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Whatever happened to dynamic range! Where it went...and why it's coming back.

A P4A sponsored video from Alan Lastufka.
Good morning, Alan. Dynamic range. This is a term to know. You have the smallest detectable quantity, and you have the largest detectable quantity. Dynamic range is the difference between those two things.

Your ears can hear very faint sounds, and they can hear very loud sounds, and they're good at knowing the difference between the two.

But there is a point at which you can no longer hear a sound. It's just so faint that it sounds like nothing. And there's also a point at which you cannot differentiate between loud and louder. Pretty much because your ears are being pushed past the limit of what they are designed to detect and are actually being damaged. So, careful with that.

When we make music, that dynamic range is vital. It is one of the things that we get to play with along with tone and tempo and other things that make music so beautiful and wonderful and absolutely fantastic. Violin plucks contrasting with gong blasts, making for infinite variation of things that can be done with noise.

But what if you want to make an impression, because your song is playing on the radio, so you want it to be a little bit louder than the song that played last on the radio.

It might be a good idea to make your quiets a little less quiet. But your louds, well, your louds can't get any louder. So leave the louds up at the top, bring up the quiet, though. Make everything sound a little more substantial.

Oh, but wait, now everyone's doing that. Now my song sounds insubstantial compared to everyone's quiets being so bumped up, so I gotta bump my quiets up more than them, so my song sounds more present than theirs.

And this is from whence came the loudness war.

Here's the waveform of Michael Jackson's "Black or White" from 1991, now 1995, now 2008. 

It's actually hard to do this. It's hard to make everything loud and still have everything not sound like mud. Have it all stand out.

Audio engineers work really hard to make the quiets louder to make the songs seem big and beefy and more substantial. But when you go back and listen to what the music sounded like before even the quietest things had to be loud, it's actually pretty clear that louder isn't better.

Dynamic range is great. And luckily, it looks like we're coming back around and people are realizing this. New music, especially independent music, is starting to have a lot more dynamic range again. 

It seems that maybe we hit the peak of the loudness war around 2008 or 2009. The radio is a lot less important than it used to be. Songs don't have to compete in the same way that they used to.

When you don't have to worry about sounding thin and insubstantial next to whatever else is happening on the radio, a lot more interesting things can happen.

So, let's all be happy that peak loudness appears to have occurred, and that audio engineers are celebrating dynamic range in a way that they haven't in almost 30 years.

Thanks to Alan Lastufka for the video topic. John, I'll see you on Tuesday.