interesting was this cultural theory on why huge compression has become the norm:

So why aren’t more people noticing this sort of thing? One word: lifestyle. We listen to music in completely different ways than we did 20 or 30 years ago. For most people, music is listened to on the go, in cars, on headphones while running, on computers at work. Music has to compete with the sound of your car’s engine, has to punch through the background noise of street traffic or a loud office. “Ours is a culture of competition,” Wofford says. “Maybe labels think the music has to be super aggressive, super bright, like a kid screaming in a supermarket, to get your attention.”

via grahams

Music: The Mountain Goats :: Maybe Sprout Wings

14 thoughts on “Everything Louder Than Everything Else

  1. shacker Post author

    Wow. For once I really can’t decide whether that’s a spam comment or not. OK, it definitely is spam, but it’s spam I like, so I’m going to leave it :)

  2. Dylan Tweney

    I love recordings with wide dynamic range, but they definitely don’t work with earbuds when you’re listening on Caltrain. The same goes for car stereos, for that matter. I find myself skipping past the songs that have quiet parts — unless I’m at home, listening to the music on the stereo.

  3. shacker Post author

    Dylan, I know what you mean. In the case of podcasts, I’ve noticed that KQED Forum is one of the few that just doesn’t work on the train. If someone’s voice on the show doesn’t project, too bad – they leave it as is. Fine for bicycling though. Funny that I’m actually starting to know which podcasts to listen to when depending on whether I’m on the train or bike on a given day.

  4. Dan

    Yup, car stereos and personal stereos in loud environments aren’t conducive to recordings with a full dynamic range, and I guess that has something to do with the recent trend to.

    By the way “everything louder than everything else” has long been an expression which tickled me. It’s taken from a Deep Purple live album (Live in Japan, I think) where Ian Gillan says to the sound engineer “can we have everything louder than everything else up here”.

  5. shacker Post author

    Deep Purple? Ask Amy about the time I returned from a Motorhead show wearing a t-shirt blaring the words “Everything Louder Than Everything Else” into her morning eyes. I think the phrase came from a sound check, when everything was so loud that everyone on stage was asking for more monitor, and Lemmy finally blurted it out.

    Could be wrong, but if Deep Purple came up with it first, Motorhead has certainly made the phrase their own.

  6. Dan

    The Deep Purple album is from 1973 I think, which predates Motörhead by about 3 years, so I guess Lemmy must have heard it too :)

    I used to have a Motörhead “Merry Bastard Christmas” T-Shirt, from their 1989 tour of the same name, which I wore until it fell to bits.

  7. mneptok

    I saw Motörhead live in 1989. I knew what I was in for, and sat with my friend the sound engineer behind the Plexiglas. The ringing stopped within only 12 hours. And that *with* earplugs. Plexi, earplugs … still didn’t miss a note.

    Grabbed a sticker that night that read Motörhead: The Loudest Band In The World.

    I miss that sticker. Wish I had put it on something more enduring than my 1989 era bong. Farking stoners.

  8. aharden

    The sad part is that the music would be better served if it were compressed at the point of playback rather than at publishing time. There are dynamic range controls on DVD players, so there’s certainly a precedent for putting that control in the hands of the user. If hardware makers trust users with equalization, throw a few DRC settings out there as well.

    Rip Rowan’s “Over The Limit” on ProRec (the site’s not responding right now, but it’s cached) is the best online article I’ve ever read about this topic. Rip illustrates his point with CDs released by Rush since the mid-80s. Rush is my all-time favorite band but I think the engineering on “Vapor Trails” was a travesty.

  9. shacker Post author

    Heh – Rowan’s ALL CAPS comparison made for a nice dovetailing of themes between this thread and one I’m involved in at work. Thanks for that.

    Let’s just hope this backlash eventually makes some difference.

  10. Patrick Neylan

    The phrase definitely comes first from Deep Purple’s Made In Japan, recorded in August 1972. Ian Gillan says it to the mixing desk, but he’s actually repeating into the microphone what another band member has called out behind him. My guess is Ian Paice, because there would be microphones in his drumkit, though Roger Glover or Ritchie Blackmore might have been close enough to Gillan’s mike for their words to register faintly on the recording. Jon Lord would never make such a loutish remark!

Leave a Reply