We have featured a number of posts from Sreejesh Nair's excellent blog. On this occasion we are going to feature an excerpt from Sreejesh's post entitled The Light Bulb Theory of Audio. We have been talking about loudness and intelligibility for broadcast content but what about music. We are seeing changes in the way music is being delivered with more and more streaming services normalising to loudness but there are other issues at play here too. Over to you Sreejesh...
It is no secret that the Loudness war is real. Every single song competed to be the loudest thereby bringing a lot of associated distortion to it. Today, this is being compensated by iTunes Sound Check, YouTube Loudness control etc. There is also a recommendation provided for Loudness of Audio Streaming and Network File Playback by the AES and the paper was Edited by Bob Katz.
Until then, it would be interesting to see how it has been affecting us over time. The first thing that comes to mind is the dynamic range. We have seen this reduce over the years to a point where there absolutely is nothing left. Reducing dynamic range may make the song exciting or “Pop” out. But that also means using more aggressive compression. Bringing out the lower levels and in a way killing transients. Over time, this means we are getting used to hearing music in the least enjoyable way. We claim nostalgia for older songs but loose out on the nuances when we hear it today. People today find it difficult to enjoy classical songs or scores because they are too long and take time to register. (Not all, but definitely a big number based on Age). A good example of creating this sense can be seen in the Dark Knight where Hans Zimmer scores the strings to forge the urgency and tension even though the contrast was that the scenes were cut with longer stays in the shots. (Try watching it without sound and it will be apparent!)
On speaking to a few friends, I have also noticed that the attack and release of compressors have also got shorter! Now that’s a strange thought and I cannot generalise for that but it is something to keep a note of and understand how all of this may be related. The sad fact is today radio stations will play MP3s, have compressed voice overs, less music play time, more speech, rising pitch, and so on. We may be creating a generation that is used to hearing codec distortion, masking, less transients, and not hearing real instruments in the real spaces. Not to mention non linear distortion in headphones and its effect on the perceived quality and the acceptability of quality that we have come to agree on over the years. A study on this has been undertaken by Steve F. Temme, Listen Inc., Dr. Sean E. Olive, and Harman International. That is something we need to make them hear.
We have a responsibility to deliver good sound not for the sake of music, but for the sake of Good Quality. Once quality is set as a standard, the only competition would be talent and artistry. We need to get this back. We need the Quincy Jones, Sir George Martin, and other legends for our generation. One day, we will. The Loudness Norms, effective EQ, and compression are the first steps we take.