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The Loudness War: Do Louder, Hypercompressed Recordings Sell Better?

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[Feature] The term “loudness war” refers to the ongoing competitive increase in the loudness of commercially distributed music. While this increase has been facilitated by the use of dynamic range compression, limiting, and clipping, the underlying cause is the belief that louder recordings sell better. This paper briefly reviews some possible side effects of the loudness war and presents evidence questioning the assumption that loudness is significantly correlated to listener preference and sales ranking.

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JAES Volume 59 Issue 5 pp. 346-351; May 2011
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David Webb
Comment posted June 27, 2011 @ 13:14:34 UTC (Comment permalink)

Very interesting article, my observation and other listeners to an overcompressed local FM station is that it is fatiguing to listen to for more than a few songs. However it is the highest rating FM station. Could it be it is popular for background noise,rather than music listening or do people really like constant levels. Your research would show people prefer some dynamic range. maybe the music appeals to more people on that station, be interesting to know how long the average listening time is compared to the classical music station


Earl Vickers
Author Response
Earl Vickers
Comment posted June 29, 2011 @ 15:35:37 UTC (Comment permalink)

Hi David,

Thanks for your comments. It's hard to know whether overcompression has any relationship to that station's popularity. I tend to skip past stations if they're either too low level or too loud and distorted, but that's just me; also, my car radio's not the greatest, so super-loud stations start to sound like white noise. In general, though, I suspect this may be an area driven largely by assumptions and, as Katz says, "loudness envy".

By the way, a video based on my AES presentation is available at http://sfxmachine.com/docs/loudnesswar .


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James Falco
Comment posted October 12, 2011 @ 15:37:22 UTC (Comment permalink)

A great article, and I'm glad to see others recognizing the problem.

The loudness war is the main reason I stopped listening to FM radio.

I've also found that many stations over-equalize the DJ's mic.


Frank Lockwood
Frank Lockwood
Comment posted October 15, 2011 @ 17:03:52 UTC (Comment permalink)

With the adoption of the ATSC A/85  and EBU R128 standards for Loudness in broadcasting, I really wonder whether we'll see some relaxation in the "race to the bottom" with overcompression. Earl gives the example of how hard it is to compare two different pieces of programming, with regards to their degree of compression, when the content is the overwhelming determiner of listener preference. Yet it would seem that unwelcome volume changes have fostered this legislation (the CALM Act, etc.), so listeners are obviously affected by changes in level. Notwithstanding, the audibility of compression to the average listener remains elusive - it's not like the human hearing mechanism is as adept at sensing electronic intervention/manipulation of dynamic range, as it is with sensing pitch, timbre, source direction, etc.

I, too, would like to see further research into any possible correlation of over-compression and hearing damage. Also, I would like to see some further discussion as to just what constitutes "listerner fatigue".


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David Webb
Comment posted October 20, 2011 @ 23:00:26 UTC (Comment permalink)

I find over compressed radio stations fatiguing and I miss the dynamic range I used to hear on some Australian TV stations. I don't miss loud commercials or station promotions though. Even on a radio station with compression (an old Aphex Compellor and Dominator) I have heard the comment that the announcers often sound lower level than the music and other level vary. I don't know if this is a function of over compressed Contemporary Christian music recordings or signs the Compellor and Dominator are not as good as they used to be. Another station with the same processors that plays jazz, classical, folk, world and very little pop does not have this problem.

I think Frank Lockwood's call for more research is valid, as I said in a previous post the most ovecompressed FM station in Canebrra is the highest rating as is the ABC (compressed) AM station, and people still watch and listen to TV.


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John Groper
Comment posted October 20, 2011 @ 23:01:55 UTC (Comment permalink)

A few comments from one who has been there . . .

First, highly compressed audio does not necessarily equal high loudness. CBS Laboratories investigated this phenomenon in the 1960s and manufactured the Volumax*. Audimax* and Dynamax*to increase loudness of certain program material on radio stations. I would refer you to the AES papers on the subject. You can search for them yourself. My extremely short "executive summary" of their findings was that frequency balance was also important. Merely compressing the bejeezus out of the program material did not necessarily result in high loudness for all program material. I remember installing a system in a radio station where the Dynamax hardly ever worked. But every time "A Horse With No Name" by the group America played, the needle on the machine just went from full left to full right. Immediately. And the frequency balance ended up sounding the same as the other program material which did not "excite" the Dynamax*.

Some years later I worked in the Engineering Department at United Recording Electronic Industries (UREI.) We were asked by the United States Information Agency to design and build a custom product for their shortwave transmitters, primarily in the US. It ultimately consisted of a fast attack/release RMS compressor followed by a fast attack/release high ratio limiter, followed by a peaking and high slope cutoff filter specifically for the bandwidth they required. This was then finally followed by an adjustable diode peak-clipper to remove anything that had gotten past the compressor or limiter and to remove overshoot artifacts introduced by having the filter follow the limiter. When you were done, the level was extremely consistent, normally within a dB. Note that the use was almost entirely voice material, and the purpose was to allow their million watt transmitters to send the signal thousands of miles. I listened to some music in the lab and it didn't sound too awful (subjective assessment) until the peak clipper was dialed in more than about 6 dB. Then it sounded terrible. In actual use, on their program material, they were extremely happy with the results.

Lastly, I am a member of the generation whose hearing has been damaged by loud audio. I worked 5-6 days a week for several years in the 1960s as a sound man in several venues where we were pretty consistently running 120dB C-weighted at 100 ft. from the stage. I find that certain television stations have a reasonably wide dynamic range on program material, but that I have to madly grab for the remote control to turn down the volume during commercial breaks. I hope that the new standards Mr. Lockwood references will be helpful, in a manner similar to what happened to the level of trailers vs features in motion picture theaters following adoption of a Standard there.


Garry Margolis
Treasurer
Garry Margolis
Comment posted November 23, 2011 @ 17:10:48 UTC (Comment permalink)

Regarding my former UREI colleague John Groper's comment:

Unfortunately, there is no formal standard level for motion picture trailers of which I'm aware.

I was part of an SMPTE group that helped negotiate a truce in the ever-escalating trailer level war some years ago. The outcome, if I remember correctly, was that the major studios agreed to reduce the average level to 88 dBA, 3 dB above the average theatrical release dialog level.

However, many independent producers ignored this agreement, and, based on my subjective evaluation of what I've heard in theaters recently, some major releases may also be ignoring it.


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John Groper
Comment posted November 25, 2011 @ 16:33:34 UTC (Comment permalink)

I bow to Garry's superior knowledge on the subject. I was reporting on what I had been told by others: that SMPTE and the Studios had reached an agreement on the issue. It certainly seemed to me at the time that a change had been made, based solely on my own subjective response to the apparent loudness of trailers at that time. It is certainly possible that levels haved "crept up" over time, and certainly there could never have been 100% agreement in the first place. Such a thing would have been too much to hope for. Happy Holidays.
 


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Robert F. Auld
Comment posted April 20, 2012 @ 17:35:30 UTC (Comment permalink)

My own feeling on the motion picture trailer loudness issue (this is not a scientific comment, but just based on my own observations) is that the producers who fueled the loudness race in picture trailers shot themselves in the foot.  One reason I have largely stopped going out to theaters to see movies is because I do not enjoy being subjected to several minutes of loud, blasting trailers before getting to see the movie itself.  Indeed, for awhile I was in the habit of bringing ear plugs and putting them in during the trailers, then removing them for the feature! 

I cannot believe that no members of the public shared my reaction.  The loud trailers may have been a factor in driving a segment of the public away from viewing movies in theaters.  And there is no question that the movie going experience, over the years, has deteriorated—small theaters, poor sound systems, loud trailers and high ticket prices have turned movie going into an expensive, unpleasant experience.  It is no wonder, what with the improvements in home video playback, that many people prefer to watch movies at home.

As for the main discussion, I agree that more research is needed to definitively settle the question of whether hyper-compression affects record sales one way or the other.  But my own bias is that content is the main driver of sales, and that trashing the sound of the content with excessive compression does not help sell that content.


Kevin Gross
TC-NAS Chair
Kevin Gross
Comment posted April 23, 2012 @ 06:38:37 UTC (Comment permalink)

Loudness is the least of it as far as I'm concerned. Here in the US, moviegoers are treated to 30 minutes of back-to-back television advertisements then 15 minutes of movie advertisements (previews) before the feature starts. It is difficult to get me to the theater these days. Others are not deterred. Engineers apparently have a different way of looking at things. This should be kept in persepective in these discussions.


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