how the industry spent decades turning up the volume on music in exchange for its quality

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The sound quality of the recordings we consume is one of the great workhorses that music enthusiasts face. It seems reasonable to assume that the development of technology should allow us to enjoy higher sound quality than in previous decades. And yes, from a strictly technical point of view it would have to be that way.

However, it is not. At the moment some recordings are produced with an exceptionally careful sound recording, but this is not usual. the music we consume massively does not usually offer us the best possible sound quality. Of course, there are exceptions, but that’s about it; They are exceptions to the norm.

And the rule by which a good part of music production companies are governed defends that what interests them is that consumers perceive that their music sounds better than the competition (although it may not really be so). And it also aims to sound reasonably good on the devices most used by users, such as smartphones, which often prevents the best music equipment available from getting the most out of it.

In a way, this strategy of the music industry is a flight forward. And, curiously, it comes from afar. Although the record companies began to flirt with these practices much earlier, the volume war peaked in the mid-90s as a result of the popularization of the CD. And, unfortunately, it has survived to this day despite the fact that many musicians and sound technicians have raised their voices to position themselves against it.

What is volume warfare and why does it degrade sound quality?

The most effective strategy when it comes to increasing the sound quality of a recording, without going into the more complex technical details, is to use the highest quality recording equipment possible, and also to resort to processing techniques that preserve the integrity of the original signal.

Interestingly, our auditory system, in which our brain plays an essential role, invites us to believe that higher sound pressure level is associated with better sound quality. And actually, it doesn’t have to be that way.

Our auditory system invites us to believe that a higher sound pressure level is associated with better sound quality.

Musicians and technicians in this industry realized decades ago that they could take advantage of this quirk of the human hearing system to give consumers the feeling that their recordings are of higher quality, but without the need to worry about refining their recording equipment and refine their production techniques. They could achieve their goal on the fast track: increasing the volume using original signal processing techniques.

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The problem is that this strategy does not actually increase the sound quality. When encoding music in the digital domain it is necessary to define the maximum amplitude that the original signal can have, and to increase the volume technicians are often forced to reduce this amplitude and equalize the signal.

As the volume is increased, the dynamic range may be cut off and distortion may increase.

But this decision has a price. And it is that when doing it dynamic range may be clipped. A simple and intuitive way to understand what dynamic range is is to identify it as the difference between the softest and the loudest sound of the musical signal.

Ideally, this difference be as wide as possible because in this way the musical signal will be able to pick up a greater number of gain levels. The problem is that by cutting the dynamic range the signal can be degraded because those portions in which the highest peaks intervene are lost.

Analytical Music

This manipulation triggers in practice a loss of information that our auditory system is able to identify when we play the recording on a stereo of a certain quality.

Seeking to increase sound quality the easy way out causes the recording to actually end up degrading

But this is not all. Frequently, the digital processing to which sound technicians subject the original signal to increase its sound pressure level also causes them to increase some forms of distortion.

The paradox is that, in the end, the quest to increase sound quality the easy way, which, as we have just seen, consists of resorting to a trick, causing, in reality, the quality of some recordings deteriorates. This effect is not perceived with the same clarity in all the albums, but in some of them it is surprisingly evident.

How can we know which version of the same recording is the best?

As we have seen, the volume war reached its peak during the heyday of CD, and, fortunately, has been losing strength as this format has been giving way to the distribution of music through the services of streaming.

In 2011 the researcher Emmanuel Deruty published a very interesting article in which he analyzed how dynamic range had evolved since the middle of the previous decade, and his conclusion was hopeful: the loudness war had already begun to remit.

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The role that services are playing streaming is being decisive because many of them are demanding that music producers assume a standardization process of the music they deliver. The interesting thing is that this regulation significantly reduces the margin that the technicians had when processing the audio to increase the volume to the detriment of the dynamic range.

Even so, the volume war has not completely disappeared, especially if we stick to music in physical format that we can find in stores. Interestingly, if we get several CD versions of the same album, we are likely to identify that its sound quality varies from one to another as a consequence of manipulating the dynamic range of the original signal.

Fortunately, we enthusiasts can find out which is the highest quality version, although to do so we will need to play them on a good computer. And, above all, it is essential that equalize the sound pressure level of all of them using a sound level meter. If we don’t, we will fall into the trap that has given rise to all this fuss: we are likely to believe that the highest quality version is the one that sounds the loudest, and it probably won’t be.

It is also important that we listen to all the versions in the same session to prevent our auditory memory from betraying us. If you are not used to doing this type of tests, do not be intimidated by the need to carry out analytical listening. In this article we explain in detail how to approach it, but best of all, it is a very enjoyable practice. Promised.

Images | MartProduction | hudson marques

The sound quality of the recordings we consume is one of the great workhorses that music enthusiasts face. It seems…

The sound quality of the recordings we consume is one of the great workhorses that music enthusiasts face. It seems…

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