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Dynamic Range

Dynamic Range

April 1, 2011

Mornin' all!

I never owned any 8 tracks. I was a hard-core vinyl and cassette kid. Hiss and crackle is innate in my being. Everyone, thanks for all the input. This next album will be a different endeavor in the music as well as the delivery. I promise to look into 5.1, vinyl, DVD, full resolution downloads and holographic imaging of Paul standing in your living room (on a ladder).

The vinyl increase may have to do with kids wanting (subconsciously) to hear music that is less taxing on their ears. I've talked about this with my students at Drexel U and Wilmington U. Since the inception of CDs, volume (as it pertains to dynamic range) has been pushed more and more to its limits. The mentality of many of my generation and folks in their thirties has been louder and louder!! If the music doesn't jump out and hit you in the face ALL THE TIME it's not good. I know this for a fact because I work with clients all the time that want this done in mixing and mastering. Yikes!

What in essence is happening is that engineers are taking the dynamic range out of music through compression and limiting. Did you ever notice "back in the day", driving in your car, that you would have to turn the music up for quite parts, then back down again when it kicked in loud? That isn't happening now. if a song comes on at a party and is really low in volume (compared to others) you may think it sucks or doesn't sound good. A&R folks want their songs to jump out MORE than their competitors. Bands want their music to catch people ears when they pop up on shuffle mode.

So what happens? We (engineers) make things louder. When I say louder its a perception thing. In digital audio, (0), full scale or dBFS is as loud as things can go. if you listen to a CD of Led Zeppelin verses the latest Metallica album they both can only go as loud as 0 dBFS... BUT why does the Metallica album sound so much friggin louder??? Well, its been dynamically smashed via compression and limiting. What that means in a nut-shell is that the quite things are almost as loud as the loudest things. Confused?

Hey it's snowing outside my window!!! Whoohoo! I secretly wanted one more snowstorm in April!! Ok, back to my soap box....Think of an envelope. An envelope represents a "volume picture" of sound. Depending on the sound, e.g., piano hit, bass drum, gtr chord, snare drum, etc, the envelopes looks different. They have different visual as well as aural features. All those sounds have an initial hit then a decay. The hit is louder than the decay right? Yes Virginia, in most cases, yes. That's dynamic range (the difference between the loudest something is and its quietest point). What compression and limiting do it alter that dynamic range. These are tools that can be used in wonderful and not so wonderful ways.

Hang in there, there is a point, I promise. Picture a snare drum. When you record it, the dynamic range of its loudest point (the initial hit) and its lowest point (the end of the sound decay) is pretty huge. All that quiet stuff, after that big ol' hit, is the sound of the shell and head relaxing. Generally we don't hear that because all that stuff is really quiet in the relative world of a drum kit. Using tools like a compressor and limiter you can shrink that dynamic range and make the quiet stuff louder in relation to the initial attack. If you use those tools and hit the snare you'll hear the hit AND the sound of the decay as well. This is kind-a cool at times because there are all kinds of interesting tones going on in various instruments after their initial hits that we are not aware of. Bringing out those cool colors and tones is what a good engineer can do in a mix (if needed). They add personality and "magic" to a mix.

Those tools can also be used for evil in the hands of idiots. When I bought the latest Metallica album, the first thing i noticed was that it was too loud. It actually distorts. it doesn't matter what volume i have it distorts. its ALWAYS loud. I put on "Back in Black" to check my speakers, nope sounds pretty killer... the Metallica, waaaaay louder and yep, distorted! I imported it into Pro Tools and took a look at it. There is NO DYNAMIC RANGE! It’s all-loud, all the time; just one big visual envelope wedge. Under normal circumstances when you look at a volume meter of a song it moves from loud to soft. It breathes to the rhythm of the song. Loud and soft = good = music. The Metallica album and many many other albums like it are crushed. When you see the volume meter for those albums it barley moves. It literally moves within a 3 to 4 dB range of fluctuation below 0 (digital full scale). Talk about ear fatigue!! Try listening to that whole album! Your ears scream for a break. Our ears are sensitive enough to hear about 140dB of dynamic range. If you go to a concert hall and see Beethoven's 9th symphony you may hear about 80 dB of dynamic range! A good rock concert should make you lean in, saying "come hear check this out".... then blow your face off! That's dynamic range! I saw a Pat Metheny show that blew me away because of the dynamic range. You could hear a pin drop at times and then... BAM! Many albums these day friends have less then 5 dB of dynamic range! They are shouting at us.

The beauty of music is that it represents us. We breathe, inhale, exhale, get loud, then quiet. Led Zeppelin understood that. That's why popular bands never quite get as heavy as them. In order to be heavy you have to juxtapose it with quiet. Loud is nothing without quiet. Bands don't get that. They think that if they record tons of loud gtrs playing heavy riffs with really loud bass and drums that makes them heavy... it doesn't it just makes them loud and annoying. It’s like talking to someone that is screaming at you ALL THE TIME. Frankly folks, engineers are taking away our right to turn things up! I love turning up "Ten Years Gone" or "Ramble On" because it hits you in the face... then doesn't. It breathes. Most music these days is at one volume, loud. Check it out. Go On line and Google "loud wars" or "no dynamic range". A line has been crossed.

My point of this is that I think younger people (my students) are consciously or subconsciously aware of ear fatigue and things being too loud. Talking with them I've found out that they like "chill" music, buying vinyl (that's the increase in sales) and lo-fi sounds. I think subconsciously the ear buds they wear and the lack of dynamic range has finally gotten to a generation. I know for a fact that engineers like myself are aware of this and trying to put the music back in music. I miss using my volume knob.



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