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Perception of Loudness: A Paradigm Shift?

I’d like to think that I’m not always right, and more importantly, that I’m always willing and able to view a subject from a fresh perspective. Otherwise your thinking becomes calcified and you can suffer from the dreaded “old geezer” syndrome. Sheesh, I really don’t want to go there. So I’ve been thinking about my earlier post on (what I view) as the destructive influence of digital limiting on dynamics and the relentless pursuit of achieving ever-higher loudness levels in modern recordings. And I started to think about this issue from a younger person’s perspective – perhaps there is a generational paradigm shift happening here…

What if this hyper-compressed sound was all you ever knew? I mean, suppose you were six years old in 1995, the year I referenced in my earlier post as ground zero for this phenomenon. So today you are around 28 years old, and what you grew up hearing were these bricks of aural noise. Maybe you grew to really love music, and perhaps in your teenage years you began to investigate albums recorded before 1989, the year you were born. We know that our brains are forming neurological responses based on input throughout our lives, but the years from 8 to 18 are particularly powerful for shaping our perceptions of the world around us. So what might you make of these older records with actual dynamics?

They might sound very odd to you, and I’m willing to concede that they might not sound as “powerful” as the records that your brain used to set the “standard” of what a recording should sound like. This is a somewhat disturbing situation for me to fully accept, but I’m willing to at least consider it as a possibility. The part of this argument that I have difficulty understanding is that I believe our brains are inherently wired to find dynamics pleasurable. The aural variation that dynamics create sets up an unpredictable listening experience that our brains find novel, rewarding us with little bursts of dopamine. The hyper-limited slabs of sound that our hypothetical young person has grown up listening to offer no element of surprise at all. As a listening experience they are like bursts of white noise, offering little stimulation for our brains…

Now, there are some genres of modern music that can handle this form of hyper-compression better than others, but I’ll save that for another post. I just wanted to take a moment to acknowledge that there are other points of view, and try to understand them. I would also like to make it clear that I love the sound of artfully applied compression – I am not an advocate of recording without using all of the tools at our disposal to realize the sounds in our heads. But that is not the issue I am addressing here. The hyper-limited crush I am talking about is applied on the master bus and then wielded like a sledgehammer in “mastering.”

But hey, that’s just my opinion. And I accept that there are others that might be just as valid. I’d also like to keep an open mind to try and continue to grow