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 Post subject: I get queries about...
PostPosted: Thu Jun 03, 2010 6:02 pm 

Joined: Sat Nov 19, 2005 3:48 pm
Posts: 2637

I get queries about a technical issue that's probably of interest to many listeners.

With all of the current re-mastered editions of earlier releases, newly expanded versions and whatnot... people ask why are there differences in the playback volumes between multiple versions of the same title and does it matter?

Here's my quick response. Some labels do a lot of "normalizing" of their programs (others do not) and yes it matters.

Normalizing is a process where - during final mastering - the reference levels are set to the very highest peak in volume of the entire program - and then subsequently, every other track is adjusted to match that level peak. We tend to avoid the process unless it becomes absolutely necessary because normalizing actually does affect the recording, especially with orchestral music. There is a tendency to subtly alter the contrasts between loud passages and intentionally soft ones. We generally prefer to let the conductor, musicians and original recording engineers determine how loud or soft they want various passages to be.

Further complicating the situation is a process (also used by some labels but avoided by others) called "compression", where the recording at both ends is literally squeezed to allow a consistently loud playback. Virtually all engineering for all labels strives for the loudest playback levels without distortion and whatnot. But normalizing and compressing simply to make the entire program louder isn't necessarily a good thing. It's one reason our recent issue of ROBOCOP, prepared from the newly re-mixed 2" 24-track masters seems less "hot" than the earlier Varese Sarabande release, even though it offers superior clarity and sonics. Our version is just as loud, but only when the performance and original recording warrant it... and not throughout.

Normalizing and compressing the recordings during mastering was a really common practice for LPs, especially in the pop and rock fields. This way, every track of the record played back at a volume roughly equivalent to every other track, making it easier for DJs to set airplay levels and let things roll instead of needing to make constant adjustments. It's a process that still gets used a lot. I'm just not a big fan of it with orchestral music, where subtle changes in performance levels really are the domain of the conductor, players and recording engineer. Over-use of it actually reduces the expressive and dynamic range of the actual recording, which is a concept I find unsatisfying.

Sadly, the process now shows up a lot with many of the current soundtracks on several labels, especially with regards to some of the more repetitive, percussion and synth-driven scores. In my opinion, it only increases the feel of the music being somewhat bland and generic.

I'll try to find time to toss out some more fun thoughts on production decisions that get made behind the scenes... but I do have trouble finding extra time lately. Such is life.

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