Friday, 22 April 2016


                                                            NOT TOO LOUD

  During the final term of my second year degree in Music Technology, we were asked to record, mix and master the multi-track recording of  a live ensemble as part of a coursework  for the Live Studio Production module. The project proposal was a collaboration between Music performance and Music Technology students. The band set-up was a drum kit, bass guitar, electric guitar, piano and three vocalists.

The drum kit was positioned in the middle of the room around two meters away from the wall. Acoustic panels were placed around it (in the left side) so some isolation could be achieved between the drum's sonic field and the bass guitar's amplifier response. The guitar's amplifier was placed one meter to the left of the bass player and the electric piano positioned further up to the right of the drummer. Direct injection boxes (DI) were connected from the electric piano, and from the  electric bass/guitar's amplifiers into the mixing board in order to capture the instrument character whilst attenuating floor noise. Specific types of microphones were placed correspondingly a few inches from the amps' drives in order to grasp the body of the bass/guitar's sound, so that we could have more flexibility in the mixing stage. The vocalists' mics were arranged in the middle of the room (in a way they could easily interact with each other), and a pair of vocal reference monitors were added to the set-up. The same positional approach was followed throughout the overall band set-up, in order to create the right atmosphere and communication between band members which would lead to a better performance.
 The recording phase is the most important part of in the production process. All the pros and cons are dealt with, right there at that stage. Taking the time to test the gear, have a good sound check, try out different mics (positioning/mic equalization), techniques, accessories and equipment (available and required) for the session are essential to capture a good recording. The maternal milk (recording session) is vital for the nutritional development of an infant (post-production). If there is an adequate recording session then the post-production process is more efficient, avoiding the normalization and "plastic-surgery" of audio samples

Post-production is composed by three main stages, editing, mixing and mastering. I am focusing on the last one, the mastering stage. Nowadays, it is a trend to have the mix-down sounding as loud as possible, pushing the limiter over its "limit" during mastering. Some artists, labels and producers raise the level of the final master over the clipping-red in the pointless race of "the louder, the better". Check the link below for reference.

The quality of the mix is not measure by its loudness, but how well the dynamic range can "breath", preserving the distinction between low and high volume passages  whilst reaching a relative level of amplitud without introducing noise and distortion. I have read several articles about "The Loudness War" online,  and I have found interesting the research being done on this issue. Click the link for reference.

Since the early '90s, music recordings seem to have been getting louder and louder in comparison with the late '70s and early '80s, and era when one of the best audio-recordings were made using analog technology. Albums such as Michael Jackson's "Thriller (1982) and The Sugar Hill Gang's "Rappers Delight" (1979) are a good example of it. At the present time, digital technology has given us many benefits and have allowed us to take our artistic and creative ideas to next level, but at the same time, the increase in headroom of many digital algorithms in audio-processing devices has allowed us to get away with high levels of volume without clipping.

The increase in volume of a musical recording without respecting its the dynamic range  can have detrimental consequences for the listener. Nowadays, most of us have apple and androids devices such as i-pods and mobile phones which we use to listen to music. Generally, young people listen to music loud on headphones for long period of time whilst walking on the streets, in public transport, and  at home. They override the safest loudness level in an attempt to avoid background noise or "feel more the music" as some expressed. An audio recording with an over compressed dynamic range will distort the tonal character of some musical instruments, and reduce the contrast between quiet and loud parts making most musical elements within the composition just loud. This practice will cause ear's fatigue to the listener, and permanently hearing damage if exposed to it for long periods of time. During recent years there has been an increase in hearing loss and tinnitus in people under 35 years old. Check the link for reference.  

 I have been a victim of the loudest misconception while working as DJ and audio producer. In several occasions, I have been asked to turn up the final mix-down more because they feel is a sign of quality or "coolness". A couple of years ago, using the tt dynamic range meter plug-in in Logic Pro, I did a test of 80's versus 2000's music recordings in a variety of music styles and it was quite obvious how the RMS (average loudness=difference between peak and quiet parts) has decreased  in order to make recordings sound louder in recent years. Statistics studies have shown that a loud audio level do not necessarily increase commercial success and has very little effect on the listener's preference when selecting and consuming songs.

I feel it is important for artist, producers, masters engineers and everyone involved in the audio-production industry to join forces and get united in the quest for well-balanced audio recordings. By doing so, we preserver the difference in levels of the dynamic range whilst achieving a relative loud level (the real audio quality) and protect the hearing conditions of the next generation.