Recording - June 2013 - (Page 8)
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The Loudness Wars, for beginners
Hey everyone. I’m still using/reading Recording as I have since the early days. Still love it.
I wanted to ask something about compression on final mixes. This ever-controversial subject and its place in the loudness
wars came up again in the December 2012 issue. It’s an ongoing dilemma and as many times as I have read different opinions about it, I have never heard anyone talk about using maximizers like the Waves L2 Ultramaximizer or Voxengo’s
Elephant to bring up the level on final mixes.
This assumes you’re not going to master your tracks or that this might be done after final mastering. My music is not radiobound, but when I share my music with friends on CD, I don’t want them to have to hit the volume on the remote because my
music is not as loud as the rest of the CDs in their player. Can’t maximizers be used to raise the gain without destroying the mix?
Harry: Nice to hear from you again, and glad to know we’re still helping you out after many years of reading (and
thoughtful letters)! Now then...
When you talk about a “maximizer”, what you’re really talking about is a special form of limiter that gets music as
loud as it can be without clipping, sometimes with multiple stages of compression or other DSP to bring average levels
up as much as possible... and yes, with everyone else in the world battling for fickle listeners’ attention by slamming
their levels up against 0 dBFS, those devices make a strong case for themselves.
The Loudness War is tied to a very basic human perception: when it comes to music, Louder Is Better. Louder is more
exciting, more emotionally connected, more engaging... if you hear two identical mixes, one 3 dB louder than the other,
you will state categorically that the louder one sounds better (unless it’s so loud it’s distorting your amp or speakers!).
The problem is, music can only get so loud in the realm of digital recording before it simply clips... so you have a definite “ceiling” that you can’t exceed.
Fortunately (or unfortunately, depending on whom you ask!) the human ear doesn’t hear and process peaks. It judges
loudness based on average levels over time. The object of the game, when using a “maximizer”, isn’t to make the peaks
any louder than they are already... it’s to bring everything else up to the level of the peaks. The “ideal pop/rock mix”
has everything as loud as everything else, all the time, everywhere.
A waveform of an aggressively limited mix, displayed over time, doesn’t get larger or smaller; it’s flat as a brick. I find
it ironic that modern recording engineers complain that 16-bit audio, with its 96 dB of effective dynamic range, is insufficient for proper music recording... and then turn around and release albums where the total dynamic range, the
largest difference between the very softest and loudest parts of the record, is 9 dB or less.
There has been some backlash against this in the professional music world, but the voices that cry out against overly limited mixes are still relatively few and far between. There are specific albums that have been pointed to repeatedly as examples of maximization pushed too far, the most famous one (even now, five years later) being Metallica’s
Death Magnetic, where the mixes released in the Guitar Hero video game actually sounded far better than what was
put on the final CD!
The Metallica case actually points up an interesting fact about maximization: Ted Jensen, the mastering engineer on
the project, reportedly stated that the mixes came to him ruined that way and there was nothing he could do to rescue
them; something happened to the audio between the point where the tracks were delivered to the Guitar Hero people
and when they went to Mr. Jensen. The point here is that blowing your average level to hell can happen anywhere in the
recording process: tracking, mixing, or mastering. It’s often the fault of the mastering process, but not always.
But there’s another fact worth mentioning about the Death Magnetic case: many people say the album, even maxed
out as it is, sounds perfectly fine to them. People didn’t turn away in droves from the CD; it sold in huge numbers and
there were complaints on audio forums but not many returns. The battle to put dynamic range back into music remains
an uphill one, and it can only be fought track by track.
Which brings me to an answer for your question: Yes, it is certainly possible to use tools like L2 or Elephant tastefully,
especially if the final result is going to be music that’s not going to a further mastering stage. But the key word here is “tastefully”! The ultimate goal of a good rock mix is that it sounds exciting and engaging without being painful or fatiguing, at
any volume level. An overly maximized record will sound like garbage even when played back softly; a well-limited recording that retains its dynamics will sound great at medium volumes and just get better as you turn it up (within reason).
Having been a recording musician since well before CDs were invented, I can remember what excited me most about
the new digital recording media: silences could be really silent, without a lot of rumble and hiss and crackle, giving the
opportunity for a lot more expression and dynamic range; quiet passages could be left quiet without being marred by background artifacts. Yes, listeners sometimes had to turn them up a bit when compared to other CDs, but that’s a small price
to pay for having control of the volume and the excitement level in the listener’s hands, where (in my opinion) it belongs.
Thanks for reading!—MM
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RECORDING June 2013
Table of Contents for the Digital Edition of Recording - June 2013
Recording - June 2013
SXSW 2013—From Guerilla To Gorilla
Reviewed & Revisited: Ableton Live 9 and Push
Universal Audio Teletronix LA-2A Classic Leveler Collection for UAD-2
Reviewed & Revisited: Steinberg Cubase 7
Reviewed & Revisited: MOTU Digital Performer 8
Ingram Engineering MPA685
Reviewed & Revisited: PreSonus Studio One 2.5
Reviewed & Revisited: Cakewalk SONAR X2
Recording Fundamentals. Chapter 18: Headphones—Part 1
Recording’s Showcase of Sounds
For Your Bookshelf
Recording - June 2013