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.