24 August 2006

The Death of Dynamic Range

Disclaimer: I'm not an engineer. Anybody who is, please chime in with clarifications, corrections, or more information.

The excellent Jerry Yeti has pointed out an informative article on The Death of Dynamic Range; this is a consequence of making music on CDs uniformly loud (since digital music has an absolute peak amplitude, unlike analog). If you try to exceed this limit, the sound gets distorted as it's limited to the digital range; basically, by making everything almost as loud as a CD can encode, the dynamic peaks (bits louder, usually for emphasis or a sense of climax) are pulled back down to the peak admissible amplitude--which, because the whole thing is nearly at peak, is the same as everything else.

Interestingly, it's taken Europe and Asia longer to jump on the loudness-wars bandwagon; below are waveforms from Ricky Martin's 1999 ear-bleeding single "La Vida Loca."

The very-zoomed-up version, with the left stereo channel on top and the right one on the bottom:

You can see, at the bottom of both channels, the amplitude is artificially cut off. This is bad.

Compare a 1999 UK release, "Swear It Again" by Westlife:

There's one point at peak while the rest moves around it. This is good; instead of the whole track being pretty uniformly loud, it has a focus.

I wish there were examples from classical music on this article; it seems like the loss of dynamic range would be particularly devastating to classical music, or even most instrumental-only stuff--so is it happening, I wonder, or is this a vocal-pop-only phenomenon?

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