The Loudness War stops here; race to high dynamic range audio with us
Our first full-length release, Sounds From The Treeline, takes a stand against what is pejoratively known as “The Loudness War“; a race to have the meanest sounding song on the block that, paradoxically, has sucked the energy from most modern audio recordings. This post will be of interest to technically minded individuals, but it’s ultimately written for people who love music.
Artists thrive on exposure. To get noticed in a sea musicians, you need to be bigger, cooler, smarter, prettier, or otherwise shinier than the artist next to you. Ultimately, this has resulted in an arms race to have the loudest, most attention-grabbing recording on the radio. Listeners’ attention is fleeting though, and its desperate pursuit has come at a disastrous cost to the overall quality of audio recordings.
Remember grade-school? When your teacher asked a question, those who knew the answer would throw their hands up as high as they could and flail them around like fish out of water. The kid who flailed the most often stood the best chance of getting chosen to demonstrate his brilliance, that is until the teacher grew weary of his insistence and started to ignore him. That keener in your class is analogous to the loudest recording on the radio: attention-getting, but fatiguing. Keep these two phenomena in mind – attention-capture and fatigue – as we apply them to music.
The race to “loud” has resulted in a loss of something called dynamic range in audio recordings. Dynamic range is a hallmark of a quality recording in much the same way that it’s a centrepiece of music composition, arrangement, and performance. To explain why this characteristic is so important to music lovers, let’s go back to your grade school classroom. Imagine that the highest that a student can raise their hand represents the loudest sound on a recording, and that the level of their shoulder represents the quietest sound.
Remember that restrained, mysterious kid in your class? Imagine that he’s the only one around who can bend his arm at the wrist, elbow, and shoulder. The teacher asks the class to comment on the events surrounding the beatification of Joan of Arc in 1909, and he readies an answer consisting of an obtuse reference to the birth of Leo Fender. His hand, at rest on his shoulder, shoots high into the air, folded into the sign of the horns. As his hand shot into the air, it travelled a great distance and achieved great airspeed before snapping to a halt at the end of his reach. Making this powerful and sudden gesture required him to use the full range of motion afforded to his arm by his shoulder, elbow, and wrist. It had impact, and it got him noticed.
Now, let’s consider another one of your other classmates – the teacher’s son. He’s leaning back in his chair trying to play it cool, with his arms behind his head, bent at the elbow. The spectre of favoritism looms large and heavy on his horizon; caught between wanting to impress his parent, and wanting to avoid the ire of his classmates, he sits on his answers for a requisite 5 seconds before shooting his hand into the air. Rotating at the elbow only, he raises his hand with only half the fervor of the first kid.
That annoying keener kid in the front row has had his arm up this entire time, letting his hand flop down at the wrist like a wet noodle between questions, ready to answer the next one as soon as it leaves the teacher’s lips. The problem with his approach is that so little motion happens between the wet noodle position and the five-fingers-spread-like-a-starfish position that it barely commands any attention at all.
As they raise their hands, each one of these kids’ hands reach the same height, but they move through more or less of their available range of motion to get there. The greater the distance that their hands travel, the more emotion, surprise, intent, and impact they convey.
Here is where the analogy circles back to recordings of music; the range of motion of a kid’s arm, from low to high, is like the dynamic range of an audio recording, from quiet to loud. Recordings that feature great distances between quiet and loud have the potential to convey a maximum of emotion, surprise, intent, and impact, as only a mysterious, devil horn pumping young scholar can. Recordings with little or no distance between the quietest sound and the loudest sound end up playing like a wet noodle. Critics call this phenomenon “wimpy loud sound.”
We worked with mastering engineer Bob Katz from Digital Domain to produce a master of our latest album Sounds From The Treeline that preserves the emotion, surprise, intent, and impact of its original recorded performances. Bob has published extensively on contemporary audio levelling practices, over-compression, and dynamic range; selecting him to master the album was a natural choice.
“Lakefield’s music is rock and roll with a very strong melodic/acoustic base and an underlying message as well,” says Bob. “I helped it kick (really kick) when it wants to kick, but when it wanted to relax I made sure that came across. Sustain and release of tension–just like real life! Sound in the service of the music. And it sounds real good–with the right kind of processing to help the “attitude” and make it sound punchy when it gets loud, but also let it breathe–this gives it depth, richness and dimension. Think of a three-course gourmet dinner and then, mmmm, ice cream for dessert–that’s the album you’re about to bite into. “
Bob Katz’s expert mastering job helped to preserve the sonic character of the original source mixes crafted by Fadermaster‘s Shawn Cole.
“Lakefield has a number of songs on Songs From The Treeline that brilliantly manipulate dynamic range for maximum effect,” says Shawn. “While mixing I thought it was important to stay true to those dynamics even if it meant that 90% of a song was on the quiet side of things, leaving room for the band to express themselves with force when they wanted to make a statement.”
The 1990s were somewhat of a golden age of recordings; audio CDs turned 10 years old in 1992, celebrating a decade of being able to deliver recordings with high dynamic range to home audiences. A YouTube user named “ajuk1″ posted a comparison of Nirvana’s original 1991 master of “Smells Like Teen Spirit” alongside a version he remastered using a narrow range of dynamics characteristic of recordings produced in 2008. The the 1991 ‘before’ sample starts at 37 seconds, and the 2008 ‘after’ sample starts at 7 seconds. Even without a high quality stereo system, the difference between the two approaches is unmistakable; the original recording snaps, pops, and crashes, while the contemporary remaster oozes out of your speakers like rancid milk. Flip between the two to hear the difference.
Enough reading; it’s time to start listening! Download Sounds From The Treeline and hear for yourself what happens when you master a contemporary recording in the spirit of the 90s.