conclusion and my own mastering
Now to conclude this project and discuss how it has filtered into my own mastering work. I think above all else, the value of dynamic range and importance of getting it just right on a track by track basis has really influenced the way I work now. I'm much more conscious of where my levels are, as well as the overall balancing of a track. In the modern day where most people are likely to listen to music on mobile devices or headphones with limited dynamic range, it's important for it to be controlled whilst still retaining musicality. While there's no magic number in terms of dynamic range, and it really does have to be assessed as to what best suits the track, I did find the 8DR threshold which Ian Shepherd pioneers was a useful guide. Although most of my previous masters were sitting well above this, at times it encouraged me to reduce the dynamic range ever so slightly, just enough so tracks are not left sounding weak, or not competitive, while still knowing that I'm not crushing the life out of it. That said though, I think the more masters I do the more I start to get a feeling of where a track should sit, as opposed to watching meters constantly.
The research I undertook into the loudness war provided me with a valuable insight into why many mastering engineers protest it. I was already in the pro dynamic range camp long before starting this study, but there was absolutely nothing which I read or listened to which could convince me otherwise. There may have been the slight advantage back when CD's were more widely used of being louder than the last person when a label is listening to tracks for example, however, I think even then, music which has been completely crushed only sounds exciting for the first few seconds then you either reach for the volume or it becomes such a constant that you loose interest. I did an enormous amount of critical listening throughout this project, of tracks across a broad range of genres and a large time period and when listening to hyper-compressed music I found it to be fatiguing and difficult to connect with on the whole. This will of course change from person to person, my music tastes just happen to be focused mostly on genres which have dynamic range such as folk and jazz music, however, I also enjoy a lot of 60s, 70s & 80s popular music which for the most part also exhibits high dynamic range. Wether this is a coincidence or part of my subconscious, who knows. If my genre of choice was metal, for example, then it's highly likely I wouldn't have such an aversion to limited dynamic range as this is part of the aesthetic and I'd be more used to it.
Initially when embarking on this project, I expected it to be a heavily technical endeavour, however, the more I looked into it, the more my focus moved away from the technical and more towards the musical aspects of dynamic range. There are obvious technical reasons as to why hyper-compression is a bad thing, such as audible distortion, lack of low end, etc. however I think the disconnect it creates with the listener is far more important. As an experiment, I attempted to master a track sent to me by a fellow student with a target of -3 LUFS as this was the aesthetic they were going for and found that I couldn't do it. Even with multiple stages of limiting, clipping, high passing, multi band compression etc I couldn't achieve that level without the audio sounding so compressed and distorted that I wasn't happy to print it. To me I couldn't make it musical and I think this is the main point , and it's a personal opinion. When a track looses it's musical quality for the sake of loudness then why are we making it loud?
Streaming platforms have undoubtably helped shine a light on the issue of over-compression and reduced the amount in which mastering engineers are coerced by labels and A&R into pushing levels higher and higher. There's no doubt that more music is being mastered to levels which reflect the genre and style of performance as opposed to the days of gentle singer-songwriter tracks being slammed at -8 LUFS just because they happen to be in the charts.
All in all I think this project has helped solidify my own opinion on the impotence of dynamic range and take it from just "dynamic range is good" to actually analysing the reasons why and hearing the difference it can make. This embodies the aim of this project which was to improve my own mastering and have me listen in a more critical way, which I think has been successful.