Need Mastering?
Learn more now
© 2022 Fix Your Mix. All rights reserved.

Use Bandcamp To Release Dynamic Versions Of Your Mixes

Posted by Keith Freund On March - 20 - 20103 COMMENTS

For a thorough explanation of dynamic range and the “loudness war,” read: An Explanation of The Loudness War That Even Your Dad Will Understand. But here’s the gist: in order to make a mix louder, mastering engineers have to increase the volume of the softest points in the music to be closer to the loudest points. This is called decreasing the dynamic range.

Today, March 20th, has been declared “Dynamic Range Day” by Ian Shepherd, the guy who broke the Death Magnetic / Loudness War story. His proposal? EVERYONE SHOULD TYPE IN ALL CAPS ON TWITTER AND SCREAM EVERYTHING ALL DAY IN ORDER TO SHOW NORMAL PEOPLE HOW ANNOYED THEY SHOULD (THEORETICALLY) BE WITH OVERCOMPRESSED/OVERLIMITED MUSIC… BECAUSE BY YELLING ALL DAY YOU ARE DECREASING THE DYNAMIC RANGE OF YOUR OWN SELF EXPRESSION AND THEREBY PISSING PEOPLE OFF.

From what I understand, the idea is to protest the loudness war, raise awareness, and ultimately persuade others to join the effort to preserve dynamics in future recordings, without the fear of being quieter than everyone else’s record.

Sad_Waves_L2

As musicians and audio engineers, we bitch and moan about a lot of things that 98% of the population really doesn’t care about. But we got them to hate Auto-Tune, didn’t we? While it may be a tougher sell, the “Loudness War” could be next, even if on a smaller scale.

Personally, I’m not as averse to extreme mix compression as some engineers are, but I certainly appreciate big dynamics when it makes sense. The problem is that a bigger dynamic range means lower average loudness (RMS). And loudness is one of the few things non-musicians notice about our line of work. (They only notice it when it’s too quiet, which apparently makes the song sound “amateur” to them.)

TurnMeUp.org is proposing that artists release more dynamic recordings and display their “Turn Me Up!” logo in the packaging.

Turn_Me_Up_Logo_Small

But I’d like to suggest an alternative to experiment with:

Let your fans decide what they want using Bandcamp’s “hidden tracks” feature.

Bandcamp is by far the coolest and most artist-friendly online music retailer out there. It’s free to sign up, they take no percentage of your sales (except PayPal’s standard transaction fee), and it doesn’t require your fans to create an account in order to purchase your music. (More on Bandcamp at the bottom of this post.)

One of their coolest features is the “hidden tracks” option. This allows you to include songs that your fans won’t be able to preview or purchase individually.

So I’m proposing that you have your mixing or mastering engineer give you two passes for each song. One squashed to living hell and one that is on average about 3 dB less squashed to hell.

Now I know what you’re thinking. “But Keith, Stephanie Status Quo doesn’t know about dynamic range, won’t she just pick the louder versions and get confused about the other ones?” She may. But many of your fans will get curious and do some research. Perhaps you’ll explain it briefly in your liner notes. And if a bunch of artists do this, hardcore music fans will appreciate it, people will start talking about it, and eventually insist that their favorite artists include masters with some dynamic range. That is, if the masses come to a consensus that they don’t like the lack of dynamics in today’s recordings.

It also ties into this power shift in the music industry we’ve been experiencing–away from the major labels and towards the artists. The ‘suits’ mainly cared about whether you got hooked enough in the first few seconds to buy it, so A&R would push mastering engineers to their limits (although artists do this too now). Repeat listens didn’t matter much except for selling the next record. Artists, on the other hand, stand to gain much more if their record is your favorite, not something you forget a week later, because it brings you to their shows, gets you to buy merch–pots that labels don’t have their hands in. If people become more informed on this issue, certain types of artists may rethink how loud they want their record to be, in terms of longevity vs immediate attention grabs.

A Philosophical Counterargument

Another, more subjective counterargument, could be the philosophical one–that artists must be (or at least seem) decisive in how they intend their music to be. This may be valid, but perhaps my proposal would still work as a transitional step. The more awareness that is spread, the less necessary it will be to include louder versions. Plus, blogs will totally blog you for being so innovative, so that’ll make up for it.

I hope some of you will try this out and let us know what the response is. And send links! – [email protected]

The Soundcheck Solution

My solution comes from the artist’s end, Ian’s comes from the artist+listener+engineer end, but there is actually another type of entity that can effect change in this arena: the companies who control the manner in which people listen to music. Audio software developers and hardware manufacturers.

Apple has already helped in the fight against overcompressed records by enabling their Soundcheck functionality by default in iTunes. Soundcheck calculates the average (RMS) loudness of every song in your library and adjusts them accordingly so that all songs will be the same average volume. This means Death Magnetic gets turned down and your record stays the same–but with more punch and dynamics.

More About Bandcamp.com

Here’s why Bandcamp is the only existing online music store that can compete against iTunes and Amazon MP3:

  • Fans don’t have to create an account to purchase music.
  • Flexible sales options:
    • Free
    • Free if the fan provides their email address
    • Artist sets the price
    • Fans name their own price
    • Artist sets a minimum price, but fans can pay more if they choose (Bandcamp says that on average, fans pay 50% more than the minimum price unless you give them a free option)
  • No approval or wait time–songs can be purchased immediately after they have been uploaded.
  • Fans can choose from a number of file formats (MP3, AAC/M4A, FLAC, etc.)
  • No signup fees
  • No percentage taken (except PayPal transaction fees, approx 5%)
  • No ads
  • Embeddable streaming player with advanced song stats (including full vs partial song plays)
  • Allows you to include multimedia content
  • Can optionally embed your lyrics and artwork into the files themselves, which
  • Clean layout. No Myspace-esque clutter or distractions (see Miss Geo’s Bandcamp page)
  • Allows you to create “download codes” for promotional offers and digital sales in person
  • Hidden. Freaking. Tracks.

*One of my first audio-related memories was when I first bought The Cure’s Disintegration. I bought the CD, sat down on my living room couch, popped it into my CD player, put on headphones, and got lost in a swirl of effects and extended instrumental intros as I listened to the album in its entirety (okay technically I fell asleep but it was a great nap). As I listened, I stumbled upon something peculiar in the liner notes:

“This album was mastered to be played loud, so TURN IT UP!”

Now in those days I didn’t know anything about engineering, so I grew curious about what it meant to master an album to be played loud. In the end I decided it was just some BS their audio engineer told them that they decided to run with. And who doesn’t want their fans to blast their album at full volume?

Of course I now know that the reason is because the album had a very large dynamic range and therefore had a lower average loudness (RMS) than other releases at the time.

I got an email from my father today directing me to an internet forum debate regarding how over-compression in mastering is ruining music today and I responded with what you’re about to read–the simplest, most easy-to-read breakdown on this topic I could come up with–an explanation that anyone will be able to understand. No flowery or abstract adjectives, just the meat and potatoes. If something still isn’t clear, leave a comment. I’m mostly posting this article to save myself some time (to direct our clients to) but this post may be helpful for other mastering engineers who’d like to do the same.

Note: this post refers to sound compression, not MP3 or zip compression. Learn more about the differences between sound compression and data compression here.

What Is Mastering Compression?

squashed waveform 2

Mastering compression* (“limiting”) reduces the dynamic range of a recording. Dynamic range is the range between the loudest and quietest point in a recording or section of a recording. Dynamics and loudness are inversely proportional: the less dynamic a recording is, the higher the average loudness of that recording can be, and vice versa. Today, there is said to be a ‘Loudness War’ between labels trying to release the loudest records possible.


The Pros and Cons of Loudness


When we’re talking about the consequences of loudness, we’re really talking about two different things:

  • From a macro perspective: A louder/less dynamic recording means all of the sections of the song will be about the same volume. For ‘Verse Chorus Verse’ style songs, the benefit is that the song comes in loud right off the bat and stays loud from section to section. The downside is it means the chorus doesn’t “hit you” or sound as big as it otherwise might because there is little or no change from the verse to the chorus. In fact, if there’s more stuff going on during the chorus, individual elements may actually get smaller. For example, heavily compressed rock mixes tend to have a bigger snare sound during the verses than the choruses.
  • From a micro perspective: Compression from one beat to another is hard for the untrained ear to hear, unless it’s very extreme. And even then it is hard to explain what it is you’re hearing–you just know it sounds bad. At this scale, compression makes the mix sound more “exciting” right away, but if overdone can be fatiguing on the ear to listen to. Perhaps more importantly, the drums will often be less punchy if a mix is more heavily compressed.** A former coworker and assistant to one of my all-time favorite mixers once said to me, “mastering ruins everything.”


Is Louder Better?


There was a psychological study which showed that people consistently prefer recordings that are louder, even by an increment as small as 1 dB, even when they’re not told what the change is. (Anyone want to find the link for me?) If you want an extreme example of over-compression, just listen to the radio. They use a more complex system of compression to get recordings even louder than CDs. And yet for every person who puts up a fuss in the blogosphere/messageboardiverse about mastering ruining music today, I have a memory of someone in my childhood telling me how they like the sound of radio. It just has that magic je ne sais quoi. There have been studies which indicate that loudness has a strong effect on which radio station a person will stop on when channel surfing.


While I consider myself to be more of a ‘new school’ engineer rather than one pining for the days of yore, I sometimes wish more records today had bigger dynamic changes. My favorite example is “Quiet” by the Smashing Pumpkins, which came out in 1993 before the Loudness Wars really began. It will probably be hard to tell on YouTube, but when the guitar solo comes in on the record, the song just gets so much louder. If you already have the song cranked, the solo will hurt your ears a little bit. Now that, ladies and gentlemen, is rock & roll.


For a case study in consumer backlash against loudness, check out my post about the Metallica album Death Magnetic.


*The type of compression I’m talking about here is “limiting”, a specific type of compression that comes at the end of every mastering engineer’s signal chain. I’m using the term compression throughout the post because it will be more familiar to musicians and readers.


**If I know that a project I’m mixing will be mastered by someone else, I usually try to make my drums a little punchier than I want them in order to compensate for the effect that mastering will have, unless I know the mastering engineer tends to go easy on the compression. This is also why it is usually best to select a mastering engineer that your mix engineer has worked with in the past, so that the mix engineer can anticipate what will happen to the mix in the mastering stage and mix accordingly.

The Loudness War & Metallica’s “Death Magnetic”

Posted by Keith Freund On December - 17 - 20081 COMMENT

When Nirvana’s Nevermind came out, it was touted as one of the loudest albums ever released. Today, if that album came onto your iTunes playlist after Death Magnetic, you’d have to turn your speakers up considerably to hear it.*


Death Magnetic album coverPsychological studies have shown that a recording’s loudness dramatically affects how much people like a song and how likely it is that a person will stop on a certain radio station. The solution? Limiting: a process which effectively turns up the quietest parts of a recording, automatically raising its overall loudness. A limiter is one of the last pieces in the mastering signal chain and arguably the most important.


Done properly, limiting can add energy to a song. Taking it too far a la Death Magnetic, however, may cause ear fatigue, a subconscious phenomenon akin to reading under dim light, straining the listener’s ears and making him or her want to turn off the music after extended listening periods.


Metallica‘s latest has received a flood of criticism and media attention regarding the presence of over-limiting and digital clipping, an unpleasant-sounding Guitar Hero for Wiidistortion that occurs when a sound medium is overloaded beyond its volume limit.


The audio community has been debating the so-called “loudness war” for years but never before have consumers been able to hear the difference for themselves. Enter Guitar Hero: World Tour, which allows users to access an unmastered version of Death Magnetic – and it sounds a lot better.


Mastering engineer Ted Jensen defends himself:

“In this case the mixes were already [over-limited] before they arrived at my place […] I would never be pushed to overdrive things as far as they are here. Believe me I’m not proud to be associated with this one, and we can only hope that some good will come from this in some form of backlash against volume [being seen as the most important thing].”


It is hard to say who is responsible. The engineers who worked on the album have otherwise stellar track records. In any case, Death Magnetic may represent a new kind of revolution: one that gets quieter.


Personally, I find that clipping can benefit some recordings, but this new Metallica record took it too far. Add to this the fake-sounding drums and we’re left with one of the worst sound major recordings in recent years. What do you think? And to those of you who aren’t audio engineers: did you notice?


Also note: Another result of the loudness war is that many record labels have released “digitally remastered” versions of classic albums in order to compete with today’s recordings. If you want to compare Nevermind to Death Magnetic, use the original release for full effect.


*Soundcheck notwithstanding.


Sources: Tape Op (Nov/Dec ’08), AllMusic.com

WORK WITH US







Featured Columns