Alex is chief editor and co-founder of Metal-Fi, a site dedicated to the heavy metal audiophile.
Today is Dynamic Range Day. Yes, another hallmark audiophile holiday in the same vein as Record Store Day and its Black Friday counterpart. But unlike the other two, there are no lines at your local record store to contend with nor any holiday exclusives to really speak of. No, Dynamic Range Day only asks for one thing from you - and that is perspective. So on this auspicious day, I'd like to offer mine, as well as give a brief overview of the holiday and why it is so important that every audiophile celebrate it.
DRD was founded in 2010 by Ian Shepherd, a world renown mastering engineer and founder of the very popular website Production Advice. His mission was simple: He wanted to raise awareness about the deleterious impact the Loudness War has had on modern music. But at the same time, he also wanted to highlight those artists and bands who continually prioritize fidelity over volume during the recording process. And each year, as part of his "State of Dynamics Address", he nominates artists who have released a dynamic record in the year prior and then proceeds to give one of them the prestigious DRD Award. Winner's have included popular artists like Steven Wilson, Daft Punk, Bjork, and Jack White to name but a few. I highly encourage you to watch today's live webcast here to find out who this year's winner is. I have a feeling it will surprise you!
But let's step back for a moment: What is the Loudness War and what does dynamics have anything to do with high-fidelity in the first place? And more to the point, why should you care?
The Loudness War in a nutshell is a catch-all phrase to describe the now multi-decade long "sonic" arms race waged by labels and artists to release the loudest album possible. The idea behind it is that the louder a record sounds, be it through the radio in the '80s, the CD in the '90s, and now through the various streaming platforms of today, the more likely it will leave an impression with the listener (read: you'll buy it). And even though there is no statistical evidence to correlate volume with sales, the fact is this urban legend still persists today as the industry is constantly producing louder and louder material.
Yet when I talk about an album sounding louder, I'm not talking about you listening to it at high volumes. Instead, I'm talking about records that have been made artificially loud by reducing their level of dynamic range, or the ratio between the loudest parts to the softest ones, during the mixing or mastering process. Very simply, an engineer will raise all the quietest parts of a recording by cutting off the low and high end peaks regardless of whether or not the source material warranted it. This in effect squashes the original signal and in the process takes out a lot of the punch and sonic depth the recording would have had if this kind of aggressive limiting hadn't been applied. Take note, once a recording has gone through this process it is irrevocably damaged; there is no way to recover the peaks that have been effectively chopped off, and more often than not, you are simply left with an amorphous wall of sound where volume homogeneity reigns supreme at the expense of ultimate fidelity.
Some of you have probably first heard of the Loudness War as a fall out behind Metallica's now infamous 2008 Death Magnetic release. But the truth is it was not the first nor the last causality of the Loudness War. In fact, Death Magnetic is almost par for the course for many artists - Adele's, Grammy award winning album 25 is well within the range of it, and so is the new Flaming Lips record too. The unfortunate reality is the Loudness War is alive and well in 2017.
Here is also another sad truth, or if you prefer, perspective: More often than not, the weakest link in your playback chain is not what format you use, but rather the source material you are pumping through it. So today, on this DRD, all I ask of you is to at least consider that perhaps sampling rates and codecs aren't the true enemy of high fidelity, but rather shoddy production and a penchant for volume is. In the meantime, please take this day as an opportunity to rediscover one of your favorite albums that was produced with dynamics in mind and think, "What if they all sounded this way?"
Until next time.
Happy Dynamic Range Day!