Mastering, Loudness Normalisation and Dynamics

27 Mar 2015

So today is that wonderful day of the year, Dynamic Range Day. So with that in mind I figured it’s a good day to post a blog about something audio dynamics related, for months I’ve been trying to write about Spotify, maybe today is the day.

Over the last few decades we have been suffering from the ‘Loudness War’ model of mastering, the idea that everything needs to loud and louder than everything else. Sounds wild doesn’t it? But it’s happening, but I think we’re going to see a change soon, and I think we already are.

No matter how much people may dislike Spotify or other streaming services for how they pay artists I think some of what they do may actually be helping music….in a weird way.

This is the same for many online streaming services, loudness normalisation is everywhere right now, and that could be a good thing.

Loudness normalisation –

What is loudness normalisation? Well, it’s the application of keeping consistent volume between tracks within an audio playback application. Apps such as Spotify, iTunes, Deezer and now YouTube are using normalisation in some sort of way.

Why do they do it? Is there any need?

This is done purely so that everything is at the same perceived level, there is no need for people to fiddle with volume. Simple really.

This depends, if you don’t want to constantly fiddle with your volume dial then it could be of benefit to you, but if you want to hear the tracks as they were intended then it might be a good idea to turn it off.

Spotify automatically has this setting on, so there’s no need to alter the volume.

So, what does it mean for audio? The loudness war is still a thing, right?

This means that audio that was mastered pre ‘loudness war‘ (basically anything that isn’t compressed and squashed to the point of no return) will sound as it should, but anything that has suffered from the unforgiving hand of a loud and compressed master will sound pretty bad (it already sounds bad, so worse would be the correct term to use).

Youtube were the most recent of the streaming world to add volume normalization into their website. This is a good thing.

I’d like to think that the big streaming companies know how bad compressed and slammed masters sound and that by normalising everything they’re saying “Hey, you’re making stuff sound bad, stop it. You don’t need to do that anymore”.

So what are the benefits?

You don’t have to touch your volume control at any point. If you’re listening to some killer Cheryl Cole and then some delightful Paul Simon comes on, you don’t need to do anything.

Mastering! There are some awesome benefits for mastering. I mean, now we are at a point where everything will be played at the same volume regardless (granted you can turn off these functions, but hey, most people probably won’t). So does this mean we can stop mastering for loudness and master delicately again for the sake of dynamics? Who knows.

Back in 2009 Ian Shepherd (DRD head honcho) posted a blog regarding this exact subject, hoping that the normalisation of audio would allow the world to listen to dynamic works rather than squashed loud tracks.

This hasn’t happened yet, but I think we could be on the way to a world with dynamic masters again!

What does it mean for loudness?

It means there is no real benefit to mastering your tracks ridiculously loud. Everything will be heard at the same perceived volume, so it becomes pretty pointless!

In fact, loud, distorted tracks will sound worse with normalisation. Having some balanced dynamics means that when normalised it will sound just as good.

Loudness war, who?

Yeah, well it’s not quite that simple, but hopefully we should start seeing a decline in people mastering loud for the sake of mastering loud, and that hopefully dynamics will become what people want, hey, how about the dynamics war? Or we could just settle for masters that sound great.

Dynamic mastering is vinyl mastering – With last years massive boom in record sales, we could hopefully see something similar with loudness for digital sales/releases.