Play It Loud

If you play music loud does it sound better? You might think the answer is yes if you took a survey of the vendors demoing last weekend at the Capitol Audio Fest. As I was packing up on Sunday afternoon, I got talking to a few fellow audiophiles about which rooms they really liked. The conversation turned to the issue of certain rooms that seemed to measure the accuracy of their playback experience by how much amplitude they could pump out of their amplifiers and speakers. And yesterday I received a follow up email from an attendee that included the following comment, “The SVS presentation was at least carrying the torch for multichannel, even if they were determined to deafen everyone.

Does increased volume translate to “better” sound? It depends on how you define “better”. I’ve mentioned that I spent 13 years as a mastering engineer before deciding that mastering had transformed from a very sophisticated art and important step in the production of recording to the simple step of “make the thing as loud as possible…and then go a little further!”

Mastering involves a large number of steps. Some of them are merely procedural and others are subtler and involve artistic changes in the timbral balance of the tracks and the gentle pushing and pulling of tonal characteristics. This process requires a great playback system and an experienced pair of ears. The mastering engineer needs to know how to bridge the musical needs of a particular track with the technical capabilities of the mastering equipment (hardware or software).

The increasing demand from the record labels has made the ultimate loudness of a project the more important factor that must be accomplished during a mastering session. Audio waveforms that used to contain a variety of amplitudes are now completely devoid of dynamics. There is no musical reality with regards to dynamics presented by virtually all commercial tracks you hear on the radio, downloaded from iTunes or in demonstration rooms at audio trade shows. And maybe it’s not important to the general music consuming public. Bit it is to me.

I was 40 feet away from the SVS room on the fourth floor of the Sheraton Hotel and could easily hear Sting singing “Fields of Gold” amidst all of the conversations and audio clutter in the Magnolia sales room. Why? Because the mastering engineer that “finalized” the track was required by the record label to output the loudest possible rendition of that hit single. If you look at the waveform of “Fields of Gold” it is absolutely flat…it looks like a brick and the VU meters are locked at the extreme red end of their indicators. This is all deliberate and by design.

But why did the vendors in that particular demonstration room feel the need to crank up the volume beyond a reasonable listening level? Because the impact of loud music is undeniable. The bass comes at you like a chest pounding fist, the lead vocal is a uniform stream of lyrics wrapped around a mono dynamic string of notes and the rest of the band presses your eardrums to the max. Loud DOES the trick. But it is hardly appropriate for showing off audio components especially speakers!

High-end audio playback systems benefit most from tracks that have a variety of dynamics and tonal variations. The “micro dynamics” that a lot of equipment brochures brag about are a myth! There is no such thing. How do you get micro dynamics from a recording and playback system that is focused on delivering all loud all the time?

Unfortunately, most audiophiles don’t have much experience with real world musical dynamics. How many music fans have heard a rock band, jazz ensemble or singer/songwriter without the use of PA (public address system)? We live in an amplified world and have lost the acoustic reality of real instruments and voices.

Loud isn’t the prime indicator of musical quality.


Mark Waldrep, aka Dr. AIX, has been producing and engineering music for over 40 years. He learned electronics as a teenager from his HAM radio father while learning to play the guitar. Mark received the first doctorate in music composition from UCLA in 1986 for a "binaural" electronic music composition. Other advanced degrees include an MS in computer science, an MFA/MA in music, BM in music and a BA in art. As an engineer and producer, Mark has worked on projects for the Rolling Stones, 311, Tool, KISS, Blink 182, Blues Traveler, Britney Spears, the San Francisco Symphony, The Dover Quartet, Willie Nelson, Paul Williams, The Allman Brothers, Bad Company and many more. Dr. Waldrep has been an innovator when it comes to multimedia and music. He created the first enhanced CDs in the 90s, the first DVD-Videos released in the U.S., the first web-connected DVD, the first DVD-Audio title, the first music Blu-ray disc and the first 3D Music Album. Additionally, he launched the first High Definition Music Download site in 2007 called A frequency speaker at audio events, author of numerous articles, Dr. Waldrep is currently writing a book on the production and reproduction of high-end music called, "High-End Audio: A Practical Guide to Production and Playback". The book should be completed in the fall of 2013.

3 thoughts on “Play It Loud

  • July 31, 2013 at 3:05 pm

    For rock music, the answer is indeed yes! <=(notice loud sentence). I recall a paper that discusses how pounding, loud music induces a physical and mental effect — basically a 'high' — and that it only starts at over 96 dB.

    However, for assessing whether the playback equipment is of good quality, it would indeed be an impediment to the purchaser, because the same 'high' will come from good or bad equipment!

    As the seller, there lies a quandary. If you were the seller, would you want your customers to be experiencing the feel good 'high' of the music, or would you turn it down so they can make a cool and dispassionate analysis? (while griping that it doesn't 'do anything for me')

  • August 1, 2013 at 8:53 am

    I attended many HiFi and High End shows in Munich and Berlin, when I still lived in Germany, That was more than 10 years ago. The tendency must have changed, because then the typical volume level would not threaten your hearing. The levels were certainly a little higher than what someone would listen to for hours in his own home, but never disturbingly loud.
    BTW the best system I have had the pleasure to listen to was the MBL Top end system (Don’t know the model number anymore). The music chosen was a Haydn quartet and some Jazz band with a great singer. Very intimate and incredibly life like.
    Just for the knowledge of it I studied to be a sound engineer in Los Angeles for 7 months in 2005. That gave me a good understanding of what is going on and I am able to check sound files for what they are. True, nowadays even bands that were into great sound in the past, now have their music brick-walled, to have a better chance on the radio. Too bad. Good that there are still many labels that don’t do that kind of ‘treatment’ to their files.

  • August 28, 2013 at 8:54 am

    It doesn’t have to be loud to be good music.
    listening to the radio and if they hear a song that isn’t as loud as the radio then it’s imposed as “not good.” You’re right Professor, people are forgetting a big part of the dynamics music element. Music is transforming to what is louder, is better. Having society used to what is being given, which tires hearing perception. The dynamics in music is an element of music, which is being industrialized into a different period of time. I remember doing some voice over work, which was louder on my speakers compared to another set of laptop speakers. The client asked why my version sounded “better,” but it was just louder on my speakers. The client thought they were two totally different versions. That’s an example how society is used to louder audio.
    How would an un-­‐mastered song be played on the radio and compete with other songs and would there be any trouble for the deejay mixing in the un-­‐ mastered song? How do we address the lack of dynamics in music for today’s youth?


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