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Topic: Pump Up the Volume (Read 2820 times) previous topic - next topic
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Pump Up the Volume

Pump Up the Volume

Labels keep making music louder - and the sound worse

What's better than loud music? Louder music. And it's not just the headbangers who think so. An analysis of pop recordings proves that for the past decade, record labels have quietly been producing the most earsplitting CDs possible.

The labels' assumption is that what you hear, you buy - and deafening tunes are hard to ignore. So how do you make a CD louder when it holds only 16 bits of audio? Engineers use compressors and limiters to reduce the distance between a song's peaks and valleys and then raise the average signal level. Done well, this can boost the volume without sacrificing punch, definition, or clarity.

Thing is, it's usually done poorly. A look at waveforms over time shows unintended distortion and squashed dynamics. In 1980, AC/DC's "Back in Black" was good and loud; the signal had plenty of room to breathe. During the '90s, producers began gradually (and artificially) inflating the volume. By 2000, Fuel's "Last Time" filled nearly every one of the CD's bits with a constant din. Now fast-forward to Celine Dion's 2003 hit. The audio signal seems to show that her music is as aggressive as Fuel's. Hardly. "I Drove All Night" is just louder than the reference work from those bands.

The sound level for AC/DC's 1980 "Back in Black" is what the mixdown engineer created. If you want it louder, turn up the volume.

Moderate peak limiting adds some distortion to Beck's 1996 track "The New Pollution," but the sound is relatively uncompromised.

The peaks on Celine Dion's 2003 track "I Drove All Night" are squashed. Excessive limiting causes extreme distortion. Music loses punch and clarity. 

The irony is that this effort to wring every last drop of volume out of a CD creates discs that don't sound as loud on the radio. Radio stations already compress their signal's dynamic range to make their broadcasts stand out when you're scanning the dial. When they transmit an overamped song, they clamp down on the overall volume. So much for being heard.

- Rip Rowan

(Article originally appeared in Wired 12.01,

I know that this is a topic that has been discussed quite a bit, to say the least, on this forum.  I just wanted to point out that a mainstream magazine has finally picked up on what is going on behind the scenes at major record labels.

Pump Up the Volume

Reply #1
good news, hope to see more, and maybe we'll finally see the end of it.


Pump Up the Volume

Reply #2
What makes me really sad is that some genres least likely to be associated with squashed dynamics are also getting into the act, like classical crossover.

I own a couple of these albums, ie. Josh Groban, Charlotte Church, etc.... when i open up the tracks in CEP I see lots of clipping and near-square waves.