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A world filled with LUF – the loudness war revisited

A world filled with LUF – the loudness war revisited

We’ve mentioned the loudness war before, but now it’s time to revisit it. An excellent article in the recent February 2014 issue of Sound on Sound discussed the loudness war with respect to it perhaps being over; and won by the side of protecting dynamic range and distortion-free transients!

The Loudness War Comparison

From Russia with LUFS

Well, it’s not from Russia, it’s from some technical committees, but it is with LUF, and I wanted to use that pun. It won’t be the last. It’s Valentine’s day after all!

The recent article in Sound on Sound, while informative, was a little bit annoying as I was writing one about the EBU-R128 standard myself, but you snooze you lose I suppose…

Anyway, for those of you unfamiliar with the loudness war, have you noticed that some records sound louder than others and that if you listen to your mp3 player on shuffle you find yourself having to adjust the volume?

This is because songs have been increasingly compressed to make them sound ‘louder’, the idea being that they’ll sound more impressive next to something else. All of this compression and limiting raises the average (RMS) volume, so even if two songs are adjusted so that their loudest sounds are at the same level, the one with the higher RMS level will sound louder.

The downside of all of this is that all of this distortion and limiting can make records sound worse, introducing some distortions and just robbing a song of the ‘up and down’ nature of its dynamics. Sometimes you want a soft verse to be followed by a massively powerful chorus that really hits the listener; imagine how that impact would be reduced if the chorus was just as loud. And try to imagine classical music with everything all at the same level, to paraphrase Ghostbusters, there is no pp, there is only ff.

The loudness war LUFS metering

Where is the LUF?

There is, however, a solution! As our ear perceives loudness as the average level, not the peaks, let’s just create a ‘loudness standard’ and enforce it! This has begun to happen in television, and will hopefully continue in music.

By calculating the loudness of a song, we can then simply raise or lower its peak level to match the standard. These units of loudness are, well, loudness units (LU). When we talk about these units on a scale, they become LUFS. So, we have a target of -23 LUFS, we scale all our songs to match it and, hey presto, no more fiddling with the volume when a track from Death Magnetic follows some Schubert on your iPod.

Tracks with high average levels will be made quieter to meet the loudness target, and those with low average levels will be made less quiet, or louder, to meet the target.

There is an excellent overview on loudness and a glossary of terms on the TC Electronic site.

Spread your LUFS like a fever

So, what does all this mean for your music? Well, if the standard becomes more widely adopted, it means you shouldn’t need to compete on loudness. You can use dynamics as you want, not have to comprise on adding distortion with heavy limiting, or intentionally clipping peaks to give you maximum loudness.

Let’s take a quick look at what this might mean in practice.

LUFS Me Tender ( the loudness war song)

Always keen to experiment, I quickly threw together a wee test track: LUFS Me Tender brackets the loudness war song. A couple  of hours with a Fender Telecaster, Ableton Live, some of the packs included with Suite, Komplete’s Guitar Rig, a few samples I had kicking about and numerous cups of tea and we had our test track ready to for the experiment.

I used a Utility device on the master bus in Live prior to my LUFS loudness meter, and adjusted it until I got to the target level (in this case it was -22.9 LUFS, so a little bit out, but close enough for our purposes.This took a little bit of trial and error time, as the LUFS value is one for the whole song, so instant adjustment wasn’t possible. Clearly it’s time to upgrade my offline processing options!

I then cranked up the compression and the limiting to turn the song into a non-dynamic sausage. I then adjusted the Utility device (down!), until I got the same loudness value.

So, with both tracks at -22.9 LUFS, the ‘quiet’ version peaked at -9.9 dBFS, with a loudness range of 5.8 LU. Not a hugely dynamic track, but that’s what I came up with in the time.

The ‘loud’ version with the sausage waveform, peaked at -15.5 dBFS, and only had a loudness range of 2.6 LU.

However, put them next to each other in a DAW and switch between them, and they sound similarly loud! The new standard seems to work!

Here are the two versions of the song, so feel free to compare, download, look at the waveforms, normalise, compare again if you so choose. The future’s bright: the future’s full of LUF.

[soundcloud url=”https://api.soundcloud.com/tracks/134750323″ params=”color=ff5500&auto_play=false&hide_related=false&show_artwork=true” width=”100%” height=”166″ iframe=”true” /]

[soundcloud url=”https://api.soundcloud.com/tracks/134750845″ params=”color=ff5500&auto_play=false&hide_related=false&show_artwork=true” width=”100%” height=”166″ iframe=”true” /]

The end of the loudness war?

Well, is it? Certainly, we have a working standard that seems to do the job, but are there some situations where we might want reduced dynamic range?

Have you tried listening to classical music on your iPod on the bus?

While we generally want an unspoiled dynamic range when we’re sitting in our armchair listening to a CD on our hi-fi in our living room, situations with high background noise can cause problems.

If you listen to pieces with quiet and loud sections on the bus, you can find yourself having to adjust the volume setting repeatedly during the song. Not ideal.

While earbuds or headphones with improved isolation are helpful, what if your mp3 player included a setting that compressed/limited tracks on the fly? It’s easy enough to do. Then it’s just a case of preparing records to be enjoyed musically, and letting the playback device take care of any extreme dynamics changes.

While the loudness war might not yet be over, perhaps the end will soon be in sight…

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