It's nothing to do with the compression.
It's compression of the dynamic range.
In order to achieve these super-high levels, the music has it’s dynamic range reduced – roughly speaking, that’s the difference between the loudest and quietest moments in the music.
(Actually, it’s more complicated than that. “Loudness War” sound suffers from limited crest factor, low RMS variability and in the worst cases distortion. We’ve chosen “limited dynamic range” as an intuitive way to describe all this for Dynamic Range Day, but for a more rigorous technical analysis, click here.)
STOP PRESS – Why the Loudness War HASN’T reduced ‘dynamic range’ !
I’ve just read a truly excellent analysis of the effects of the Loudness War on the music we listen to in Sound On Sound magazine, and – hold on to your hats – according to Emmanuel Deruty:
“There is no doubt about it: contrary to general belief, there has been no obvious decrease in loudness range due to the loudness war, and brickwall limiters have not reduced the loudness range in music production.”
In fact, the article argues very convincingly that “dynamic range” is so poorly defined that’s it’s pretty much useless as a way to discuss the effect of the so-called “war”. It goes on to look at the issue in great detail, trying to find out – if it’s not reduced dynamic range that makes Loudness War casualties sound bad, what is it ?
So, as the organiser of Dynamic Range Day, does this mean I’ve been barking up the wrong tree ? That we don’t have to worry about the Loudness War after all, or that it’s NOT making modern music sound worse ?
It does highlight the point that using simplified language like “dynamic music sounds better” isn’t strictly meaningful in a technical sense, but that phrase – and the whole Dynamic Range Day site – is deliberately simplified to help make the issues as clear as possible for a wide audience.
And the article itself goes on to conclude that over-using limiting and compression does tend to cause
“…reduced crest factor, envelope modifications… and in the worst cases, distortion. Common sense suggests that although there is nothing wrong with these characteristics as such, they shouldn’t be on virtually all records“
Which in a nutshell, is the main message of Dynamic Range Day ! We shouldn’t feel obliged to apply extreme processing to all music and styles in the mistaken belief that it will make our music sound better on the radio, or more “competitive”.
And the fact remains – the easiest way to avoid all those problems is to simply use something like the TT Dynamic Range Meter and avoid going beyond an average of DR8 in your music. Sure, strictly speaking the TT Meter is measuring “crest factor” rather than “loudness range” as defined by the EBU 3342 specification – but really, at this point we’re just in the land of semantics !
The article still contains some fascinating analysis, though – the discussion of exactly why so many people think Metallica’s “Death Magnetic” sounds terrible is particularly interesting. It concludes that it’s actually a relatively unusual special case – a combination of very low crest factor and very low RMS variability – throughout the whole album.
I’m a little concerned that all this will be mis-interpreted, through. I think the article’s headline conclusion that “the loudness wars haven’t reduced dynamic range” could mask the underlying point that much music genuinely does sound worse when crushed and distorted. What works for rap or death metal probably won’t sound good on mainstream pop like Justin Bieber, or singer-songwriter Adele !
And even though “Death Magnetic” was a “perfect storm” of factors, just because it was a special case doesn’t mean this isn’t still a real, damaging trend in modern music production values. As the article says,
“Obviously, limiting does something ‘wrong’ with the signal, otherwise people wouldn’t be complaining so much”
However these reservations are only about the way the article may be (mis-) interpreted. They can’t take away from the fact that it’s a superb piece of analysis and comment, and if you really want to understand the issue of the Loudness Wars, it should be required reading. You can find it here in full:
‘Dynamic Range’ & The Loudness War
Meanwhile the fight goes on, perhaps with some revised technical language choices in future !