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February 2009 editorial

Pleasurize Music! (bring dynamics back! - Part III)

Writer: Lucio Cadeddu - TNT Italy

[Pleasurize Music!]
Pleasurize Music!!!

Last month I introduced you the Pleasurize Music! foundation, a joint-work of a small group of esteemed audio pro's with the aim to bring dynamics back into recordings and create a standard to measure (and certify) the dynamic content of any disc.

There are many ways to "support" the activities of the Foundation and you'll find some example reading our February editorial. This month I'd like to focus our attention on the DR software that you can download from the Pleasurize Music website.
First of all, using the sofware is quite easy: you don't need mics, sophisticated audio boards etc. A PC with a CD drive is all you need. The DR software can just open .wav files so, in order to make things work, you have to "rip" the CD you wish to measure by means of any WAV extraction software, for example Exact Audio Copy (EAC). It is free and very easy to use.
Once you have the tracks of your CD transformed into .wav files just let the DR software "measure" them. Immediately, the software will associate, to each track, a DR number, plus a couple of other parameters (max digital level and average "loudness"). Recordings with a DR value higher than 10 should be OK, though the best ones are normally above DR14.

Let's avoid any misunderstanding here: the DR value doesn't tell the whole truth, it gives just an idea of how "dynamic" a recording is. It is NOT a parameter that evaluates overall sound quality. For example, a quiet music recording can be excellent and still have a low DR rating. In this case it is the Music in itself that doesn't require strong dynamic variations.
Moreover, a recording of "stronger" music can have a low DR rating as well. When? Think, for example, at earlier punk recordings: everything MUST sound as loud as possible, in order to create a compact "wall of sound" that "hits" the listener. Highly distorted guitars and a fast, thumping rhythm were the key ingredients for the "powerful" recipe of '77 punk music. I think it will be hard to find high DR values on such recordings.
Heavy metal recordings are a different story. Though heavy metal is erroneously associated with punk, it has quite different needs. Hence, it shouldn't be surprising that one of the most cited examples of bad recordings of this "loudness war" era is Metallica's "Death magnetic" last album. Metallica's fans have quickly discovered that the same musical content, used inside the Guitar Hero III videogame, sounded much livelier and more dynamic than the tracks on the official album. Clearly a "super-compressed" remaster had been applied in order to make the album sound as loud as possible. As a result, fans have opened an online petition which asks for a more dynamic mixing and mastering of the original album. The petition has exceeded 20,000 signatures since Sept. 2008. Not bad at all!
Oh yes, you might think "Death magnetic" has been sold in millions of copies so 20,000 complaints are almost nothing...still it remains an impressive number. Why? Because these fans aren't "audiophiles" (perhaps someone is, but...), hence even standard music listeners are starting to complain about sound quality. A revolution? Maybe! Even better, they have been the first ones to complain about the loudness war...our "golden ears" were safe thanks to our "audiophile quality" recordings.
Not convinced? Have a look at the Loudness war page on Wikipedia and consider the examples therein: Alice in chains, Soundgarden, Metallica, Red Hot Chili Peppers and many other "rock" or "hard rock" discs, not exactly the kind of software you can find at HiFi Shows or dealers!
What does this mean? Simply put, the anti-"loudness war" movement has few things to share with the audiophile world. If you were thinking that bad recordings are a concern for audiophiles only, the examples above prove it isn't exactly so.
Actually, the audiophile crowd has reacted very slowly to the hypercompression on modern recordings. Excessive loudness (dynamic compression) hurts normal listeners, even if they don't have our "golden ears" or HiFi set-ups. This is a very relevant issue. At least, we're not alone asking for better sound from modern recordings.

If you aren't 100% convinced yet, let me add another precious information: do you know what the EBU is? EBU is the European Broadcasting Union, the largest association of national broadcasters in the world (TV and radio). Quoting their own words:

The European Broadcasting Union is the largest association of national broadcasters in the world. We promote cooperation between broadcasters and facilitate the exchange of audiovisual content. The EBU works to ensure that the crucial role of public service broadcasters is recognised and taken into consideration by decision-makers.

The list of members is quite impressive, since not only almost any European TV/Radio broadcaster is included but also many US broadcasters are part of the EBU (ABC, NBC, CBS etc.). For a complete list see this page.
Now, let me invite you to read the EBU Technical Recommendation R68-2000: "Alignment level in digital audio production equipment and in digital audio recorders". Quoting, again:

The EBU recommends that, in digital audio equipment, its Members should use coding levels for digital audio signals which correspond to an alignment level which is 18 dB below the maximum possible coding level of the digital system, irrespective of the total number of bits available.

The technobabble above, put in simpler words, means that EBU recommends its members to give their programmes 18 dB of dynamic headroom at least. By "loudness war" standards this is a very strong requirement. And it is hard to prove that EBU is an audiophiles' association ;-)
Moreover, you might find other interesting "technical papers" published on the EBU website. Among others, there's one that explains (with measures!) how much distortion a good CD player can produce when "forced" to play tracks above the max theorethical limit of 0 dB. Have a look at the paragraph "Distortion in CD players" on the following article by T. Lund: Level and distortion in digital broadcasting. There's also a very interesting comment about remastering:

There is a good reason why music lovers favour original CD releases rather than re-mastered ones. The recent detrimental use of limiting, clipping and loudness optimization on CD re-releases outweigh the positive effect of all our better converters and high-resolution processors combined.

Again, something one might/should read on an audiophile mag, not on a broadcasters' website! What does this mean? That everyone in the market is well aware of the "loudness war" consequences, NOT ONLY AUDIOPHILES!

What about doing something to support the cause? A small team of Italian TNT-Audio readers is already working on a database of recordings classified by their DR rating. Eventually, you can add your own measurements! Feel free to contact me if you wish to join this project. When the database will be reasonably rich in content we will publish it here on TNT-Audio. This, for example, will be useful to detect poor remasterings (by direct comparison: original VS remastered) and will definitely help music buyers saving their hard earned cash. Furthermore, we can also compare vinyl and CD releases...I'm pretty sure many CDs will sound "louder" (read: more compressed) than the corresponding LPs! In order to measure the DR rating of a LP you need to convert analogue tracks into .wav files, possibly using a very good analogue set-up and a good PC audio board (or A/D converter).

I'm well aware this is not THE solution since good sound quality isn't only good dynamics but...dynamics is a purely mathematical parameter that can be measured, while tonal accuracy, soundstage and transparency are harder to define precisely. So...let's start from here. It is a tough job but someone has to do it! :-)

© Copyright 2009 Lucio Cadeddu - www.tnt-audio.com

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