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A Modest Proposal for Ending the Loudness War
post Jun 25 2008, 20:33
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It's fairly well known in these parts (but less known everywhere else) that loudness equalization mostly solves the loudness war, in that attempts at increasing program loudness are immediately compensated on playback.

iTunes and the iPod, which arguably control a majority of the music playback market right now, have SoundCheck, which is imperfect, but works. Everybody else has ReplayGain, which rocks (Thanks David!). Beyond Apple, only a couple other music providers dominate the market. I'd put MySpace and Bleep on those lists.

If only two or three of the biggest music playback providers made loudness equalization required - ie, it can't be turned off except by advanced means - the loudness war would probably end fairly quickly. Instead of trying to argue from the standpoint of increased fidelity, one would be able to argue that hypercompression/limiting would do nothing to increase loudness, and would only reduce fidelity. Once producers realize this, the loudness war would probably be stopped dead in its tracks.

The problems with this scheme are as follows:
  • Convincing Apply/MySpace to do anything is kind of hard.
  • Like I said, SoundCheck kind of sucks, notably because of a lack of album gain.
  • Playback gain would need to be adjusted substantially. Volume levels on the iPod are sometimes considered (by crazies IMHO) to be quiet as they are.
  • Very few people actually understand what SoundCheck does. Apparantly, some audio engineers seriously believe it's a dynamic range compressor.
  • I'm not sure it is possible to read off RG tags from Flash, so MySpace might need Adobe's help to implement it.
Nevertheless I think this is far more feasible than the other usual alternatives proposed, which include: getting hardware manufacturers to add DRC to all their devices; informing the music listening and production public of higher fidelity mastering; moving to some intrinsically loudness-agnostic format such as vinyl or SACD; etc. No additional hardware is required, and it only takes convincing a few organizations to do something cheap for everybody else to likely follow suit.

So, opinions? Is this worth getting out my petition-writing paper?
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post Jun 26 2008, 20:41
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If I may weigh in on this subject...

The point of ReplayGain, as I understand it, is to reduce the perceived loudness of "excessively hot" tracks to a standard level, where the notional VU meter reads -20dBFS on the loudest sections. Tracks (or albums) that are already recorded at sensible levels are not reduced (or, not as far), and their dynamic peaks are not truncated. ReplayGain does not intrinsically do any compression of it's own.

To compensate, the analogue gain of the headphone amplifier must be set about 12dB higher, to allow tracks to be heard at the same level as the present worst offenders. The trend recently has been to limit the maximum amplifier level on mobile devices, for health and safety reasons, precisely because people persisted in listening to these "hot" tracks at maximum volume. And so people keep buying "hot level" tracks because anything else is too quiet to hear properly above the traffic.

With ReplayGain and a "normal" level headphone amplifier, the total effective gain on these hot tracks would remain the same as with newer devices, while the total effective gain on high-dynamics tracks would remain the same as on old, pre-H&S players. Both of these are the "correct" listening level, where the VU meter sticks at about 80dB SPL. The question is whether new portable hardware is still capable of producing the higher gains, if the firmware were upgraded with ReplayGain support.

I happen to have an old Panasonic portable CD player, from when CD players were just starting to get skip protection and remain affordable, and when the Health & Safety goons were just beginning to make worried noises. If I put on my open Sennheisers (not the most sensitive of cans) and turn the volume to 10, I get a perfectly normal listening level with no obvious distortion - when I play my Berlioz CD, which is properly mastered.

Thus, the headphone amp in this old player is perfectly capable of handling the appropriate gain and level - on a bog-standard 3-volt battery supply (two AA cells). A standard lithium-ion cell, as used in iPods, gives you 3.6V nominal.

Now, there *are* situations where DRC is appropriate. Listening to a high-DR piece at night where you don't want to wake the neighbours, but you still want to hear the quiet bits. Or, listening to music in the car (or worse, in a light aircraft) where the ambient noise level is very high.

For these situations, there should be a separate button - I remember we had a Kenwood car radio with a "Loud" button that simply cut in a mild compressor (though the manual was extremely vague about what it actually did and why you would want to use it), and my parents' new Yamaha AV-receiver has a "Night mode" button that does the same thing. My old portable CD player doesn't have a "loud" button, and neither does anything else I have in my flat (and believe me, that's a lot of stuff).

It does have a "Super Extended Bass System" button - a simple bass-boost EQ - which causes horrible distortion if you turn it on at high gain levels, and is useless anyway if you have decent headphones or earbuds. It also has a button to turn the anti-skip on and off, since the battery lasts longer with it off, but then it skips if you look at it sideways. These are not useful buttons, to be honest - they smack of checklist-featureism. A DRC button would have been more useful.

And I agree, it should be either impossible or tedious to turn ReplayGain *off*. On simple or interface-constrained devices, it should be impossible. On things like a full-fat iPod, it should merely be tedious (an option buried in the Settings panels). On the plus side, the volume control should become much less important, because now the playback level is standardised - another thing that can disappear into the bowels of the Settings, with a default that works for standard earbuds and cans, instead of cluttering up the primary UI.

Apple would *love* that.

So would the "made in Taiwan" bunch, because a stereo pot is so many cents per unit!
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Posts in this topic
- Axon   A Modest Proposal for Ending the Loudness War   Jun 25 2008, 20:33
- - slks   My guess is that 70% of people don't care, 29%...   Jun 25 2008, 21:21
- - Axon   That's a major supporting argument for this pr...   Jun 25 2008, 21:37
- - Lyx   Sheep dont want to have a voice and therefore shou...   Jun 25 2008, 21:56
|- - sshd   QUOTE (Lyx @ Jun 25 2008, 22:56) Sheep do...   Jun 25 2008, 22:36
|- - WonderSlug   Most people under the age of 30 don't understa...   Jun 25 2008, 22:37
|- - Axon   QUOTE (Lyx @ Jun 25 2008, 15:56) So yes, ...   Jun 25 2008, 22:57
|- - Lyx   QUOTE (Axon @ Jun 25 2008, 23:57) Still, ...   Jun 25 2008, 23:33
|- - Canar   QUOTE (Lyx @ Jun 25 2008, 15:33) I cannot...   Jun 26 2008, 17:01
|- - Lyx   QUOTE (Canar @ Jun 26 2008, 18:01) In eve...   Jun 26 2008, 18:49
- - sshd   If you don't like the product, don't buy i...   Jun 25 2008, 22:28
|- - Lyx   QUOTE (sshd @ Jun 25 2008, 23:28) The stu...   Jun 25 2008, 22:31
|- - krabapple   QUOTE (sshd @ Jun 25 2008, 17:28) If you ...   Jun 26 2008, 18:01
- - Axon   Moreover, if you follow the idea that reduced fide...   Jun 25 2008, 22:37
|- - sshd   QUOTE (Axon @ Jun 25 2008, 23:37) Moreove...   Jun 25 2008, 22:59
|- - Axon   QUOTE (sshd @ Jun 25 2008, 16:59) They ca...   Jun 25 2008, 23:20
|- - Soap   QUOTE (sshd @ Jun 25 2008, 17:59) QUOTE (...   Jun 26 2008, 16:31
- - carpman   It's interesting that no one seems to think it...   Jun 25 2008, 23:31
- - Canar   The problem I see with your proposal though Lyx is...   Jun 26 2008, 19:03
- - Lyx   Good point, and artists and labels wont do that la...   Jun 26 2008, 19:22
- - Canar   Personally, I think "almost as loud" sho...   Jun 26 2008, 19:32
- - Axon   I agree that Lyx's approach is the technically...   Jun 26 2008, 19:44
- - Chromatix   If I may weigh in on this subject... The point of...   Jun 26 2008, 20:41

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