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Why Is Modern Popular Music So Heavily Processed?

Discussion in 'Sound Science' started by TheSonicTruth, May 30, 2018.
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  1. TheSonicTruth
    What are the reasons why modern songs and albums are subject to unprecedented levels of dynamics compression and other processing before release? And why don't they sound as good, or as exciting, as music from the same genre released decades ago?
  2. RRod
    Please provide comparative examples.
  3. Roseval
    This is what is called the loudness war.
    By and large a management thing.
    You want attention so make it louder than the rest.
  4. gregorio
    1. Because ALL popular/rock music genres and nearly all songs and albums have ALWAYS been defined by the use of unprecedented levels of dynamics compression and processing! Of course, what was unprecedented levels of processing in say the late 1960's was no longer unprecedented in say the mid 1970's so they had find something else that was unprecedented. This has effectively been true for centuries, music evolved by gifted composers employing the "unprecedented" and moving the art forward.
    For this reason, your question doesn't really make sense. I suppose the answer would have to be: That is how popular music genres have always progressed, how new popular genres evolved and the very fact that we call them "popular" genres reflects the fact that they are popular, more popular than other genres.

    2. Sounding "good" or "exciting" is entirely subjective. If the music from decades ago was widely accepted as better than modern music, then it would be more popular than current popular music and record labels would be falling over themselves making music as it was decades ago to fulfil that demand.

    I'm presuming this thread is going to get into the details of what is dynamic range, dynamic range compression, processing and the loudness war. Before we do, you should read this article:

    "Dynamic Range & The Loudness War"

    If you don't read that article, it's unlikely we'll get very far because you won't understand what either dynamic range or the loudness war actually are and we'll just talk at cross purposes, become frustrated and descend into insults, which helps no one! The article is quite technical and uses some terminology with which you may not be familiar, please ask if this is the case, it's important you understand the article, for more than one reason!

    Last edited: May 30, 2018
    sonitus mirus and 71 dB like this.
  5. bigshot
    Pop music is generally played by kids on crappy equipment in poor listening environments, so it's optimized for that. Classical music is generally listened to by adults on reasonably good stereos under better listening circumstances, so it's optimized for that. This is nothing new. Back in the day, if you bought a 45 of Brown Sugar by the Stones it was very loud and quite compressed compared to the album version. That's because 45s were distributed to radio stations and were designed to be listened to on AM transistor radios. Everything has its particular audience and purpose. Ephemeral music played on earbuds on a bus is going to be designed differently than timeless music listened to on British speakers in a quiet dedicated listening room.

    It's neither right nor wrong to apply different degrees of compression. It depends on the purpose. That said, there is no excuse for digital clipping. That happens occasionally in pop music because the quality of the engineering is sometimes poor. Since the introduction of the home studio a lot of people have taken up recording and mixing music who aren't qualified.

    One of the big problems with discussing the "loudness war" is that some folks want to reduce it all down to arbitrary numbers spit out of a program. There are many ways to use compression... different kinds of tools... and it is an important way of improving sound quality in recorded music. But just like any other tool in an engineer's bag of tricks, it can be used in a ham fisted way to screw up sound. The best way to judge sound quality is to use your ears and listen for overall balances. No computer program can spit out a number that represents that, and just looking at waveforms won't tell you much either.
    Last edited: May 30, 2018
    Glmoneydawg likes this.
  6. swesko
    It's the poison to high end audio gear. If you put any pop track through your TOTL iem/headphone you can hear the poor mastering and the congestion that results from it as most have been produced to be listened through the radio or phones. That's why there are some genres that you have to avoid on high end audio gear as it would make you regret spending great amount of cash on your gear. You can hear all the sibilance, congestion and distortion from pop tracks
    skwoodwiva likes this.
  7. gregorio
    1. These two statements contradict each other! If a pop track is designed/intended to contain sibilance, congestion and/or distortion, and you have a system capable of reproducing all that sibilance, congestion an distortion, where's the problem? There's only two potential problems: A. You have a system which is the very opposite of TOTL and is not reproducing what was intended, or B. You just personally don't like sibilance, congestion or distortion. In which case you're screwed as far as popular music is concerned because pretty much without exception ALL popular music not only contains sibilance, congestion or distortion but is reliant on it! I remember playing some Hendrix decades ago at home, which my mother said was so hideously distorted that it wasn't even music, it was just noise. She said that if he removed all that distortion he might sound like a good/better/proper guitarist. Of course, it was his use of distortion that made him "Hendrix" and the genius that he was in the first place but to my mother, the distortion is what got in the way of the music and she just couldn't understand or appreciate that the distortion WAS the music. And, this is hardly a new phenomena, nearly 200 years ago prominent/respected critics were saying that Beethoven was just congested, distorted noise!

    2. If "congestion" is intended and if after mastering the track sounds "congested", how is that poor mastering? Surely that's good mastering? Furthermore, "congestion" is not only frequently employed and desired, it's one of the oldest and most influential of popular music recording/production techniques ever invented and is partly responsible for defining what is popular music in the first place (see Phil Spectre's "wall of sound" for example)! Lastly, extremely few commercial releases have been produced to specifically be listened to only through the radio or phones. While it was quite common to create a version specifically for radio play, often called a "radio edit" or "radio mix", a different version/master (the "release version"), more applicable to home system playback, is what was released for sale to the public, NOT the radio edit. And, while there maybe some, somewhere, I'm not aware of any commercial mixes/masters designed specifically for phones.

  8. TheSonicTruth
    Thanks for sharing that SoS article. By the way I read it initially a couple years ago, not long after it was published.

    One of the things I gleaned from it was that while both dynamic range of recorded music went down, and amount of dynamics compression(DRC) went up, from 1990 to 2010, one item did not change significantly: something referred to in the article as "Loudness Range".

    Now do correct me if I am wrong with the following interpretation, but I think loudness range refers to changes in loudness, pereceived or actual, within a given piece of music? Classical has plenty of that for sure! The swells of the chorus, the drop down during the verses? And loudness is more closely related to RMS, and more accurately to average loudness, which relates closer to how we actually hear, than it is related to peaks.

    Based on if my understanding of loudness range is correct, my takeaway from that is that there has been, over the last two decades, as much increased peak-limiting going on as there has been DRC. And while just peak limiting and applied makeup gain raises the entire measured RMS for a song, it does not affect changes in the loudness built into the musical arrangement: the softer verses and louder refrains, for example. On the other hand, if DRC is applied, at a low enough threshold and at a high enough ratio, to a completed stereo mix, it could reduce those changes, or what is referred to in the article as 'loudness range'. Applying DRC in that manner can also reduce differences in peak levels, but those just add 'snap' to the rhythm portion of the song, and influence far less our perceived loudness of the thing, right?

    So in mastering, a balance must be achieved, based on the individual project, genre, and yes, client demand for loudness, etc, of how much DRC goes on vs how much peak limiting.

    All that said, I guess I am a 'peak preservationist' as well, and hate to see waveforms in my DAW of both an original(1980s for instance) CD rip and the recent remastered version, and the latter has had all the peaks mowed off just to make louder what's "left". That's why I have been so 'anti-remaster' in boards like this one and others, LOL! Look at my profile pic. I consider those peaks, visible on the before(original) waveform, as much a part of that song or album, as the average parts. I feel that remastering of long existing albums can be done to correct things like L-R channel imbalance, tonal irregularities, and speed issues(wow, flutter), but should otherwise leave the texture of the tracks(dynamics, loudness range) alone. That's just my inner preservationist crying out, Greg! :wink:

    But I do get that peak limiting, if done sparingly, has far far less affect on the overall sound of something, especially changes in loudness within the song(loudness range), than just heaped-on dynamic compression. Bob Katz did mention so in his book 'Mastering Audio: the art and the science', which btw I own.
    Last edited: May 31, 2018
  9. RRod
    Not all peaks are sacred. The ear has an integration time.
  10. gregorio
    I'm not entirely sure I understand your description but it seems that you have it backwards. That's entirely understandable because the term dynamic range is rather poorly defined and in fact can mean several different things and additionally, the term "loudness" is very easily confused because although we all judge loudness and we all know what we and other people mean by "loudness", it isn't actually a "real" thing, it's a perception. We have to understand loudness first though because a definition of dynamic range depends on it:

    Because loudness is a perception and not an actual property of sound waves, we can't measure it or rather, we couldn't measure it. Loudness is one of only very perceptions we can measure but this loudness measurement has only been available very recently and took many years of research. This research was basically the testing of numerous subjects for their judgement of loudness of various signals, collating all those judgements/responses along with other similar tests (dating back as far as the 1930s) to arrive at a mean/average response, then the design of a transfer function (type of filter) which we could apply to the sound waves to arrive at a measurement of loudness and then further human trials and tweaking of that transfer function until the measurement correlated with the perception of loudness. This transfer function and the resultant unit of loudness measurement (LUFS, Loudness Units relative to Full Scale) is defined in the EBU 3342 document to which the article refers and uses throughout.

    This brings us to: What is dynamic range? As applied to music, "dynamic range" means; the range between the quietest note or bit of music and the loudest. This is where our measurement of loudness comes in; although I'm oversimplifying, "Loudness Range" (abbreviated to LRA) is essentially the range between the loudest sound and the quietest sound and therefore is essentially the same as "dynamic range".

    With all this in mind, let's look at your statements:

    1. Loudness range refers to the range of perceived loudnesses, within a given piece of music. There is no actual loudness, only perceived loudness.
    1a. Loudness range is measured using a constant sequence of 3 second windows, so it not only measures variations between say choruses and verses but loudness variations within choruses and verses.

    2. This is the part which appears to be backwards. The RMS measurement measures levels; the average voltage level over a given period of time/piece of music, it does NOT measure loudness and isn't directly related to how we hear at all, which is why we had to develop a measurement (LUFS) specifically to "relate closer to how we actually hear"!

    1. This is where we run into the problem of different definitions of dynamic range. In addition to the common musical definition of dynamic range (range between what we hear as the quietest and loudest bits of music), the term "dynamic range" is also used as an audio engineering measurement: The range from the smallest voltage to the largest voltage. However, as before, voltage levels are not directly related to how we hear. In other words we should rephrase your statement to read: "One of the things I gleaned from it was that while both the "dynamic range" of average voltage levels went down, and amount of DRC went up, from 1990 to 2010 "dynamic range" (LRA, what we hear as the range of quietest to loudness) did not change significantly"!

    2. I'll deal with peak limiting below. I'm not sure if the rest of your statement is accurate, due to the wording, so I'll rephrase to clarify: What effectively happened with the new popular music genres, from around the early 1990's onwards, is that they were specifically composed/arranged to have a very large/extreme amount of DRC applied. For example, the verses are made deliberately far too quiet/sparse and the louder refrains very dense/loud. When very heavy compression/limiting is applied the verses become much louder, the refrains remain roughly the same or marginally quieter and the DESIRED/INTENDED dynamic range is achieved. What the article demonstrates is that these compositional techniques + very heavy/extreme compression results in a dynamic range which is broadly identical to the dynamic range of earlier popular music genres (which did not employ these compositional techniques + such extreme compression)! Hopefully now, you realise there's an obvious, serious problem if we just say "no extreme compression": With no heavy/extreme compression the compositional techniques which actually define most modern genres cannot be used and therefore these genres cannot exist!!

    3. I'm afraid if you want to listen to music, you can't be! Even back in the early/mid 1960's, compressing/limiting peaks was essential, the instruments simply wouldn't sound as expected/desired if they weren't, particularly those with the biggest peaks, such as a drumkit for example. Compressing/limiting/shaping peaks is almost mandatory for virtually every instrument in a rock/pop song, although different instruments require different compression types, settings and amounts. In acoustic music genres, such as classical music, we don't have to specifically apply much or any peak compression/limiting, because it's already been applied (by the distance/air and acoustic absorption and reflections of the recording venue) before the sound waves hit the microphones. Whatever music you're listening to, "preserving the peaks" is almost always either very unnatural, very undesirable or both!

    Yes but that's only a part of what mastering is. For example, it's the mastering engineers job to check for and fix errors, to apply EQ and other enhancements so that the intentions of the producer/artists actually work in practice for the target audience rather than only in the production/mix studio. And even with compression, there are numerous different types and settings. Some compressors/limiters effectively compress transparently but most have a particular character, they add some sort of additional distortion (often non-linear), colouration or flavour. Often, two or more different compressors are used during mastering, for a combination of flavours/colourations and some of the most prized vintage mastering compressors/limiters can go for as much as $50,000. For this and the other reasons mentioned, the suggestion of not applying compression and letting consumers "do it themselves" is simply impractical/impossible and musically highly undesirable, and no commercial artist/producer would allow such a mix to be released.

    Last edited: May 31, 2018
    sonitus mirus likes this.
  11. bigshot
    Pop music is the only genre of music I can think of where this is a problem. Classical recordings, jazz, folk, etc... are all still dynamic and clean sounding. When CDs were still fairly new, the amount of compression was lower because the format was new and people were taking advantage of it. The pop LPs that came right before CDs were generally quite compressed and had considerable distortion. So maybe the market has just settled back into its formula.
  12. TheSonicTruth
    Integration time. How does that work?
  13. TheSonicTruth

    In this article: https://ask.audio/articles/demystifying-the-confusion-around-loudness-metering-levels

    The term 'loudness range' is described thusly:
    • "Loudness Range quantifies, in LU, the statistical distribution of short term loudness within a programme."
    Which corresponds, particularly the part I bolded, to what my gut instinct told me it means. Short-term loudness can refer to loud refrains within a song, or even periods of short-term softness. Or, the crescendo within a symphony orchestra. Again: correct me if I have that wrong, also(!)

    Even when I heavily peak limited and gained up Toto's 'Rosanna' in my DAW, the differences in how loudly or softly Bobby Kimball sang, or how soft or loud the melody played, did not seem to my ears to be that affected. The only thing the peak limiting seemed to do was to soften the impact of the percussion and maybe some of the loudest piano key strikes. But changes in how loud the notes and vocals were to me seemed minimal.

    (Kimball first verse - first line)
    "All I want to do when I wake up in the morning is see your eyes
    Rosanna, Rosanna
    Never thought that a girl like you could ever care for me, Rosanna

    (first verse - 2nd line - short term louder voal)
    All I want to do in the middle of the evening is hold you tight
    Rosanna, Rosanna
    I didn't know you were looking for more than I could ever be

    (sung softer)
    Not quite a year since she went away, Rosanna
    Now she's gone and I have to say

    (three elect. guitar jabs)

    (Refrain - loud!!)
    Meet you all the way
    Meet you all the way
    Rosanna, yeahhh"

    And so on...

    If that ain't loudness range(of Kimball's voice as opposed to dynamic range - of the entire song) then maybe I'm incapable of understanding it, or putting it in words.

    On the other hand, when I applied a moderate level of dynamic compression to the track, say 4:1 ratio, at a ridiculously low -30 to -40dBfs threshold, those changes in how loud or soft vocals and melody(what I thought the SoS article meant by loudness range, and what the ask.audio article seems to imply, to my brain anyway) seemed to be drastically reduced.

    Correct me if I'm wrong. And by the way I am not afraid to admit that I genuinely SUCK at verbalizing(spoken or written) exactly what I'm saying, so that I think is the root of most of our arguments. Former radio host Don Imus had the same problem with his cohorts, because often he and they had different ways of verbalizing the exact same feelings, wishes, desires, requests to do something, etc.
    Last edited: May 31, 2018
  14. bigshot
    Compression isn't applied across the board evenly to the whole track. There are lots of different kinds of compression. They are used differently on different elements of the mix and they all have their own specific purposes. I remember Gregorio writing a really good post a while ago listing a bunch of different kinds of compression and what it's used for. In your example there, the drums have high transient peaks, and vocals are probably heavily compressed already. So if you apply a peak limiter, the drums are what are going to stick up to be mowed down. The vocals won't.
  15. RRod
    Meaning a short enough sound won't register as loud to us as its amplitude might suggest.
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