Loudness War 'In Real Life' - Anecdotal Evidence

A lot of people use the excuse “Well, I want my tracks to sound as loud as...” -- which is one thing. Others use the excuse “Well, a lot of people are listening in cars and on trains with iPods and such and I want everything to be heard...”

Anyone who’s ever actually listened has another story...
Recently, I traded in my trusty 1996 Road King for a 2008 Street Glide. Wanted a warranty. Got a bad-sounding stereo on top of it - at least I thought so at first... I generally don’t listen to tunes while I’m riding - It’s usually the one part of the day that I don’t have to listen to music. But in July, I was on a road trip and I thought I’d burn a disc of MP3’s to keep me company occasionally.

Even with a tall windshield, a motorcycle is no place to be judging the quality of audio. 70MPH winds rushing past your head and 4” speakers mounted to a plastic shell in front of you will make the greatest sounding recording sound like the lowest quality MP3. So, this isn’t an argument for or against MP3’s.

This is an argument about dynamics and compression.

The disc I made was a mix of all sorts of stuff on my drive. Some live blues, some classic rock, metal, Handel arias, modern pop, Mozart, Metallica, etc.

Not having much experience listening to music while riding, I have to say that I was absolutely floored by what I aurally observed on this road trip... Not surprised - but amazed nonetheless. Some examples:

  • Evanescence - Bring Me To Life: Squashed to death, almost unlistenable.
  • Kansas - Carry On My Wayward Son: Sounded great. The over-compression of the lead vocal has never been so clear to me before. The contrast between the dynamic elements and the over-compressed elements was stunning. Sounded great though.
  • Blues Brothers - She Caught the Katy: BRILLIANT!!! I’m not even sure there was a compressor running. Maybe on the horns... Explosive dynamics - Every element, every drum, horn, guitar, vocal - Very clean, very clear. Cranked it up to 11 and started speeding a little. Just a little.
  • Wolfmother - Woman: Squashed to death, almost unlistenable. Actually painful. Just awful.
  • ZZ Top - LaGrange: The quintessential motorcycling tune. Very dynamic, very crankable, snare hits square in the chest, guitars sounded wonderful, etc., etc. More speed. Engaged the cruise control so I wouldn’t get a ticket. A great example of natural dynamics - Nothing sounded “obviously” compressed but everything sounded steady. Things that have a naturally wide dynamic range (drums, etc.) had one. Things that have a naturally narrow range (the distorted electric guitars, etc.) had one.
  • Pink Floyd - Money: What would you expect other than ‘fantastic?’
  • Metallica - Wherever I May Roam: Very nice. Pushing it - As the record did with loudness. An excellent example of bringing volume “to the edge” without going overboard.
  • Typical FM Radio Stations: Pretty bad... Bordering on “awful” in most cases.
  • Steely Dan - Josie: Wow.... WOW!!! Sounded amazing. No more to be said.
  • Shawn Phillips - Moonshine: As with the record, one of very few recordings I’ve heard that’s actually too dynamic in my opinion. Even in a good listening situation, certain elements “pop out” in a rather distracting fashion. Sounded great loud though - Until some of those distracting elements would pop out and sound like my speakers were going to liberate themselves.

So - What are we learning here? Nothing that we didn’t know before. Dynamic music was easier to hear and of course, sounded far, FAR superior to music that was heavily compressed. Even under the worst possible listening conditions, which most people will never experience, music with contrast was far and away the winner. On top of that, it was very revealing - Such as the case with the Kansas track, where the compression on the vocal actually made it sound a bit disjointed from the rest of the mix. Never really noticed it before... I’d bet a dollar that if that compression was backed-off a bit, it would sound even better. Now, I notice it all the time.

Just like your speakers, your ears are more sensitive to distortion. CLEAN program material with contrast between ‘quiet’ and ‘loud’ are going to be more ‘crankable’ than everything else. Over-compressed material, pushed too hard in the first place, distorted on its own, being pushed into an amplifier way hotter than the signal that amplifier was designed to handle and then played back quieter than normal -- All these things take the playback system and your ears out of the “sweet spot” they want to be in.

So - The whole “background noise” argument is out the window except for extreme examples (such as excessively dynamic classical, folk, etc. - as one would expect). With well-recorded (and mastered) material, I have a little more respect for that stereo system...

Now if we can only get the label execs on a Harley...

John Scrip - MASSIVE Mastering - http://www.massivemastering.com