Dr. AIX's POSTS HighResAudio — 20 March 2015

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Ian Shephard runs a website out of the UK called production advice. He’s a skilled mastering engineer and a strong voice in the anti-loudness effort that’s been growing over the past few years. He’s written articles in the past proclaiming the “loudness wars” dead and did so again a couple of days ago. Here’s the link to his article. The title of the article is, “YouTube just put the final nail in the Loudness War’s coffin.” Not so fast, Ian. The reality is that absolutely nothing changes if you merely level out the amplitudes of a playlist of songs. Normalizing doesn’t change the effect of crazy mastering.

What are the loudness wars? We’ve talked about this in the past but here’s a brief explanation. Every artist wants their music to be noticed when played on the radio, on a portable player, or streamed through the Internet at YouTube. Mastering engineers are considered successful if they can bring the amplitude of tracks up to very near (and sometimes over) the maximum level of the targeted delivery format. That means using up all 16-bits of a CD…AND making sure that every moment of the track stays loud from start to finish. Many engineers wear it as a badge of honor to have the loudest record currently in circulation. There are many easy to use digital processors that will crank up the volume on any piece of music.

I find it curious that on the same webpage as the article, Ian promotes his book “Home Mastering Masterclass” with the the statement, “Move Your Masters from Puny to Powerful”. Isn’t that exactly the opposite of maximizing dynamic range and musicality in commercial music?

The news is not good for musical dynamics and despite Ian’s claim that “This is HUGE”, he’s completely mistaken. He confusing overall levels with the internal dynamic variations that make music pleasant to listen to. Just because YT (and others) have decided to output playlists at a common level (which is lower than normal) doesn’t mean that the loudness contour of the tunes are any better than they were before. In fact, the mastering engineers and plugin makers are still killing the tracks that end up on the radio and on YouTube. What’s to stop the end user from cranking up the overall volume of the playlist? How is this any different than YT cranking the levels up before you do? There is no difference.

The problem of the “loudness wars” has not diminished and will likely be a major part of music delivery forever. That’s the bad news. The good news is that there is technology that can move the heavy-handed processing from the mastering rooms to the delivery devices. That’s actually terrific news but sadly the people making and releasing the commercial recordings that we all want aren’t providing anything with any real dynamic range. It’s a chicken and egg problem. If the labels see success with loud tracks, then why should they bother to change things. Having technology and systems that have the potential to deliver fantastic music productions is completely and utterly dependent on artists, producers, and engineers releasing great recordings. And not just ones that are quieter as Ian reports about YT videos but tracks that actually have dynamic range.

Ian’s post got a lot of views and his expertise is well-regarded by myself and many others. But he missed the boat on this issue. He’s a mastering engineer…which means he’s part of the problem and not part of the solution. Record labels should be making the final mixes (the artist’s intended sound) available to music lovers and not submitting them to “perception plugins” or any mastering.

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  1. I feel that as long as there are mastering engineers that think it’s their job to alter what leaves the studio there will always be a problem. Ian’s pretty good at what he does but he still seeks to colour or alter the final mixes beyond setting levels and ensuring a pure translation to the chosen format (taking into account any limitations of the media.). I don’t think the loudness war will ever be over because of the ignorance of the people responsible for distributing music, and as you have noted previously the same thing is happening in film. The truth is that my favourite bands have all released amazing music (Metallica/Megadeth/Shihad etc) that has been ruined by “mastering engineers” at the behest of “marketing departments” or “producers”. Keep fighting the good fight Mark, I really appreciate that someone somewhere is trying :).

    • Just to add – I forgot that musicians are just as likely to want to sound as LOUD as another current band, can’t forget to blame them too.

      • Ture…but I’ve seen lots of artists that are clueless as to what’s happening to their records when delivered over the radio on on CD.

  2. Such a shame, with the wonderful technology we have today such superb highly dynamic, exciting recordings could be made and reproduced. And it would be so easy to apply the appropriate compression needed on the playback end by devices such as ipods, smartphones, etc.
    What sense does it make to ruin all the music for everyone just so a jogger can hear well while running. 🙁

  3. Well said. Mastering, especially in popular music, has become a pest. However, in practice, the full dynamic range of a CD is very very often impractical in very common listening situations (and I’m not talking about listening to music walking down a busy high street..). I’m an avid classical music listener and I read lost of listener reviews of CDs on sites like amazon. I’ve read over and over again reviews by people who appear very musically knowledgeable complaining about a CD being ‘problematically recorded’ because ‘one needs to constantly reach for the volume knob’, and vice versa. What does this tell you? What it tells me is that there can be too much of a good thing in practical situations and it also tells me that, for almost all practical (music consuming) uses, a 24bit dynamic range is useless and may be counrer productive, even if it has been utilized by the recording AND mastering process. I agree with you that the ideal solution would be for the necessary dynamic range compression to be applied at the consumption point and on the consumer’s discretion.
    Nik

    • Right…so what are we to do?

      • Only way I can see is to somehow get the reviewers on our side. If reviewer X for mag-blog-whatever says in his review that band Y’s new release has some great music on it but the sound has been so distorted by the mastering engineer it’s very hard to listen to.
        I’m continually disappointed that I never hear anything like this from the “Golden Ears on High” over at Stereophile, TAS, etc. But I won’t get into going down that road. We need their help along with others in the reviewing side of the industry.
        Only way to make the labels and artists pay attention is for their work to start getting bad reviews and sales suffer cause of it.

  4. Yesterday, after a few minutes of annoying listening, I throw another CD in the garbage. All songs DR was between 3 and 5. I think the WAR is lost unless we find a way to educate general public about this matter. For now, most of us don’t care/don’t know about it. It’s sad to listen them killing the music.

    • Hi Mark,

      Thanks for the bringing my post to the attention of your audience. I have to respond though, because you’ve completely missed my point !

      Hands up, that’s probably my fault – I wrote my post fast, because I was excited about my discovery that YouTube was using normalisation, and perhaps I didn’t explain myself clearly as a result. I’ll try again.

      Of course YouTube’s normalisation doesn’t help with music that has already been crushed – but the point is, it removes the motivation to do it again in future.

      I said it more clearly in my follow-up post to the one you linked to:

      “As more people (like Daft Punk, Pharrell, Mark Ronson et al) experiment with more dynamic masters, those masters are going to sound better (punchier, livelier) than more squashed stuff. On YouTube, on iTunes Radio, on Spotify, and any device that uses ReplayGain – pretty much everywhere, in other words.

      And just like our clients used to ask us “why does that sound better ?” when they heard a master that sounded louder, they’ll start to ask “why does that sound better” when they hear something that sounds more dynamic.

      That’s when we get to tell them why, and that’s when the word will start to really spread.”

      What I’m saying is – when songs are loudness-matched, the ones with balanced, powerful dynamics will sound *better* than the ones that have simply been smashed in the old loudness-war style.

      And by the way, that’s what I mean when I say “move your masters from puny to powerful” on my site – powerful doesn’t mean loud. Mastering makes songs louder than the mixes often, yes – but only when it serves the music, when I do it. Music can’t sound powerful without dynamics, that’s the point. Ask any of the hundreds of people who’ve taken my course – for me, it’s all about finding the “sweet spot”, not making something loud for its own sake.

      Your suggestion that I’m “part of the problem” baffles me – I regularly turn down work from people who want me to make masters louder than I think is good for the music. I founded Dynamic Range Day to raise awareness of this issue, and I developed my Perception plugin to help people clearly hear the effects of excessive loudness processing and find a better, balanced solution instead.

      Anyway, back to my main point – my argument is, when music is loudness-normalised as YouTube have just done, the horrible crushed sound of most current releases won’t make them stand out any more.

      My belief and hope is that over time, the “loudness addicted” industry and engineers you talked about will realise this, and simply stop doing it. And as a result, music will sound better, and we’ll all benefit.

      And that’s something I’m pretty sure you’ll agree would be a good thing !

      • Ian, thanks for stopping by. I’m with you on the goal, I’m just not ready to acknowledge that the loudness wars are over…or even that they are diminishing. The mastering sessions that I see going on in my facility certainly are getting more dynamic…they are getting louder still. And when Andrew Scheps brags about getting 18 dB over reference for the Metallica recording…I’m discouraged. We’ll see how the YouTube plays out but I don’t believe we will ever get the Genie back in the bottle.

        I know you’re one of the good guys…and I probably hit too hard. But we’ll all in business and turning down business based on personal preferences doesn’t happen in Hollywood. The people that want the best sounding recordings aren’t the ones making the decisions.

        I’ve been lumping all mastering engineers in the problem side of the equation side of the issue. Not because you or Bob Ludwig or anyone else really want to destroy the natural dynamics of a record but because the labels and artists are demanding it.

        • Hi Mark,

          I actually think things are getting more polarised – the worst stuff is even worse than it ever was, but I also see loads of incredibly successful releases with better dynamics, like the three I mentioned in my previous reply just for starters.

          Overall I see a positive trend, though. I think you’re right, it will take a long time for sanity to return, but I do hope the the fact that ITunes Radio, Spotify and now YouTube all use normalisation will be a powerful driver.

          To address your other point – I’m in business too, and when people ask me to master stuff louder than I’m happy too, I respectfully suggest they’ll get a better result somewhere else.

          When I do that, one of two things happen. Maybe 25% of the time people say “thanks, I respect you for that” and go away happy – and in some cases recommend me to their friends who aren’t dead-set on loudness.

          But the rest of the time, they say “well, do it your way and we’ll see what we think” – and they almost always come back and say “that sounds great, and it’s plenty loud enough”.

          Despite my approach, business is good, here.

          Ian

          PS. Most people don’t read the comments, so won’t see my reply – I’d like to ask you to remove the lines where you “hit too hard”, please. I’m perfectly happy for you to disagree with me in public, but I feel your post as it stands doesn’t accurately represent my point of view.

          • No problem Ian. I will write tomorrow about our exchange and lift the load some. I’m glad you’re doing well. Keep up the good work…

  5. I think it’s an over-generalisation to say that mastering engineers are part of the problem. They’re often instructed to brickwall the albums they work on and a bunch of them have voiced their opposition to it. I can name a few off the top of my head: Richard Dodd, Heba Kadry, Bob Katz, James Guthrie. Also Bob Ludwig depending on which day of the week you ask him.

    • You’re right. There is a role to play but unfortunately the demands by the labels take precedence over the wishes of the “hired” mastering guys. If they want to keep working of artist A or B or label A or B, they will tow the line.

  6. The obvious solution would be for consumers to vote with their cash and avoid the heavily compressed recordings. Alas, there is no sign of this happening, so the loudness war will carry on.

    If only there was a way of adding a ‘set dynamic range’ instruction to the metadata, that would in turn be acted on by the replay equipment, we could all be happy.

    • My hope would be that we can change the delivery model…but it’s not likely to happen.

  7. Another great post. You have to wonder how he could get this so wrong. He’s obviously a sharp guy.
    I spent some time looking at Ian Shephard web site and came across this link posted by one of his readers.

    VERY interesting read, you should check it out:

    http://people.xiph.org/~xiphmont/demo/neil-young.html

    • See his response above. As for the Xiph.org article, it’s well known and I agree with a lot of what Monty has to say. But he’s not right about the basic concept of high-resolution audio making a difference.

    • With respect, Mark has missed my point, despite being a sharp guy himself.

      And I agree, the post you linked to is very interesting – so much so that I wrote a post about it myself.

  8. Ever since I started to read about, what Ian Shepherd is doing (and how he is doing it), I have thought of him as ‘one of the good guys’.
    He is certainly doing an excellent job – and should be encouraged in any way to keep on doing it!

    • Ian is one of the good guys. I didn’t intend to call him out specifically on the mastering business….I think that mastering should be done differently across the board. And so does Ian. Read the comments, he’s written about his efforts.

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