In Celebration of Dynamic Range

Friday, March 22nd, 2013 | by

On the eve of Dynamic Range Day, the tribute/remake of the RUSH classic “Subdivisions” quite ironically came up on my iTunes playlist. I’ve always loved that song. But the remake, despite blistering performances, sounds lifeless and uninspiring. I keep feeling like I need to turn it up, but then it just gets annoyingly loud, and I still can’t hear the drums.

Is it just a problem of the arrangement, or a lousy mix? Well, maybe, but I think there is a more fundamental problem too: not enough dynamic range.

Yes, this is another post about the Loudness Wars!

(Looking to hate on Death Magnetic? Find jaw-dropping comparison audio files right over here in Metallica Wins the Loudness Wars — and by the way, for those wondering “if Metallica ‘won,’ then who lost,” the answer is: “everybody with ears.”)

You can see when a mix has this problem

Thanks to digital editors, audio has become a visual medium. Check out this comparison of the original RUSH track and the remake. If you know anything about dynamic range, you’ll spot immediately which one is which.

If you don’t know anything about dynamic range, first of all, thanks for sticking with me, and second of all, the nutshell explanation is that the remixed track is at damn near 100% maximum volume for the whole song. See the top waveform, in blue.

If even the quiet instruments and passages are at maximum volume, there’s no way for the loud stuff to stand out or have any impact. The difference between the loudest thing and the softest thing is called “dynamic range,” and without it, music sounds like crap.

… and you can hear it, too

Now let’s listen. Here is a comparison of the two tracks at equal RMS gain. Play this back at whatever level is comfortable, and notice which one sounds better.

 Original RUSH recording

 Remake/tribute recording

The mixes are different, yes. But the remake mix is much less effective, I think, due to the heavy-handed use of compression. All the life has been squeezed out of it.

“Sounding better” is a subjective thing. If you love loud guitars and keyboards, you might even prefer the remake mix, which is !#&$!@& drowning in both. However, one of the ways great arrangements convey emotion is by manipulating intensity… and if you’re at 100% for the whole song, you have nowhere left to go. This is what makes the remake mix less effective.

Dynamic Range, by the numbers

I used the “TT Dynamic Range Meter” plug-in* for Pro Tools to monitor the dynamic range of these two mixes. The remake clip above hovers steadily around 7-8dB of dynamic range. You can see the red bars in the image at right — an indication that, at least according to the people behind the plug-in, the remake mix has been overcompressed.

The original averages 12dB of dynamic range, but bounces quite a bit between 11–13dB. Even the fact that its level isn’t constant is a good sign; it means the track has room to breathe. There is space in the mix for the drums to have impact. The mix isn’t completely saturated.

To be fair, this remake of “Subdivisions” really isn’t that great an example of the overuse of compression in modern music. The mix is not nearly as crushed as some others, like the Death Magnetic CD (DR = 2.5dB).

There is a world of difference between 2.5dB and 7.5dB of dynamic range — and I’d take the 7.5dB any day. The smaller that number gets, the worse the music sounds, to the point where compression introduces distortion that literally wears out your ears as you listen.

But despite the other sins committed within this remake mix, I think it would have sounded better with more dynamic range. Because if your goal is preserving the DR while you mix and master, it means you’re no longer compromising the song’s emotional impact just to make it as loud as possible.

Learn More

Learn more about Dynamic Range Day. Huge kudos to Ian Shepherd for his work on this issue! Be sure to check out Ian’s wonderful post on How the Loudness War is crushing Dave Grohl’s analogue ambitions, as it has more great examples of how modern music doesn’t sound as good as it ought to.

See also Ian’s post on the TT Dynamic Range Meter, and how to get your own copy.

Posted in Music Business | 8 Comments »

8 Responses to “In Celebration of Dynamic Range”

  1. O. C.

    March 24th, 2013 at 3:24 pm

    No doubt the cover version is smashed, but it’s also not a good comparison, as it’s not exactly a great mix. So smashed or not, you’d still be struggling to hear the drums- they’re just not loud enough.

  2. Jacque

    March 25th, 2013 at 5:17 pm

    With all due respect, O.C., it’s not that the drums aren’t loud enough . . . it’s that everything else is too loud 🙂

    Hence, not enough dynamic range.

  3. Will Addicks

    March 25th, 2013 at 5:36 pm

    I stumbled upon this article by accident, however it’s fascinating: the same exact principle applies to photography as well. There is a lot of new software called HDR, high dynamic range, and it’s the visual equivalent of what you’re talking about here. Computers have changed everything.

  4. matthew mcglynn

    March 26th, 2013 at 8:15 am

    @O. C. and @Jacque, the mix definitely suffers from more problems than compression. But I think that even if the drums had been louder, they’d have been compressed so much that they would not have cut through as they do in the original. You can see the kick and snare hits in the waveform of the original song; they’re the loudest sounds there, which is part of the reason they have so much impact.

  5. Sam Pura

    May 25th, 2013 at 6:33 am

    Honestly, that sounds like a remixed version.

  6. Sam Pura

    May 25th, 2013 at 6:34 am

    …and it is. LOL sorry for not reading clearly.

  7. Rebecca

    October 30th, 2013 at 8:24 pm

    I’m 19 and play music, and just now tonight finally testing out my Scarlett box which fortunately made it through a fire a year ago that took everything except my guitar and two cats. I’m mad I spent all this time not learning about this stuff. I’ve spent the past five hours learning so much about mixing and mastering and I am hooked. I am using garageband right now (tisk tisk, I know), but will upgrade to Protools pronto. My dad’s friend a while back told me my songs had an impressive dynamic range, and I didn’t know what it meant but I knew it meant a lot. This article is great and I am thrilled about this pursuit of the most attractive sound, and to make my music sound exactly how I want it to sound all on my own. Just wanted to share my enthusiasm. Thanks!

  8. TruthInSound

    October 8th, 2014 at 2:53 pm

    Just be aware: Some of this Dynamic Range Day hoopla is little more than self-promotion for its founder.

    The way Ian sees it, you can make your song/album as dynamic as you want, as long as it’s DR-8 on one of the meters available.

    He also cannot satisfactorily explain why some vinyl releases(including one he engineered) return dynamic range values 40% higher than the digitals he claims come from the same masters!

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