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Loud vs. Punchy

Loud vs. Punchy


How History Repeated Itself

Our story begins...

A great many years ago, long before I was a twinkle in my Daddy’s eye, there was a very smart man who figured out that he could sell background music to businesses (even to offices).  He reasoned, correctly, that odd little noises like the clacking of typewriters (remember those?), the ringing of distant phones, footsteps, not-quite-heard conversations, and other things that went bump in the day could distract workers, making them less efficient. By supplying a smooth, even sound to cover all those annoying little jaggedy sounds, he could help businessmen make more money, and they would be so grateful that they would give some of the extra money they thus made to him....  or something like that. This man named his business, and his product, Muzak.  The company slogan was “Music Not to be Listened To”.

Muzak became very successful.  Of course, you couldn’t just use any old (or new) music as Muzak: it had to be a very special kind of music. It had to be so “smooth” as to be bland, never exciting, but always easy and mellow.  Part of that trademark “smoothness” was that the level of the music never changed;  it had pretty much no dynamics at all.  In fact, this was so important that it became common for the music to be quite compressed. Done this way, it could be kept just barely audible all the time.  It could always be just loud enough to cover up the jaggedy little noises, while still being quiet enough to allow people to hold conversations comfortably without having to raise their voices.

Yes, Muzak became a household word.  Everybody knew what it was, partly because it seemed to be almost everywhere, even in elevators. Everyone heard Muzak, but not everybody liked it.  They began to use the sneering term “elevator music” for anything that was annoyingly bland.  Eventually the term “Muzak” became something not very nice. After the Beatles broke up, John Lennon once insulted Paul McCartney by including in one of his songs the line “The sound you make is Muzak to my ears”.

The Call of the Loud

The rock ‘n roll generation didn’t care much for Muzak at all. They wanted energy and excitement.  They wanted music with PUNCH to it (and spiked punch at that!). Record producers and engineers began to understand this desire, and they learned to record and mix music in a way that made it as punchy as possible. This was music to shake you up, music you had to dance to, and its driving impact became the heartbeat of a whole generation.  There was a power to it, a power that often found its expression in sheer volume.  Concerts became almost a competition to see who could be the loudest band in the world.

The pursuit of loudness reached the record industry. Mastering engineers began to compete to see who could cut the loudest record that could still be played.  Producers now had a new goal:  when their record was played on the air, they wanted THEIR song to jump right out of the radio, grabbing listeners’ attention by being louder than the other records.

Radio stations got the idea too, and managers pestered engineers to make their station the loudest one on the dial. Thus the loudness wars began.  Station engineers began to develop their own “secret weapons” for the war, usually involving the use of compression, sometimes even clipping. In response to this new “market”,  companies began to manufacture better and more sophisticated loudness weapons for radio stations to use.

Enter digital audio. The advent of the Compact Disc changed the game again. Now every mastering engineer had the exact SAME peak limit beyond which they could NOT go: otherwise they would run out of numbers, and smashing into that limit would sound like “SPLAT!” (it sounded like something else, too...). Digital signal processing, though, opened up new possibilities for more powerful loudness weapons. Peaks could be squashed harder, average levels could go higher, and thus the music could be louder...  sort of.

Unintended Consequences

The pursuit of the Loudest Possible CD had an ironic side effect:  the music now had (actually, HAS) less impact than it did before. Why? Because, in one respect, the music had become just like Muzak: it had no dynamic range. In fact, it is now possible to use many commercially released CD’s the same way you would use Muzak: their level is now so constant that you can turn the volume way down and still hear it all the time... sort of like the old Elevator Music.  You can make it just loud enough to cover all the jaggedy little noises in the office, yet still keep it quiet enough that people can hold conversations comfortably without having to raise their voices.

Well, now I have a message for all those “style guy” record execs out there: The sound you make is Muzak to my ears.

Today there is a real challenge for independent recording artists who want their product to compete in the market place. Current practice confronts them with an important conflict of interest:  on the one hand, they want their product to compete effectively with all the Major Label releases, which to many means being “loud enough” to keep up;  on the other hand, they want their music to sound good, to stand up to repeated listenings, and to have PUNCH.

  The Emperor is Naked!

The Major Labels have been the Gold Standard of “quality” for so long that most new artists, producers, and engineers just assume that everything the Big Guys do with (or to) their sound MUST be good.  To these guys my message is:  Question Authority. Sure, copy the Good Parts of the Major Label Sound, just don’t copy the Bad Parts too. The hard part here is learning to tell the good from the bad, and unfortunately I cannot give your ears (or mine) the Magic Five Minute Expert Tune-up.  I can, however, give you a few ideas to help you get started.

For starters, consider the fact that the idea that you can make a loud recording is a myth.  If we define loudness as “the listener hears high levels of sound”, we are only a step away from realizing that we CANNOT control the loudness at our listener’s ear. Only the Listener can do that, with an amazingly simple device called a VOLUME CONTROL.  On the back of at least one of the Rolling Stones’ older albums, printed in big letters, is the instruction “This Record Should Be Played Loud”. Clearly, that producer understood who controlled the volume, and it sure wasn’t the producer.

Trouble On The Air

Now, I will grant you that the Radio Guys do not understand this principle, so naturally they expect the recordings they get to be HOT.  It is probably a good idea to give these guys special CD’s that are mastered they way they demand, but if you want to have good, dynamic, PUNCHY recordings for sale to the public, your radio promo discs should be the ONLY ones that are “aggressively “ mastered. 

Actually, even that presents a serious problem:  When “slam the wall”  mastering has been pushed too far, the processing at the radio station will actually cause its sonic impact to be REDUCED. There is another trick now sometimes used in mastering that I will only describe so that you may know NOT to use it:  this trick is popularly called SHRED. The master gain is actually pushed up until a fair number of the peaks are actually CLIPPED, and the resulting signal is then turned down just a hair to prevent “clip” lights from showing on later equipment. Parts of the processing at the radio station later will actually cause the “flat tops” to move to other places in the waveform, and may thus leave still other peaks that will be further “treated” by the processor.  The resulting sound is WORSE than the sound of the CD itself.

I will repeat this point because it is VERY important: If you use SHRED (or are otherwise overly aggressive) in mastering, not only have you damaged the quality of the product your audience buys, you are also actually DEFEATING the purpose of broadcast processing, which is to get the maximum sense of overall loudness from recordings. Even the manufacturers of the hottest broadcast processing gear are concerned about this. Two of the top design engineers in this field got together to explain their concerns in the article “What Happens To My Recording When It’s Played On The Radio?”.

Still, the expectations of radio execs and uneducated “focus groups” may force you to push for loudness at all costs in order to get on the air.  You may have to cater to the ignorance of radio execs, but you do not have to force the same stupidity on your paying customers, the people who actually BUY your recordings. Give your paying customers the value they deserve so that they will keep wanting to play your CD again and again, instead of getting tired of it right away because of the listening fatigue that SHRED (and excessive limiting in general) will cause.

Getting Real Loudness

Next fact: If you want your “record to be played loud”, you need to make your listener WANT to turn it up loud. Part of how you do that is to give him a sound that is punchy and dynamic, that actually includes quieter parts so that the loud spots can have IMPACT.  If you squeeze your levels to the max all the time, the listener can turn the volume way down and still hear all of it.  In more cases than you might think, that is exactly what the listener will do.  When I am listening to music, I usually turn up the volume just enough to clearly hear the quietest parts.  The quieter those parts are, the more I turn up the volume so that I can hear them.  For music that Stays Loud, I usually turn down the volume.

If you have never heard this idea before, I promise you that I did not invent it (although I am trying to be original in how I explain it).  Bob Katz of Digital Domain mastering covers this idea in some detail, both on his website and in his book “Mastering Audio”. He goes at it from a different angle, though:  he suggests that in both mastering and mixing it is a good idea to have a calibrated monitor system, so that a certain recording level is always heard at the same volume. If you do this, and listen consistently at a given volume, you can develop a sense of how loud a mix really is. Understand that there is NO meter that can consistently tell you how loud a signal will actually SOUND. Some meters come closer to it than others, but the best way to measure actual loudness is still with your ears (once you get them trained). At Digital Domain, they actually set the monitor volume control according to how much they intend to compress a mix.  The more aggressive the processing will be, the lower they set the volume control, so that they can consistently set the level so that it “sounds right”.

What Bob Katz does and recommends, then, is a more precise version of what I do both in my studio and in my car: The more compressed the source material is, the lower the volume is set.  I do use a proper stepped volume control in my studio, and I am getting to where I can look at where I set that volume knob and know, to some extent, how heavily processed the music is.

Happily Ever After?

So, with your own music and recordings, there is a choice you can make.  You can make your recordings exciting and dynamic so that listeners will want to “play it loud”, or you can smash your sound flat enough to make it Muzak to their ears. You WILL go more one way or the other.  If I have done my job here, at least now you may KNOW which way you are going (it is sad how many do not...).


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