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The Loudness Wars: Over-Compression and its Impact on Music Quality

The Loudness Wars: Over-Compression and its Impact on Music Quality

  Let’s go to eleven  

It is common professional practice for a mixing and mastering engineer to normalize tracks and apply the proper compression to maximize the punch of sound: it’s called loudness, or the loudness wars. This is the skills and tactics of skilled sound engineers and the reason why musicians like myself hire experts who spend their lives studying the art of music mixing and create gorgeous sounding tracks that have “radio quality” and tracks that can be played – and will sound good – on any system, from iPhone speakers to arena speakers. After sound engineers work their magic, a track can be played on any system and the result is the same: basically, it sounds really good with impact and depth. When “mastering” a track, engineers apply compression and limiters and equalizers and the master track becomes perceptually louder. The proof is in the perception, one can hear the solid power of the finished work. As this image shows, the size of the .wav file, amped through science and expertise, results in more breadth given to the visual image of the file itself:


Let’s give the .wav file a haircut

After twenty years of staring at my Logic Pro project files and zooming in on .wav forms, I am very familiar with the above image. As a novice mixer years ago, I was under the similar naive impression as some A&R reps are: the bigger the .wav form, the better the sound. This is simply not true. Like the image below, slamming compression onto recorded sound is akin to a bad haircut as much of the nuance and art is gone. Like a “bowl cut” that parents used to give their kids (put a bowl around the head and cut around it), over-compression increases the auditory flatness of a track. Hilariously, to me, I still remember my early days in digital mixing when my friend and I used to scream “haircut” in delight when compressing a track and watching the .wav form change. To our horror, after a few days of recording and attempting to mix, the tracks sounded terrible and it took me a few (many) years to understand why. This image explains it all:

This same knowledge that these professionals use when mastering music, sound effects and sound for film has also become an arena of competition known as the “Loudness Wars” – which is essentially a decades old rivalry between sound engineers throughout the world seeking to give their work a sonic advantage. If your track sounds louder than the rest, is bigger than the rest, then it stands out, which could give an economic advantage. Related, have you ever watched television and noticed that the commercials are suddenly much louder than the show itself? I have, and it is jarring. Clearly, the advertisers want to BE HEARD!

It all started back in the day

The sound wars can be traced back to the 1940s when jukeboxes that played 7-inch records were popular. Owners of the jukeboxes could set a standard volume for the machine, and therefore any tracks that had been mastered with skill would be “louder” would prominent over the others. Naturally, studios and record companies requested and demanded mastered singles that were louder than their competition. A competitive spirit also emerged between artists in the 20th century as compilation CDs and radio play demonstrated which tracks were “hot” and which were weak. The increase in volume is demonstrated by this image of the wave file for Michael Jackson’s “Black or White,” which was remastered over the years. One can visually see how the size of the wave file of Jackson’s master track increased over the years from 1983 to 2008.

To make it loud just kill the dynamics

Austin Statesman quotes a letter written by Angelo Montrone, a vice president for A&R for One Haven Music, a Sony Music company: “There’s something . . . sinister in audio that is causing our listeners fatigue and even pain while trying to enjoy their favorite music. It has been propagated by A&R departments for the last eight years: The complete abuse of compression in mastering (forced on the mastering engineers against their will and better judgment).” Statesman goes on to state that major record labels have a mistaken belief that any record that is extremely loud will automatically turn the song into a major hit and bring in nice profits. Montrone calls this an “aural assault” on the listener because all the dynamics have been eliminated. Statesman goes on to make the point that the over-compression of current music wears out the listener. While the audience might like the music, they experience sonic fatigue and stop listening because the loudness is inexplicably offensive to their ears and minds.

Metallica’s unfortunate mixing “whoops”

As explained in “The Loudness Wars: Why Music Sounds Worse” by NPR on their program “All Things Considered,” a perfect example of the dangers of creating painful music through over-compression involves one of my favorite bands of all-time, Metallica. Their “Death Magnetic” album of 2008. The record was released at the same time the music was available on “Guitar Hero” and fans were able to compare the compressed music on the album to the tracks available on the game, which were not compressed. There was an outpouring of fan feedback, including an online petition signed by over 10,000 plus fans suggesting that the band remix the album. The music on “Guitar Hero” was significantly more palatable than the record itself. This is not the band’s fault, rather, the record label clearly suggested that final mastering sound engineers apply maximum compression which resulted in an inferior product. The International Telecommunication Union (ITU) in Europe is an agency that has standard measures for loudness and claims Metallica’s album is one of the loudest ever created. Master sound engineer Bob Ludwig, interviewed in NPR’s piece, states that in addition to pirating downloads, the sound war is one of the greatest contributions to declining record sales.

Can we return to the golden age of sound?

In recent years, some claim that the loudness war may soon be over. Roy Dykes in “Making it Louder: Are the loudness wars almost over?” at least hopes so. He claims that according to mixer Bob Katz, some labels have begun to make different masters for CDs (which are nearly a thing of the past) and online outlets. Frankly, it would take a consensus among all parties involved to solve the over loudness problem. Dykes advocates that going back to less compression in order to enhance music dynamics is a conscious choice that musicians, mixers, and labels will make in the future. I certainly hope so. Though it will be a challenge.

As a musician myself, it certainly would be difficult to request that a mastering studio make my tracks softer to preserve dynamics when I know that they will pale in impact in comparison to the work of other artists. Just maybe, like the free markets in any industry, customers will en masse and unconsciously decide which level of “loudness” and compression is on point. Through the power of purchasing, hopefully, consumers will be able to dictate the direction of the mixing industry. Personally, I know that when I rarely put on vinyl through my old DJ turntables, I am blown away by the quality of the sound, the vibrancy of the bass and the crystal treble. To put it simply, vinyl just sounds so good – especially after years now of listening to CD’s and downloadable audio.

In the end though, its the song and music that counts: the melody, the lyrics, the instrumentation and the human voice. A piece of music of genius proportions will move the listener when played through nearly any medium. Compression and the negative aspects of the loudness war certainly matter, but fortunately, in the end, it is the music that counts.

You can find high quality music recordings in the Shockwave-Sound stock music library. Any track purchased and downloaded from Shockwave-Sound comes with a license to legally use the music in media, film, games, apps, and more.

Recording orchestral music for Massive Impact Vol. 14

Recording orchestral music for Massive Impact Vol. 14

At we recently had the pleasure and honor of releasing the latest volume in our “Massive Impact” series of big, epic music. This album, and some of our others, feature recordings of actual live philharmonic orchestras, playing along with samples and electronics, for a grand, soaring, rich sound.We thought it would be interesting to set up a talk with composer and arranger Iouri Sazonov (aka Yuri Sazonoff) to find out a little bit about what it takes to carry out a project like that. We spoke with Iouri about working with live orchestras and about the Massive Impact Vol. 14 project in particular.

Iouri Sazonov (aka Yuri Sazonoff) at the studio recording desk


Said Iouri, “I’ve been lucky enough to do a substantial amount of work with
orchestras in the past, as well as contracting orchestras for various
productions, from film and big symphonic productions, to instrumental
albums, recording for artists ranging from jazz, crossover, to pop

“Recording music with a real orchestra is such a treat… and at the same time, such hard work. Despite the growing number of high quality sampling libraries available to composers these days, the actual sound of a real orchestra is still superior to just using sampled sounds. The articulations coming from a group of real players are so much better pronounced, and even imperfections such as slight tuning problems, very slight timing inaccuracies and such, just make the overall sound more full, interesting and alive.”

So for a project like this, where do you start? 

“The process begins with composing the music, and that is something that goes on over weeks or months. I play with ideas using only MIDI / simulated orchestra sounds at this point, and I will usually come back to an idea or a piece a couple of days later, to see if it’s still good, if it’s worth continuing the work on this piece. When I have a rough concept for a track in place, I will send it to Bjorn (Editor’s note: that’s Bjorn Lynne, manager at and executive producer for the project) for approval.

Ok, so a few months later you have a collection of tracks, all done just with MIDI and samples, you then start to think about recording with an orchestra. Can you describe the process from there?

“When I’ve got 10 ready to go MIDI tracks, I will start to talk to a couple of studios I regularly work with, to try to find an available time slot to accommodate my needs.

Careful planning is the key. You can never be too well prepared for an orchestra recording session. Without the utmost care and attention to every little detail in the planning stage, you are risking wasting precious time and money during the recording sessions.

I will usually block-book the studio for whole period of time I need. It’s not very smart to let some other studio clients in for an evening session, just to find out in the morning that your engineer has to do the whole setup of 48, 56 or even more microphones again basically from scratch. Been there, done that!”

How do you make the printed sheets of written music that the players read from?

“As part of the preparation stage, I do score and parts preparations in Sibelius, do few basic stereo stems, click tracks and MIDI files to be imported in ProTools into ready-to-go orchestral setup prepared for the sessions by my engineer. It all takes a considerable amount of time, but needs to be done, and needs to be done well.

I always quantize each part to be recorded live. (Editor’s note: “Quantizing” is the process of “correcting” each musical note to the exact musical time where it should be, rather than just before or just after, as a human would play it). Otherwise, the scoring program of your choice, usually Finale or Sibelius, is not going to recognize all that nonsense from the MIDI file you just imported, and it’s going to look like “mission impossible” for the musicians.

It’s easier to quantize notes in your DAW (Editor’s note: DAW = Digital Audio Workstation) than trying to figure out all the crazy notes produced by un-quantized MIDI files. People who are more inexperienced with notations will sometimes drop unreadable and unplayable scores in front of players, and this will definitely give you a big problem.

Playability, by the way, is another thing to consider. You want your score to be recorded quickly, and to sound good. For that you have to present parts that are playable by musicians. Mistakes in the score will always happen – bit it’s better when they don’t! So I double check, triple check and proof the read full score for any accidental mistakes that can happen just from the slightest wrong move you make with your computer mouse. Mistakes cost time, lots of time, and you can easily get behind schedule.

What would a typical “mistake” be in this setting?

“Let’s say the principle viola player says to the conductor: “There is something funny in bar 27”. You start checking the score and figuring  it out, but by the time you sort it out with the violas, the second violins have also got a question. And just when you’ve fixed everything relating to that problem, you find that the orchestra goes on their hourly union break, and after 15-20 minutes you are still there, losing precious time. I’ve heard a few times that film composers who record with orchestra on regular basis talk about time on the floor as hundreds or thousands dollars per minute. These people are usually very experienced and well prepared for the sessions.”

I’ve seen the players wear headphones that they have over one ear – what do they hear in there?

“When I produce my MIDI tracks at the preparation / composing stage, I usually separate the main groups, so that my engineer can create comfortable sub-mixes for the players to hear in their headphones. Different instrument groups often ask for different sub-mixes. I usually send them along with click tracks (Editors note: “Click track” is a simple audio track with just the ticking rhythm, helping the players to stay on time during the recording) and MIDI files with tempo and bar structure to my engineer. Hopefully he’s got some time to prepare the Pro Tools sessions before the actual recording. This will save us time while recording, and will let us have breaks when the orchestra players have their break.”

We’ve been talking quite generally, but can you tell us a bit about the actual recording sessions for our “Massive Impact Vol. 14” album?

“For this projected I decided to do the recording by instrumental groups – first strings and then on separate session I do the brasses. It’s quicker this way and makes everything more efficient. My engineer and his assistants usually give me a little break and build the setup the night before, if possible of course.

We’ve been experimenting lately with different sitting positions of groups within strings orchestra and positioning of the Decca Tree (Editor’s note: A “Decca Tree” is a group of microphones positioned in a particular way, often used with orchestra recordings) along with multiple room mics. Since I knew that prior to the sessions, I adjusted my writing accordingly — again, it’s back to how important the preparation is!”

“The string sessions went very smoothly this time, and I had enough time to do all the tracks and then go back to fix/improve couple of things I’d made notes of, something I try to do if time permits. I make notes on my paper copy of full score, the good old way with a pencil. You circle the problem instrument at the problem bar, write T2- or T3+ for take number, and so on. This way you are able to do it as you go along with the performance. I’ve seen lately many guys trying to make notes on the fly with their iPad, but the thing is that even if you are really fast at typing, the music goes faster and you’re missing lots of things to make note of.

Anyway, for my brass session, this time I hired 3 French Horns, a Tenor Trombone and a Trumpet. Even though it’s just 5 persons on the floor, we record them on all close and all ambient microphones (19 in totals) to capture the room ambiance. The brass recording went smoothly, and again because time permits it, I asked them to overdub (Editors note: “Overdub” is the process of making another recording of the same thing and mixing/overlaying that with the first recording) a few times, to do the higher range of the lower parts, and so on. After it was all done, we stayed at the studio for some time to transfer all sessions to a hard drive which I then take home with me.”

At this point you’ve let the players go home?

“Yes, now it’s just me in the studio, tidying up, organizing files and copying things to take home with me, to my home studio where I edit the live recording, stack up the strings and brass takes, and make it all nice and polished. These are the “Basic mixes” that I send to Bjorn for his final approval.”

What about the singing? In these tracks we can hear both huge choirs and a soaring soprano voice?

“Some time before I went to do the orchestra recording, I sent demo tracks to a great soprano vocalist I know – to sweeten up the sampled choirs and to do some solos on several tracks. It makes a big difference, again bringing out the articulations and making it sound more believable. I take some time to do all edits including soprano takes, and after it’s all done there is one final step to do, which is the final mixes, including the various “alternative mixes” such as No Choir version, No Percussion version, and so on.”

– – –

Thanks for talking to us Yuri, I think everybody will agree that the result is really great and you can hear more of Yuri’s work for by following this link to all of Yuri’s tracks here on our site. goes High Definition for stock music

It’s not 1985 any more. 

It has actually been around 30 years since the Compact Disc came on the market, we all went out and bought Dire Straits “Brothers in Arms” on CD and were amazed at the crystal clarity of the sound. And with the invention of the CD came the digital audio standard: 16-bit sample depth, and 44100 Hz sample rate. This “standard” has stuck with us for an incredible amount of time.

Since then, the professional audio- and video production community has more or less made the move up to High Definition, High Resolution sound. Studios now generally work in 24-bit and at sample rates of either 44100, 48000 (probably the most common these days), and sometimes even 96000 or, to be extreme, 192000 Hz.

Here at this January, you’ll more and more often be seeing this symbol:

When you see this symbol attached to a product (be it an individual track or a ready-made collection), it means that this product is available in High Definition, 24-bit audio.

We don’t charge more for the High Definition, 24-bit WAV files than we do for the normal, CD-quality, 16-bit WAV files.

Every purchase of a 24-bit WAV file also includes the 16-bit “normal CD-quality” file. We mark these products as (wav24) in our product listings. For example, you may see a track that looks like this:

You’ll notice the “HD” logo showing as part of the track description, and you’ll notice that some (or all) of the WAV versions are now called (wav24) instead of just (wav). The (wav24) description means that with this purchase you will be able to download a .zip file that contains the chosen music track/version in two files: One high definition 24-bit file, and another file with the same music in “normal” CD-quality, 16-bit sound. Just in case some of our customers are still working with editing equipment or media players that cannot handle 24-bit sound.

We do not upsample 16-bit to 24-bit:

Though some, in their eager to supply customers with fancy 24-bit files, might be tempted to simply convert existing 16-bit files up to 24-bit, we never do this. Converting a file from 16-bit to 24-bit (“upsampling” it) does no good at all. It does not improve the sound quality over the 16-bit version. It merely increases the filesize.

It’s important for us to stay honest about this and be transparent about what music was actually produced, recorded, mixed and mastered in 24-bit, and what music was not. Whenever you see the “HD” logo on our site and you see music offered in 24-bit High Definition audio, that music was always created (recorded, mixed, mastered) in 24-bit resolution.

We have asked all our contributors to “get with the times” and to work in 24-bit format as much as possible from now on.