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The Loudness Wars May Be Ending 294

Posted by Soulskill
from the can-you-hear-me-now dept.
Hugh Pickens writes "Mike Barthel reports on a technique called brick-wall limiting, where songs are engineered to seem louder by bringing the quiet parts to the same level as the loud parts and pushing the volume level of the entire song to the highest point possible. 'Because of the need to stand out on radio and other platforms, there's a strategic advantage to having a new song sound just a little louder than every other song. As a result, for a period, each new release came out a little louder than the last, and the average level of loudness on CDs crept up (YouTube) to such a degree that albums actually sounded distorted, as if they were being played through broken speakers.' But the loudness wars may be coming to an end. Taking advantage of the trend towards listening to music online — via services like Pandora, Spotify, and Apple's forthcoming iCloud — a proposal by audio engineer Thomas Lund, already adopted as a universal standard (PDF) by the International Telecommunications Union, would institute a volume limit on any songs downloaded from the cloud, effectively removing the strategic advantage of loudness. Lund's proposal would do the same thing for any music you could buy. 'Once a piece of music is ingested into this system, there is no longer any value in trying to make a recording louder just to stand out,' says legendary engineer Bob Ludwig, who has been working with Lund. 'There will be nothing to gain from a musical point of view. Louder will no longer be better!'"
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The Loudness Wars May Be Ending

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  • Eleven (Score:4, Funny)

    by PPH (736903) on Friday July 22, 2011 @03:43PM (#36850430)

    Nigel: Exactly. One louder.

    Marty: Why don't you just make ten louder and make ten be the top number and make that a little louder?

    Nigel: These go to eleven.

  • Music industry finds yet another way to shoot itself in the foot. But yeah, blame the pirates.
  • I hope... (Score:5, Interesting)

    by AngryDeuce (2205124) on Friday July 22, 2011 @03:44PM (#36850450)
    I hope this is able to transition to broadcast television broadcasts. I'm sick and tired of commercials being substantially louder than the program they're playing within. Every time a commercial break comes around I have to mute the fucking thing, which seems like the complete opposite of what they're supposed to be trying to accomplish.
    • by JBMcB (73720)

      I don't know what commercials sound like. My MythTV box skips them automatically. One of the algorithms looks at the volume of the audio to help find and eliminate them :)

    • Re: (Score:2, Informative)

      by Anonymous Coward

      I work in TV. The last station I worked at we had one advertiser that used to send us REALLY loud commercials. We had to dial them back about 10db to put them into the system at normal levels. The next batch of commercials they sent us were another 10db louder, so we had to dial them back 20db. The next batch was so recorded so hot they were distorted from the start so we rejected the tapes and sent them back to the ad agency. They couldn't get the hint that we couldn't air such loud content without ov

    • by hedwards (940851)

      I wish manufacturers would provide some means of calibrating various components to deliver a similar amount of volume. It gets really annoying having to readjust the volume when I switch between the various devices hooked to my TV. It wouldn't be so bad if the range wasn't so large.

    • by ceoyoyo (59147)

      They have to make it louder so you can hear it in the bathroom.

  • iTunes (and Spotify I think) already do this by automatically matching volume levels through the equalizer.

    • So that we don't get distorted audio. Even when the amplitude itself isn't causing distortion, the perceived volume change of different pitches is not proportional to their change in amplitude. That is to say, if a song is mixed at high volume and then played at a low volume, the mix won't sound right. For badly mixed music it won't matter, but I'd rather the record labels didn't f*ck with masterpieces mixed by Tom and Chris Lord-Alge, for example.
      • by Dynedain (141758)

        But considering how readily the record companies abused the standard of their cash cow (CDs) why would they adhere to a standard for the vaguely-defined "cloud" services?

      • by SlippyToad (240532) on Friday July 22, 2011 @04:14PM (#36850948)

        say, if a song is mixed at high volume and then played at a low volume, the mix won't sound right

        Then it wasn't mixed right. That's the whole point of using reference monitors and your ears. You are supposed to mix with loud, quiet, and in-between in your mind, and check your mixes at all of those levels.

        At least, that's how I do it.

        • by hedwards (940851)

          If they were concerned with quality they wouldn't be releasing garbage like Bieber. This isn't about artistry so much as it is about cramming garbage onto the radio and compelling folks to pay for it.

          At no point does most of what's on the radio qualify as art and music is getting to be an increasing stretch.

  • bad assumption (Score:4, Insightful)

    by simoncpu was here (1601629) on Friday July 22, 2011 @03:46PM (#36850470)
    Proposed solution: following a standard that limits loudness would remove the strategic advantage of loudness.
    What will happen: the standard would be ignored.
    • Proposed solution: following a standard that limits loudness would remove the strategic advantage of loudness.
      What will happen: the standard would be ignored.

      Nah, instead the RIAA will use it as a marketing campaign to re-release their entire back-catalog with the original dynamic range as yet another "remastered" edition that every fan must buy. Meanwhile, they will screw something else up so that the new releases are still flawed in some other way, just so that they can go ahead and fix that problem in another 10 years and re-sell us all the same music again.

  • by ae1294 (1547521)

    This CD goes to eleven!

  • If you don't have soft parts, how can the loud parts surprise you? Isn't that one of the elements of music that we're throwing away? The element of surprise?

    • We're certainly throwing away the idea of subtlety, of creating music that has any kind of dynamic range. Instead it's all got to be blaring and blasting, bass parts sounding like they were done on slowed-down kazoos and the guitars just one big mash of chords, and singers who, if they're voices aren't completely digitally altered to sound like they're singing from a merry-go-round moving at 200RPM, sound pretty much like one of those WWI wireless sets.

      • by foobsr (693224)

        We're certainly throwing away the idea of subtlety ...

        Tenses! Bigger, faster, in this case 'louder' — things of the past already.

        The development will end when 'they' listen to a continuous 1000Hz signal at maximum 'undistorted' (10%?) level.

        CC.

    • That and so much more. Art should never have marketting, because that demands a complete lack of subtlety.

    • by eln (21727) on Friday July 22, 2011 @03:52PM (#36850594) Homepage

      Isn't that one of the elements of music that we're throwing away? The element of surprise?

      Yes, which is why the standard calls for someone to shout "BOO" at 5x the maximum allowed volume at a random point in each song.

  • by Danathar (267989) on Friday July 22, 2011 @03:51PM (#36850570) Journal

    You mean the triangle ISN'T supposed to be as loud as the canon fire? :)

    • by djdanlib (732853)

      I have the 1812 Overture on DVD Audio, complete with cannons and fireworks. If you ever get the chance... listen to it! It will blow your socks off, so set the volume LOW at first.

      • I have had a similar thing between an older CD of Carl Orfs Carmina Burana [wikipedia.org] and a newer one. The older disk was of a 1940's or 1950's recording where as the newer one was a recent recording. Even with the recording artifacts of the original reel to reel or what ever the original medium was the older version is mush better. This is another one where set the volume low since it hits hard. The newer copy is much more uniform but because of it is so much less impressive to listen to.
      • by JBMcB (73720)

        Also:
        Polka and Fugue by Weinberger
        The Pines of Rome, last movement - by Resphighi (blew a circuit breaker playing this LOUD)

        Also check out some of the old 90's Telarc samplers. Telarc is known for some fantastically clean, high dynamic range recordings. I have the Great Fantasy Adventure Album, with songs from various films along with sound effects, including the famous Jurassic Lunch track that will destroy your speakers if you're not careful - I'm not exaggerating.

  • by markjhood2003 (779923) on Friday July 22, 2011 @03:51PM (#36850580)

    It doesn't matter to me how loud a song sounds; I can always turn the volume down or use something like ReplayGain to lower the overall level. The real issue is the compression of the dynamic range used to achieve louder sounding music. This proposal doesn't address that: a volume limit isn't going to provide an incentive to expand the dynamic range, since producers are just going to make sure every song bumps right up to the new brick wall.

    Dynamic range simply isn't important to most producers and consumers of popular music now.

    • Mod parent up. Dynamic range (or lack thereof) is a matter of taste, and all this new standard does is give producers a new "brick wall" to run up against. However, since the new wall would be below the level of audio clipping, perhaps it's an improvement in that respect.

      Eventually people will get tired of today's over-compressed sound, and will rediscover the joys of music dynamics. As a (very) small-time songwriter, I can appreciate the appeal of chest-thumping, all-11s sound, for a specific effect. B

      • But making EVERYTHING sound that way is like throwing away everything your crayon box except Magenta, and coloring everything one color.

        Oh, you must mean like the video for "The Perfect Drug" by Nine Inch Nails or "Blame It" by Jamie Foxx and T-Pain.

    • Simply limiting the volume is going to cause more problems without really solve anything. So you've limited me to 75% volume. I'm just going to put all my music right up at that 75%! But this time it will sound even worse because now I'll only be using 75% of my available dynamic range.

      A system like ReplayGain is much better because it preserves all the dynamic range and fidelity of the original track. Instead of limiting the volume, it adjusts post-decode every album/track to have the same average volu

    • popular music

      There's the problem! ;)

    • by AikonMGB (1013995)

      This. Exactly this. My entire library is ReplayGained, and that makes listening to it much easier on me, but when I choose to listen to my music on a high-quality sound system and turn it up, its because I want to get every detail out of the original composition that I can.

      Incidentally, this is one of the main reasons die-hards still think vinyl sounds better -- its not that you have better audio density (you don't; but that's another discussion), its that often when albums are mastered for vinyl, the dynam

    • No kidding (Score:5, Informative)

      by Sycraft-fu (314770) on Friday July 22, 2011 @05:03PM (#36851608)

      Almost every song, including ones that aren't "loud" are normalized to 0dBFS. The thing is that they have large dynamic range, so their average signal level might be -30dBFS thus making them "quiet" when played back at a given volume. If you limit the shit out of dynamics, it makes the whole thing louder at a given setting on the volume dial.

      That is what people mean when they complain about the "loudness wars." Modern music can't force your system to be loud, I can set my receiver to -80dBref and no sound will be louder than 35dB since that is how it works. The song can't override the volume setting. The problem is that they have no dynamic range, and thus don't sound as good.

      A song that has dynamic range you actually turn the volume dial up on. As the "ref" part implies my system is calibrated to a reference point, in particular the THX cinema reference of 105dBSPL for mains, 115dBSPL for the sub. So when I set my dial to 0dB, that is the limit. That is what I set it to for movies, and get a theater experience. However I don't blow out my ears since the average level in movies is usually 30-40dB below reference. So despite the limit being 105dBSPL, I am usually listening to things in the 65-75dBSPL range. That dynamic range is what makes it sound good, and is what lets big hits, well, hit.

      Music is squashed down, so I have to listen to it at like -30dBref on the dial. ends up being about the same normal volume level, it just means there's no headroom, that everything is the same volume.

      The solution is NOT a volume limit, the solution is to have dynamic range in the files themselves, and put a limiter in the playback device. That way if someone wants it limited, they can turn that on, but you can get full range when you wish.

    • Ever since DVD movies came out the dynamic range became too great. I turn up the volume to hear dialog and then a car horn or dog barking blows me off the couch. The normalizer setting on VLC is not what I want. I want something like this:

      The volume is set to a certain level, that is the level I want and nothing should ever go louder than it. Is that too much to ask for?

    • by mochan_s (536939)

      An RMS volume limit can I suppose to a degree.

      There are purists who want dynamic range and all that and the rest of the people who want to listen to the music in cars or when walking. The solution should be simple - two masters - 16 bit, 44Khz CDs with loudness for the car/walking people and an HD version that is 24 bit, 96 Khz with full dynamic range that listen to music in their anechoic chambers.

      Blu-rays now have that mode, Master-HD or something like that that does uncompressed 24/96 sound. I don't know

    • by thomst (1640045)

      It doesn't matter to me how loud a song sounds; I can always turn the volume down or use something like ReplayGain to lower the overall level. The real issue is the compression of the dynamic range used to achieve louder sounding music. This proposal doesn't address that: a volume limit isn't going to provide an incentive to expand the dynamic range, since producers are just going to make sure every song bumps right up to the new brick wall.

      Dynamic range simply isn't important to most producers and consumers of popular music now.

      Maybe it's because I'm a dinosaur myself, but I can't stand over-compressed recordings. Few people are aware that terrestrial radio stations often limit and compress their signal before transmitting it - a technique that I think probably began as a way to let the sound stand out against road noise for those who listen to the radio in their cars. The problem is that not only does that limit the dynamic range (how much so depends on the level of compression), destroying the artist's intended contrast between

  • by djdanlib (732853) on Friday July 22, 2011 @03:56PM (#36850660) Homepage

    You can make all the recommendations and standards you want, but you can't force the studio engineers to obey them, nor can you change the studio executives who are demanding the loudness and writing the checks to the studios. There is a great deal of the attitude in the music industry that "I make a lot of money doing this, and you don't, so my way is clearly right!" So, this movement will probably involve a lot of independent artists. We need pop artists on board.

    If we can somehow start a campaign to get people to enjoy an expanded dynamic range, maybe we can raise awareness of how much better music can sound. Maybe albums/tracks engineered correctly could have another small logo somewhere indicating such a thing - call it something like "HDR Audio" (High Dynamic Range) that makes people think.. "Ooh, HD, this one is better than the one without it" or "HDR is the popular thing in photography, so it's probably good with audio".

    I'm all for more artists and engineers preserving the vitality of their music.

    • by CastrTroy (595695)
      But what if Walmart, Target, iTunes, Amazon, Clear Channel, and others all got behind the standard and said they wouldn't sell/play the recordings if they didn't meet the standard. It probably won't happen, but if it did, I bet the studio engineers and executives would follow suit. However, I think the standard would have to not only include a volume limit, but also limit the ability for the engineers to compress the dynamic range. Not sure how easy it would be to police this as some music is loud through
  • by uvajed_ekil (914487) on Friday July 22, 2011 @03:57PM (#36850682)
    'Because of the need to stand out on radio and other platforms, there's a strategic advantage to having a new song sound just a little louder than every other song.

    Wait, what? If they're all doing this, then how is one still louder than the previous song? And what is this talk of the "radio" platform? You mean the NPR/baseball machine in my car can be used for streaming music? How retro!

    One more reason not to listen to shitty pop music.
    • by tepples (727027)

      And what is this talk of the "radio" platform? You mean the NPR/baseball machine in my car can be used for streaming music? How retro!

      Yes. People without $70/mo smartphone plans tend to discover new music through FM radio instead of through, say, Pandora or Spotify.

  • Pardon my ignorance, but where in Thomas Lund's proposed standard does it introduce a volume limit on "songs downloaded from the cloud", or indeed on any kind of song at all? A cursory glance suggests the document concerns a means of measuring loudness rather than a means of regulating it.

    • by gmueckl (950314)

      You are right - limits in the levels are missing, but the proposal explicitly states that it is intended as a groundwork for introducing those by defining a baseline algorithm for measurement.

      In the long run, this might only limit clipping due to overly aggressive mixing. The true loudness war caused by compression of dynamic range in the mixing process might not go away as a result. And I don't know how that could even be regulated.

    • A cursory glance suggests the document concerns a means of measuring loudness rather than a means of regulating it.

      If each track comes with loudness measurements, listeners will use these measurements in their playback devices to give all songs the same loudness so as not to have to turn the volume up and down when playing different songs. (See for example players supporting Replay Gain.) Songs mastered near the clipping point will be played back with reduced volume compared to, say, "Money for Nothing" or other tracks off Brothers in Arms by Dire Straits. The idea as I understand it is that labels will self-regulate be

  • Loudness just got replaced by something far worse.

    We need to enact some kind of legislation against autotune. Or use the SAP channel for the non-auto-tuned version. I'm sure music is just going through a new synthesizer revolution like in the early 80s, and it'll eventually be used properly, but damn if pop music isn't insufferable right now.

    • by Amouth (879122)

      it's funny i actually take notice now when i hear a singer that ISN'T using autotune, funny how i'd rather listen to someone with talent.

  • Stop unconditionally compressing the sh*t out of everything, and record the dynamics the way the musicians meant it to be heard. Some music is just meant to be in-your-face loud, and that's fine if it is the artist's intent. But dynamic range is often a big part of the emotional impact of music, and to strip that out in post-production is no less egregious than arbitrarily lopping off part of the frequency spectrum, or editing out one of the original band members.

    • by Amouth (879122)

      for that you need musical artists not "singers"/"vocalists" who actually care about their music more than trying to make as much money as they can.

  • We get this problem with adverts on TV too.

    Amazingly there are no results on ebay for `normaliser`; no one has made a hardware dongle to plug inline of the speakers to fix the problem:

    http://www.instructables.com/answers/I-need-a-hardware-volume-levellernormalizer-for-a/ [instructables.com]

    • by mochan_s (536939)

      Normalizing is different than loudness (as used in the context above).

      If you really want uniform loudness, look for something called loudness maximizer ( compressors also will do the trick but you get way too many parameter knobs on those). It makes everything equally loud and so louder stuff doesn't have any advantage. In old school receivers, there used to be the magic loudness button that would render music listenable in noisy environments.

      Loudness comes from dynamic compression (which is different than

  • ..they don't know what they're missing.

    I recently listened to MP3s of a coworker, ripped at 320bit/sec but with the volume cranked up. With my 3-way-in-ears, I could hear accustic artifacts I couldn't explain given the nitrate. So I compared to the 30 second sample in iTunes... which was not as loud but had more detail and no artifacts.

    Whoever did this *wanted* it that way, probably had lousy speakers and didn't know his MP3-player has a volume setting... *shudder* I like my music with lots of dynamic range

  • Some of my college buddies were nightclub DJs and they had audio processors that would do this. They would also wire all the speakers in mono. The sound was horrible, but at 170dB with enough alcohol, it's impossible to tell the difference. No wonder I have tinnitus now.
  • Berlioz Requiem (Score:4, Insightful)

    by SarekOfVulcan (133772) on Friday July 22, 2011 @04:57PM (#36851546)

    It's the only CD I ever owned where I could hear the engineers turning the mikes down in the middle, because it had just gotten Way Too Loud. :-)

  • This isn't really "loudness", it's "compression".
    And it's been done for years on commercial radio and, more recently, on TV adverts.
    Every album you listen to has been mastered or mixed with compression of some sort on the master tracks.

    A good example of how things have changed: listen to Violently Happy by Bjork for an example of when Compression is done correctly (i.e. subtle), then listen to any autotuned crap made within the last 2 years (Ke$ha) for an example of when not to do it.

  • by MaWeiTao (908546) on Friday July 22, 2011 @05:24PM (#36851894)

    Of course, the problem is that your average consumer has been trained to like garbage.

    Have you ever gotten into a rental car and taken a look at the audio settings? Invariably bass and treble are turned way up. And what's the first thing people in stores do when trying out a sound system? They turn the volume way up. If it's loud it's good, even if the speakers are clipping.

    And how much dynamic range does your average pop song have anyway? Not much, it's just a wall of noise. And then if you're listening to stuff like hip hop then you're also dealing with low quality samples.

    Wasn't there are article here on Slashdot several months ago about some survey about audio? Researchers found that the majority actually preferred the inferior sound of compressed audio?

    So there's no incentive to improve audio quality. The problem is when this sort of crap spills over to good music.

    • by Twinbee (767046) on Friday July 22, 2011 @08:47PM (#36853734) Homepage

      I hate the compression ramifications as much as anyone. However, it does make the sound more like a square wave, which is how the C64 SID chip sounds (I'm also a bit of a chip fan). You get particular harmonic overtones which help give richness to a sound. So maybe people are really responding to *that*.

      Obviously the producers are going about it all wrong though, since they get the 'square wave' style, but also lose detail with most of the instruments.

      You can get the best of both worlds.

  • So, they've been releasing crippled recordings for the last twenty years... but rejoice everyone, they are now planning on re-re-re-releasing the same music except without the awful mastering. And they wonder why everybody pirates their crap.
  • ...from a bunch of loud songs is to make a quiet song.

    Because of the need to stand out on radio and other platforms, there's a strategic advantage to having a new song sound just a little louder than every other song.

    Seriously, this mentality is so stupid. It's like typing everything in caps and bold to "stand out", but when everything is caps and bold, the non caps and non bold is the only thing that stands out.

    This is taught in every Design101 class under the topic of "contrast".

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