The examples below aim to demonstrate the difference between dynamic music and music which has been hyper-compressed and the advantages and disadvantages thereof.
All audio has been loudness normalised using the meta-normaliser in Wavelab to even out level differences for fair comparison.
No limiting was applied.
Tracks used for the analysis images are all from CD releases, however, I have peak normalised them all to ensure they are comparable to each other.
Morning Glory, Oasis (1995)
Morning Glory, by Oasis. Title track of their 1995 album which was released to critical acclaim spending 10 weeks at no. 1 in the UK. This album is essentially what took oasis from being just another Indie band to the worldwide success they later became. However, sonically this album was nothing to be celebrated and has been criticised heavily for this over the years. Mixing and Mastering Engineer Owen Morris recalls using volume to his 'advantage' when working on these tracks, as he wasn't convinced about the sonic integrity of his mixes. Essentially the hyper-compressed sound heard on this album is the music being slammed into the soft-limit feature of Apogee A/D conversion in order to make it 'loud'. (Morris, 2011) Shown below is an analysis created using Youlean Loudness Meter, showing short and long term dynamic range and LUFS measurements. This clearly shows a lack of DR throughout this song, averaging PLR 7.2. Mastering Engineer, Ian Shepherd, also a proprietor of the PLR measurement, considers anything below PLR 8 to be hyper-compressed and likely to sound 'smashed'. So it comes as no surprise here that Morning Glory has all the characteristics associated with this type of excessive compression. It sounds thin, distorted and has a lack of definition.
Not Ready To Make Nice, Dixie Chicks (2006)
Moving on to an entirely different genre now, Not Ready To Make Nice comes from the Dixie Chicks album 'Long Way Around'. The album was recorded by Ken Scott at Sunset Sound, with Rick Ruben producing. It was then mixed and mastered by Richard Dod, who became famous for his long standing working relationship with Tom Petty and the Heartbreakers. Again however, despite this roster of industry veterans working on it, the album being released in 2006 when the loudness war was reaching its peak, resulted in a less than optimal listening experience. While it is clear from the graph below that this song does exhibit a large dynamic range in some sections, you can see that in the orange section around 3 minutes the dynamic range is reduced to around PLR 6. This section of the song is where the example below was taken from and the audible distortion from excessive limiting can be heard clearly throughout the whole frequency spectrum, the kick drum starts to break up and even vocals and violins are becoming quite heavily distorted here as the track gets more dense. The relationship between LUFS and Dynamic range is very visible here, the integrated loudness rises from -18 to around -9 in this part of the song. I noticed particularly while listening to this song on headphones that it became quite uncomfortable and fatiguing after a very short period of time.
This Was Just Your Life, Metallica (2008)
Before I move on to look at tracks demonstrating good use of dynamic range, I'd like to look at a completely different genre once again. Metal music is generally associated with higher RMS and LUFS values, and this is often considered an aesthetic decision, however, even the Metallica album 'Death Magnetic' has been heavily criticised for being overly compressed. Mastering engineer Ted Jensen was quoted from a forum saying "the mixes were already brick walled before they arrived at my place" and "Believe me I’m not proud to be associated with this one, and we can only hope that some good will come from this in some form of backlash against volume above all else". (Cashmere, 2008) Ted Jensen is a Grammy Award wining engineer and is famous for mastering music such as The Eagles, 'Hotel California' and Norah Jones, 'Come Away With Me'. Both of which are extremely dynamic albums, making it all the more surprising that Death Magnetic turned out the way it did. Metallica Manager, Cliff Burnstein, was also quoted in Wall Street Journal saying "There's something exciting about the sound of this record that people are responding to" (Cashmere, 2008) in response to Ted's comments. This suggests that the push for 'loudness' was most likely a commercial decision rather than a creative one. While I cannot make a direct comparison of these two albums, given the time gap, and the other varying factors associated with record sales numbers, Metallica's 1998 album 'Metallica' which was much more sonically pleasing, with huge solid low end and a very pleasing high end, sold 30, 790, 000 copies globally (Metallica's albums and songs sales, 2019) with Death Magnetic only selling 5, 330, 000. (Metallica's albums and songs sales, 2019) While this is still a successful album by most standards, it's hard to ignore the possibility that sonic quality was a contributing factor to the reduction in sales, especially amongst audiophile listeners.
Enter Sandman, Metallica (1998)
Sticking with Metallica, I'm now going to discuss music with a significantly higher dynamic range in order to provide comparisons. First off is Enter Sandman from their 1998 self titled album. It is clear even from the analysis below that this has a considerably higher dynamic range throughout given that it is almost entirely above the PLR 8 threshold unlike the previous track which was almost exclusively below. This track does not have audible compression and as a result sounds a lot more full and open, with a huge amount of extra low end extension adding weight. When normalised in level and compared like this is hard to deny that music with a high dynamic range can sound more powerful than something which has been hyper-compressed. Hopefully this is clear from the audio examples here.
Give Life Back To Music, Daft Punk (2013)
It's impossible to ignore Daft Punk's 2013 album, 'Random Access Memories', when discussing sonic integrity. With the highest average dynamic range value of any of the tracks so far, the aptly named 'Give Life Back To Music' represents the pinnacle of what effective use of dynamic range can achieve. The low end on this album is sublime. Deep, punchy, round, 'phatt'; you could use any of these words to describe it and the same could be said for the high end, it's beautifully balanced and never harsh. Of course this is all my opinion but the album itself did also win 4 Grammy awards (Recording Academy, 2021), as did many of the personal who worked on it. An obvious mark of quality. Mastered by 'The Mastering Engineers, Mastering Engineer', (McAllister, 2019) Bob Ludwig and Mixed by Mick Guzauski, the album cost over $1M to create over the duration of 5 years. There's no doubt that the musicianship on this album is also exquisite featuring such artists as Giorgio Moroder, Pharell Williams, Nile Rogers (CHIC), Nathan East and the list goes on. The album was simultaneously recorded to analog tape and digitally into Pro Tools. The band then chose between the formats on a song by song basis. I was unable to find information on how much or what tracks were analog vs digital on the released version, but this would have been interesting to know.
Where Can I Go?, Laura Marling (2013)
Finally, I'd like to look at a more organic track. Again, mastered by Bob Ludwig, this is another highly successful album which uses dynamic range to its advantage. This is a very different production style from most of the other tracks here, it is clear that above all else it is the song which shines through, and while it could be easy to criticise the organ being slightly distracting or the low end sounding ever so slightly muffled, to me the overwhelming raw character evokes a connection with the music which is worth way more than any of that. The whole album is very open sounding to me and has been allowed to 'breathe'.
Cashmere, P., 2008. METALLICA Recording Engineer Ted Jensen - "Believe Me I’m Not Proud To Be Associated With" Death Magnetic. [online] bravewords.com. Available at: <https://bravewords.com/news/metallica-recording-engineer-ted-jensen-believe-me-im-not-proud-to-be-associated-with-death-magnetic> [Accessed 9 April 2021].
ChartMasters. 2019. Metallica's albums and songs sales. [online] Available at: <https://chartmasters.org/2019/02/metallicas-albums-and-songs-sales/> [Accessed 9 April 2021].
McAllister, M., 2019. Bob Ludwig: The Mastering Engineer's Mastering Engineer - Produce Like A Pro. [online] Produce Like A Pro. Available at: <https://producelikeapro.com/blog/bob-ludwig/> [Accessed 9 April 2021].
Morris, O., 2011. Owen Morris: How I mastered Morning Glory | Oasis Recording Information. [online] Oasis-recordinginfo.co.uk. Available at: <http://www.oasis-recordinginfo.co.uk/?page_id=6> [Accessed 9 April 2021].
Recording Academy, 2021. Daft Punk. [online] GRAMMY.com. Available at: <https://www.grammy.com/grammys/artists/daft-punk/8207> [Accessed 9 April 2021].