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What The Hell Is 0 dB? (A Quick Word About Decibels)

Posted by Keith Freund On January - 19 - 20124 COMMENTS

(Updated 2/4/12) Despite a formal education and real world training at some serious recording studios, I’ve always been amazed at how far along I had to come as an engineer just to learn some very basic information and points of confusion (a big reason for starting this blog by the way). When you do something for the better part of your life, you sometimes forget how much you really know. That’s part of why the best audio engineers are not always the best teachers.

When I started out, the decibel confused me.

I had read that a jet engine was 140 dB, a library was 30 dB, a rock concert was 115 dB, etc. Why then, I wondered, do digital and analog meters go from negative infinity (silence) to 0 dB (absolute loudest)? And why is it that track faders can go up to +6 or +12 dB?

I’m not going to get into all the gruesome details here, I’m just going to set forth one basic, but extremely important concept: there is more than one kind of decibel.

Decibels in the digital realm are called dBFS or “Decibels Full Scale.” Decibels in the real world (the kind used to measure a jet engine) are called dB SPL or “Sound Pressure Level.”

Now let’s apply this knowledge to a WAV file you might receive back from a mastering engineer. In the end, how loudly people hear your master is going to be determined by the playback system (iPod, car stereo, studio monitors, etc.) and whoever controls the volume knob.* This means that in the real world, even a recording that peaks at 0 dBFS and is -5 dBFS on average (very loud) can be as quiet as a library or as loud as a jet engine upon playback.

So the dBFS of your master really only indicates how loud your song will be relative to other songs when played back under identical circumstances. So if someone plays a Notorious BIG track that’s -8 dBFS on average, and your track is -6 dBFS, you’ll be louder than Biggie every time (unless some asshole decides to turn it down when your song comes on).

dB Adjustments Within Pro Tools and on Actual Recording Consoles

It’s also important to note that when you set your snare drum’s volume fader to +6 dB in Pro Tools or on a console, you’re not making the snare 6 dB SPL, your snare has not become one twenty-third of a jet engine or one fifth of a library. You’re also not making it 6 dBFS (which doesn’t exist) either. You’re just adding 6 dBFS to whatever the sound file’s initial volume was. So if you record that snare into Pro Tools hitting -5 dB on the meters, and set the fader to +4 dB, your snare is now -1 dBFS. And like I said before, the loudest anything can ever be in the digital realm is 0 dBFS. This also called “digital zero.” (Going over digital zero is what causes clipping.)

There are other types of decibels, but these two are the most important to grasp for now.

Any questions?

*Further still, final perceived loudness must also take into account the distance between the listener and the speakers, as well as dB SPL.

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.

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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.

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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.

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