The loudness war

Overcompression

Dynamic range compression is used at almost every stage of the audio production chain. It is applied to minimise artifacts in recording (like variation in loudness as a vocalist moves towards or away from a microphone), to reduce masking and to bring different tracks into a comparable loudness range. Compression is also applied in mastering to make the recording sound ‘loud.’ since a loud recording will be more noticeable than a quiet one, and the listener will hear more of the full frequency range. This has resulted in a trend to more and more compression being applied, a ‘loudness war.’

Broadcasting also has its loudness wars. Dynamic range compression is applied in broadcasting to prevent drastic level changes from song to song, and to ensure compliance with standards regarding maximum broadcast levels. But competition for listeners between radio stations has resulted in a trend to very large amounts of compression being applied.

So a lot of recordings have been compressed to the point where dynamics are compromised, transients are squashed, clipping occurs and there can be significant distortion throughout. The end result is that many people think, compared to what they could have been, a lot of modern recordings sound terrible. And broadcast compression only adds to the problem.

Who is to blame? There is a belief among many that ‘loud sells records.’ This may not be true, but believing it encourages people to participate in the loudness war. And each individual may think that what they are doing is appropriate. Collectively, the musician who wants a loud recording, the record producer who wants a wall of sound, the engineers dealing with artifacts, the mastering engineers who prepare content for broadcast and the broadcasters themselves are all acting as soldiers in the loudness war.

The tide is turning

The loudness war may have reached its peak shortly after the start of the new millenium. Audiologists became concerned that the prolonged loudness of new albums might cause hearing damage. Musicians began highlighting the sound quality issue, and in 2006, Bob Dylan said, “… these modern records, they’re atrocious, they have sound all over them. There’s no definition of nothing, no vocal, no nothing, just like static. Even these songs probably sounded ten times better in the studio.” Also in 2006, a vice-president at a Sony Music subsidiary wrote an open letter decrying the loudness war, claiming that mastering engineers are being forced to make releases louder in order to get the attention of industry heads.

In 2008 Metallica released an album with tremendous compression, and hence clipping and lots of distortion. But a version without overuse of compression was included in downloadable content for a game, Guitar Hero III, and listeners all over noticed and complained about the difference. Again in 2008, Guns N’ Roses producers (including the band’s frontman Axl Rose) chose a version with minimal compression when offered three alternative mastered versions.

Recently, an annual Dynamic Range Day has been organised to raise awareness of the issue, and the nonprofit organization Turn Me Up! was created to promote recordings with more dynamic range.

The European Broadcasting Union addressed the broadcast loudness wars with EBU Recommendation R 128 and related documents that specify how loudness and loudness range can be measured in broadcast content, as well as recommending appropriate ranges for both.

Together, all these developments may go a long way to establishing a truce in the loudness war.

Ring modulation in science fiction

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Ring modulation was popular in early electronic music, and one of the first examples of its use was in the Melochord, an instrument built by the electronic music pioneer, Harald Bode, in 1947. But ring modulation really came of age as a special effect in science fiction film and television.

In 1956, Louis and Bebe Barron were commissioned to do twenty minutes of sound effects  for the Sci-Fi movie Forbidden Planet. After creating some initial samples, the producers were sufficiently impressed to ask the husband and wife team to compose the entire score. This was one of the first electronic scores for a major film, and made heavy use of ring modulators that were built by Louis and Bebe. They treated each ring modulator as a different ‘actor,’ with a unique voice and behavior. As they explained on the sleeve notes for the soundtrack album, “we created individual cybernetics circuits for particular themes and leit motifs, rather than using standard sound generators. Actually, each circuit has a characteristic activity pattern as well as a ‘voice’.”

Ring modulation was also used heavily by the BBC Radiophonic Workshop, a sound effect unit of the BBC well-known for innovations in sound synthesis and effects. For the voice of the Daleks, first used in 1963, Brian Hodgson applied a 30 Hz modulation, among other effects, to give a harsh buzzing sound to the voices. Ring modulation has been applied to almost every Dalek voice since, and a Moog ring modulator has also been used to generate as a special effect on the voices of another Doctor Who villain, the Cybermen.

The ring modulator has become synonymous with sci-fi sound effects. Its easily recognizable in classic productions, such as The Outer Limits and The Hitchhiker’s Guide to the Galaxy. Today, it’s an essential sound effect in television, film and game audio production.