Letters to Mix

Editor's Note: Our December 2005 mastering feature (The Big Squeeze) generated a number of responses lamenting music's loudness wars. The following letter

Editor's Note: Our December 2005 mastering feature (“The Big Squeeze”) generated a number of responses lamenting music's “loudness wars.” The following letter seemed to sum up many of the sentiments. Note: The full version is available at

It is not often that I read something in the trades that makes me want to write a letter of response. The December Mix focus on mastering and in particular the article “The Big Squeeze” really got me going. It stirred to life a series of ongoing discussions that Lars Tofastrud and I have been having about this subject. We have preached to clients and associates alike that, as “professionals,” it is our job to make the best-sounding, highest-quality end product possible. This has nothing to do with any mitigating excuses about the end listeners' choice of playback format or equipment. We in the music production business must hold ourselves to a higher standard.

There are a number of articles that have been posted by TC Electronic, Bob Katz and Orban (among others) relating to the subject of over-compression or excessive digital levels and the distortion artifacts introduced when mastered CDs produce output beyond 0 dBFS. The TC Electronic Website (www.tcelectronic.com/TechLibrary#LoudnessControlandMastering) posts a series of articles that everyone in our profession should read. In particular, the articles entitled “Distortion to the People,” “O dBFS + Levels in Digital Mastering” and “Overload in Signal Conversion” by Nielsen and Lund are quite revealing.

The technology available today offers all opportunities to create some of the best-sounding recordings ever made. There are higher bit depths and higher resolution in the entire recording and mastering chain. Why do all the “new” records sound like they are recorded on 12-bit equipment and run through a fuzz box? I'd say we can thank the “Loudness Wars.” There are artists and record company folks telling recording and mastering engineers to “Make it louder!” Guys, there's a great device invented decades ago known as the volume knob that will easily make things louder without causing the THD of my final product to exceed 10 percent! When the whispered voice is just as loud as the electric guitar through a full “stack,” then what is louder?

I understand it's a “service business”; so is the studio design business. I've been working in the service industries related to music recording for more than 25 years. One thing I have always believed is the customer is always right, unless they're wrong! If they're wrong, then it's our job to help them understand why it's a “bad” thing to do. Shouldn't one expect a “professional” in any field — from plumber to doctor to recording engineer — to do things in a professionally sound manner and explain to you, as a client, why certain things will make your final product better? This is how I've always run my business, and it's worked quite well for me over the years.

I'm sure most of you know the “loudness wars” started because folks wanted their single to stand out and be louder on the radio. Another interesting article by Bob Orban and Frank Foti (www.orban.com/orban/support/optimod/pages/Appdx_Radio_Ready_The_Truth_1.3.pdf) clearly exhibits that the same material mastered at levels that ranged over 9 dBs in relative loudness all came out of the back end of an Orban Radio processor (standard FM broadcasting equipment) at the same level! The only difference was the ones mastered at lower levels actually sounded better! The article goes on to explain how the various components of the FM broadcast chain work and how they are affected by material that contains multiple excessive overs. It's not pretty, folks! Please read this stuff — several times.

By now, many of you want to tell me that all this is a bunch of BS because 90 percent of our end consumers are gonna download an MP3 or AAC file and listen exclusively on their PC or iPod. Go ahead and put together a short playlist of some of your favorite contemporary records and mix in some stuff from the '80s and early '90s. Take a listen on your iPod or your car stereo, or wherever. I'll bet you can plainly hear the distortion. One of the problems is everyone is getting used to hearing music this way. Is the reason why MP3s and similar formats are embraced by the masses related to the fact that (so many) contemporary CDs sound so horrible in the first place?

The technology is here. Don't blame digital. Don't blame Pro Tools. (Don't even get me started on that!) Don't blame anyone but yourself. Don't expect your mix to sound as loud as a (properly) mastered CD. Leave the mastering folks some room to do their job! It has been suggested in chapter 7 of TC's “Overload in Signal Conversion” that “mastering engineers should start using oversampled meters and limiters, or at least normalize against; e.g., -2 or -3 dBFS rather than 0 dBFS. It should also be noted that some data-reduction codecs are even more sensitive to excessively hot level than a linear signal part. Digital-to-digital converters tended to sound worse than digital-to-analog converters due to clipping exclusively in the digital domain.” There is no way for the end consumer to turn down the distortion. Only we can.

The NARAS Producers Wing is involved with CES in an attempt to ensure that the consumer equipment manufacturers maintain a high standard of quality for audio playback. Why bother if the CDs we produce today will play back with 10-percent (or higher) THD? It's not the playback equipment's fault; it is designed to play back musical waveforms. Not the “flat-topped” distorted signals on today's CDs (www.omniaudio.com/tech/mastering.pdf).

Does someone need to oversee the professional recording community to ensure that we are doing a good job? I'm not suggesting a governmental regulation agency; I'm suggesting that it's you and me who need to provide the “quality control.” As studio designers, we strive to provide accurate listening and pleasing performance environments that can be used to make better-sounding recordings. As a principals in a loudspeaker-manufacturing company, we strive to produce a “better” monitor with lower distortion, with higher resolution and output. These are tools, just like your microphones, equalizers, compressors and, most importantly, your ears! We need to learn or maybe remember how to use these tools and take advantage of all the wonderful technological advancements provided to us over recent years. Maybe then we can justify (and save) the new “high-resolution” formats. We are professionals. If we don't care, who will? Is anybody listening?
Francis Manzella
President, FM Design Ltd.
Managing director, Griffin Audio USA
Lars Tofastrud
Senior acoustician, FM Design Ltd.
Director, Griffin Audio USA

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