This March 25th marks the second annual Dynamic Range Day, an occasion put together by UK mastering engineer Ian Shepherd in order to call professional and public attention to the problem of overly loud audio mastering—the so-called "loudness war"—which has left us in a world where Justin Bieber is louder than Motorhead.
While mastering engineers have been pushing the limits of gear (and good taste) since the jukebox reigned supreme, the necessity of keeping stylus in groove imposed a physical limit on just how loud vinyl records could be. Compression—the narrowing of the dynamic range of an audio signal by making quiet passages relatively louder and loud passages relatively quieter—is used to boost the perceived volume of recordings. Once a recording's dynamic range is limited, an engineer can take advantage of the "extra" headroom left by the flattening out of peaks and valleys in the signal to raise the overall level. This can be done sensitively—or not.
Once CDs came along, engineers no longer had to worry about transients sending tonearms skipping off platters, and the loudness war began in earnest. The 1990s saw levels moving further towards 0 dbFS—the top of the digital scale. Some blame the new popularity of digital compressors (TC Electronic's Finalizer and Waves' L1 Ultramaximizer are the usual scapegoats, though extreme compression can be done almost as easily in the analog domain), but whatever the cause, everybody looked around, saw their competitors turning it up to 10, and decided to go to 11.
The result is the crispy, crunchy, headache-inducing, everything-louder-than-everything-else sound of today.
The situation came to mass awareness with the release of Metallica's 2008 Death Magnetic, a record so compressed—against the mastering engineer's will, mind you—that the band's fans petitioned for a remix, and in some cases opted for the superior fidelity of the "Guitar Hero" version.
Some good came out of the debacle—initiatives like Ian Shepherd's (and turnmeup.org, on this side of the Atlantic) got off the ground in its wake, and while the handlers of the pop titans (see Justin Bieber, above)—and a surprising list of others—continue to deform their productions ever closer to a square wave, the backlash against Death Magnetic has gained fairly widespread support. Even Axl Rose decided to strike a blow for sensitivity when it came time to master one of the most belabored studio confections in recent memory. So perhaps there's hope for the future.
In the meantime, of course, you can still listen to vinyl.
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