Songs for the Deaf

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By Jake Vos

In 2007 a collective of American music producers and sound engineers started a backlash against music industry practices that forced mixers to implement sound compression that drastically compromises the sound quality of the music they subjected this treatment to. The new organisation, TurnMeUp, set out to inform and reform the record industry and end what’s known as the ‘loudness war’, all in the name of good music.

A few years later British sound engineer Ian Shepherd started Dynamic Range Day, another awareness effort to reverse industry malpractice against commercially released music. Huge commercial releases such as ‘Death Magnetic’ by Metallica had wide public backlash due to their heavily compressed mixes; artificially loudened and distorted. Even re-releases of famous albums get the loudness treatment; hits like ‘We Are The Champions’ and Michael Jackson’s ‘Black or White’, songs that play with loud and quiet, were getting loudened, or as it’s known in the business: “compressed”.

Music compression, as it relates to the loudness war, is a kind of mixing where the loud in a song is made louder and quiet parts are made especially louder to match, which results is a consistently loud, flat song, with little tonal variation. This is why even Metallica, no strangers to loudness and distortion, fell victim to this kind of sound mixing. When a song is artificially loudened within the track it changes the way the song sounds through speakers, and when your song sounds like a solid block of noise in a speaker, rather than alternating loud and quiet, the sound warps and goes into ranges that sensitive speakers can’t muster. This is the clipping effect and it has affected almost every major label release in the past 15 to 20 years.

The effects of the loudness war have touched every genre and has hit the most unlikely of victims. Records by artists such as Oasis and remasters of ZZ Top are some of the loudest albums ever released. Even artists outspoken against artificial loudness, like Bob Dylan, have had their work come afoul of bad mastering at the hands of unprofessional mixers.

Attempts to reverse sound compression are becoming more available with the rise of digital distribution and digital broadcasting. Apple’s Sound Check, part of the iTunes software, can monitor and alter the loudness of a track when its encoded within the program and broadcast functions in professional audio and video software which can fix compression for a more normalised output, be it for radio or television. Without a master track to work with restoring a song to its former glory is difficult, but this hasn’t stopped amateur mixers from working by hand to breathe new life into a joyless, tampered song.

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