Angry Metal-Fi is a series of articles that are cross posted on Angry Metal Guy and Metal-Fi as a collaborative effort to evangelize dynamics in metal.

By: Alex-Fi

Angry Metal-Fi“But I like my metal loud. It just sounds better to me.”

This is bar none the number one reaction I get from fellow headbangers, who after they read one of our articles, go off in a frenzy and measure all their record’s dynamic range only to discover they almost always prefer the hyper compressed albums over the dynamic ones.

Not surprising. In fact most of the time, their results only reinforce why the Loudness War exists in the first place. Let me explain.

From a strictly Darwinian standpoint, the ability to hear is critical to your survival. It allows you to perceive the natural sounds in your environment to find food (as well as avoid becoming it), keep our balance, and most importantly in this day an age, communicate with your fellow headbanger more effectively. Consequently, your ears have developed into a highly sensitive instrument. You have the ability to hear a whisper in a sound proofed room as well as detect the loudest scream at a Pig Destroyer show. Putting that into numbers, the human ear has about 140dB of dynamic range (the CD is only 96dB) and can hear up to three orders of magnitude in frequency (20Hz – 20kHz).

However, the perceived response of human hearing is not linear with respect to frequency. In English, the apparent loudness of a sound depends on its frequency and intensity. As I stated in my previous article, the study of how our ears perceive sound with respect to volume was first researched by Fletcher and Munson back in 1933. They came up with the first Equal-loudness contour, a plot that shows how your hearing changes depending on a sound’s intensity (sound pressure level or SPL). The curves are measured in Phons which is the value of SPL that has constant apparent loudness for average human hearing.

Fletcher-Munson Curves

Fletcher-Munson Curves

Looking at the graph above, imagine you are listening to Bolt Thrower at 80dB. Your head is moving back and forth as the British made tank steam rolls over your eardrums. Life is good. Then you turn the volume knob down and play the same song at 10dB. Take a look at the frequency disparity between the two. At 10dB, anything below 500Hz is pretty much a wash (sorry Jo). Also note how bass (less than 250Hz) and treble (greater than 2kHz) dramatically change in general depending on SPL. That’s why at 80dB, Bolt Thrower sounds richer and fuller than it does at 10dB. Your ears literally hear more of the frequency spectrum. This graph also explains why historically speaking, most engineers tend to stay around 85dB when they perform their magic, since that’s where the Equal-loudness contour tends to be the flattest.

Armed with this knowledge in mind, you understand now why louder generally sounds better. That’s why it is absolutely imperative that when you decide to sit down and compare two pieces of music (say your original Septic Flesh records versus the recently released remasters) that you level match them, i.e. you compare both pieces of music at the same volume. Otherwise your ears will be fooled into thinking one sounds better than the other when in reality it’s actually the reverse.

The two most widespread technologies that allow you to level match your music are ReplayGain and Sound Check. ReplayGain is the most prevalent of the two since it is supported by a myriad of players on Windows, Linux, and Mac. Sound Check is the name Apple uses for the equivalent technology built into their venerable iTunes client. Both basically do the same thing and work almost identically.

Both technologies analyze a track or entire album to calculate the material’s peak levels and perceived volume. Then based on a configurable target value (how loud or soft you want the music to sound) another calculation is performed to determine how much gain or attenuation should be applied to the music to hit that target value during playback.

Please note, no samples were harmed in the making of either the ReplayGain or Sound Check values. Neither of these technologies degrade or modify the source material in anyway. The calculated gain value is typically stored as metadata (usually an ID3 tag like the ones you use for album, artist, track number, etc.) so a supported client can read back the number and apply normalization upon playback. Think of ReplayGain and Sound Check as an invisible hand around your volume knob, rotating it up and down to keep your perceived volume consistent across different source material. If you are interested in finding out how to use them, please check out my detailed article here or Google around – they are both fairly straightforward to use.

At this point you maybe asking yourself, why am I so against the Loudness War? Doesn’t dynamic range compression and brickwall limiting make the music louder which means it will sound better? Right?

Wrong. There is a major difference between manipulating the recorded volume versus the playback one. When a mastering engineer artificially pushes the volume higher by applying massive amounts of DRC, he or she is changing the recorded volume by squashing the high and low ends of the frequency spectrum. This process has the nasty byproduct of causing transients and imaging to substantially degrade, making the music sound lifeless and dull. Take a look at the same track level matched with itself taken from two different masters off the same album (by the same mastering engineer no less):

CD mix (top) and vinyl mix (bottom) level matched

See all those peaks on the bottom vinyl mix, those are kick drums, cymbal crashes, transients, etc. They have been completely chopped off on the top digital mix in order to maintain volume homogeneity. There is just no longer any room left for them to exist. Simply put, hyper compression sacrifices fidelity at the expense of volume and irrevocably damages the original recording. Read Dave’s “Take the Swanö Challenge” article for the complete lowdown (even better, take the challenge yourself).

However, turning the volume knob up or down, like in our Bolt Thrower example above, doesn’t affect the music’s dynamic range or fidelity at all. The original recording is preserved since you are only changing the playback volume. As a result, you can feel confident that no matter what volume you ultimately decide to enjoy the music at, you’re not damaging it in the process.

Do you think the folks I mentioned at the beginning of this article level matched their hyper compressed metal records with their highly dynamic counterparts? Almost always the answer is no. They are not alone though. The overwhelming majority of reviews I read online rarely ever talk about level matching when discussing a remaster or remix. So how can you trust a review that is touting how amazing a remaster sounds if the author did not level match it with the original? Simple, you can’t.

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  • jeremcord

    Another great article ! To be conscious of the Loudness War is hard though. I’m really into classic thrash metal and I’m trying to purchase all the “classics”. So going to my favorite music store I only can find squashed remasters (but at a special price !! )versions. And I mean really flat and dull ! I’ve tried (example : remasters of exodus, forbidden, dark angel…)! The only solution is to by online old and more expensive versions.

    Questions :
    1) Do you think we can hope someday the trend of squashed remasters will end and when ? (and will we have some decent remasters someday ?)

    2) Have you written an article about the question of these remasters that I would have missed ?

    • 1) Shakes Metal-Fi’s magic eight ball: “The future is cloudy.”

      2) Those specific masters, I don’t think so (I’d have to look to confirm). But we are making inroads (a big part of that is due to AMG’s graciousness and support – I may ACTUALLY forgive him for his last Blind Guardian review. Not yet, but we are getting there.).

      I get an email at least once a week from an artist and/or label that agrees with our message and will honestly think about either a) laying off compression on their next digital release or b) offer the vinyl mix as an alternative. I would prefer the former over the later but I’ll take it.

      • jeremcord

        Sorry by “these” I meant “articles about remasters in general”.
        Anyway it’s quite funny to see how some artists can be indeed aware of the Loudness War and don’t do anything. (I am thinking about Audrey Horne singer Toschie or even Bob Dylan ; their last releases don’t match with their speeches). Do they suddenly lose control of the production at the mastering process ??
        About the vinyl mix as an alternative… I think it’s not the right direction. It means that poor masters still exist. the more the vinyl is seen as an alternative, the more our CDs will keep being squashed. Don’t you think so ??

        • Watch this space, we are going to talk extensively about both questions you raise in the above post. Suffice it to say, it’s complicated.

      • Man, you guys have the budget for a magic 8 ball!? Jelly.

        Also: I did point out that they mastered upwards, and if they were normalizing upwards it worked out for them. It’s true that my ears were probably tricked. I was not level matching at the time.

        • Less staff to feed!

    • Dave

      It’s a good question. In very rare instances (aside from Earache’s excellent FDR reissues) there have been remasters that beat the originals. The 2005 remastered reissue of Atheist’s Piece Of Time is one example (not the sucky 2000 one).

      I see remastering following the trends of regular new masters. If a majority of engineers start mastering at pre-1993 levels, I think remasters will follow suit. Aside from that, whoever is doing the remaster has to care enough to hire somebody who knows what they are doing, which is NOT a given.

      • jeremcord

        Earache’s reissues ! Very good point. Carcass’s heartwork sounds really great !

      • What I’m hoping is that we’ll actually see remasters of records that were released during the crushing phase of the mid-2000s. Now, I suspect that a lot of them can’t be fixed entirely because of the fact that so much got fed into the DAC pre-processed to death, but I would love to see remasters to a much fuller dynamic range of some of my favorite albums from the era. Particularly Amon Amarth records, but also Opeth and others.

        • Dave

          Me too. Whether they are fixable really depends on what the mixes look like. If the original mixes were dynamic and they were smashed during the mastering phase, that shouldn’t be too hard to correct. If the mixes arrived pre-smashed, you can’t really do much with that. You’d have to go back to the raw multi-tracks, if still available, and re-mix everything first.

          Amon Amarth albums prior to With Oden just weren’t that well recorded or engineered, even the vinyl versions don’t sound all that hot. Once Jens Bogren started engineering for them though, that’s when things got good. Dynamic masters for AA albums from WOOOS on all exist for the vinyl pressings, so it’s just a question of somebody taking those and releasing digital versions. Same with Opeth, the masters are already there for the vinyl releases.

    • Refined-Iron Cranium

      Nothing can save Dark Angel’s ‘Leave Scars’ from that muddy production job. Trust me, I bought the ‘Black Edition’ of the album (massive bargain!!) and it only sounds *slightly* better than the original. OK, I don’t have a CD of the original copies, but FLAC counts, doesn’t it?
      Anyway, I know your dilemma, it’s difficult to find non-remasters of albums like that.

  • jeremcord

    About “Level matching”, I feel like using ReplayGain or Sound Check would just confirm what I already know. Don’t you think we should hear (or learn to) the difference even without this technology ?

    • “You can lead a horse to water, but you can’t make it drink.”

      Your ears will be the ultimate judge. We are just trying to give you the knowledge and tools to make an informed decision.

    • I think I do hear it. But it basically tricks your ears at first blush by being loud.

      • Dave

        That’s precisely why level matching is so critical, because to almost everyone, louder sounds better than quieter. It’s only after more critical listening that you begin to realize that just being all loud all the time quickly becomes exhausting, and is boring to listen to. Once you turn down the loud version to match the quiet version, dynamics will win out every time. Moreover, loud albums played loud suck, whereas quiet, dynamic albums played loud rock.

        • Amen brother.

        • TminusEight

          I agree. Listening to music is my main ‘thing’. I have put a lot of time (and $) into my audio set-up (transport, DAC, pre-amp, a separate power amp for each channel, decent speakers, interconnects, and bass traps in my room…). System sounds great, when playing good source material… I happen to dig metal, and unfortunately that means most of what I play suffers from this mastering problem. What that translates to for me, is a wall of noise that it is really hard to contain acoustically. Whereas, if the mastering wasn’t brickwalled, there would be more room (in the room) for the true dynamics to shine. So it would KICK, and then shut the $%&^& up for a second… or, as you said, loud albums played loud suck, whereas quiet albums played loud rock ]-

    • It’s also about convenience. Keeping your playback at a constant level across every record is good to avoid being distracted to fiddle with volume knobs every time you shuffle around your particular collection. I mean, that’s why I even started to use ReplayGain.

  • Feytalist

    This has been one of the best explanations of this particular phenomenon that I have read so far. I finally understand all this! Thanks guys.