Brain Pickings

Visualizing Loudness: The Dark Side of Music Digitization

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From Bieber to boredom, or what 30 years of compression have to do with auditory freedom.

Last month, we explored 3 fascinating, synesthetic ways of visualizing music. Today, we’re applying the same cross-sensory lens on a more basic component of sound: Loudness.

The rise of digital music over the past decade has sparked a phenomenon known as the loudness wars — a detrimental sonic arms race to digitally master recordings with higher real and perceived levels of loudness, resulting in sound quality inferior to that of analog recordings like vinyl and cassettes. (You can see and hear the difference in action here.) To better understand these issues of sound compression, perceived loudness and recording quality, we’re looking — literally — at three visual approaches to subject that illuminate it in a visceral, intuitive way.

CHRISTOPHER CLARK

Created for a 2009 NPR episode on the subject, this stunning infographic poster by designer Christopher Clark visualizes the history of loudness through the changes in frequency peaks, dynamic range and RMS levels — the actual auditory components of perceived loudness — in different music genres between 1979 and 2009.

IAN SHEPHERD

From reader Ian Shepherd, whom you may recall as our volunteer photographer for Bill Bryson’s A Short History of Nearly Everything: Special Illustrated Edition, comes this fascinating infographic raising awareness about Dynamic Range Day — an effort to debunk the myth that loudness helps sell records, taking place on March 25h.

Using data from the Unofficial Dynamic Range Database, Shepherd pits dynamic range — the distance between the highest, sharpest highs and lowest, softest lows, which gives sound richness — against loudness, alongside sales rankings where available.

The results are somewhat unexpected — Justin Bieber’s My World 2.0, for instance, is far louder with much less of a dynamic range than Michael Jackson’s Thriller, the #1 highest-selling record on the chart. Coldplay (#48), typically perceived as “mellow” band in terms of sonic style, is actually far louder than iconic hard rock band AC/DC (#2) in technical terms.

DYNAMIC RANGE METER

Also from Ian, TT Dynamic Range Meter by the Pleasurable Music Foundation is a wonderful free tool for Mac and PC rendering real-time dynamic range visualizations that help not only mixing engineers, but also casual music lovers make informed decisions about sound compression. You can try it out as a free plugin here.

BONUS

For a deeper dive into the subject, this excellent talk by Earl Vickers from the 129th Audio Engineering Society Convention, framing the underlying problem of the loudness wars as a problem of game theory, is very much worth the watch. (Again, thanks Ian.)

If we look at some extreme examples, we see that hypercompression reduces contrast between verse and chorus, it takes the crescendo out of the bolero, removes the surprise from the ‘Surprise Symphony,’ and turns ‘Stairway to Heaven’ into a sidewalk.” ~ Earl Vickers

Even if people don’t consciously notice the problem, the music may become mentally or physically tiring. Listeners may lose interest without knowing why.” ~ Earl Vickers

If you’re like us and live most of your life with music, this should both worry and mobilize you. Thankfully, sound advisor and researcher Julian Treasure has your back with this great short TED talk on 8 steps to sound health.

And for an even closer look at the issue in its rich historical context, we highly recommend Greg Milner’s Perfecting Sound Forever: An Aural History of Recorded Music.

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