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Tag: loudness

How loud should it be?

Loudness war is present everywhere from current music through film sound to live sound. Lately I had so many bad experiences in almost every area that I thought it worth mention it here.

Louder equal better?

Yes, for the first few seconds at least. If something louder even a tiny bit, our brain can be easily fooled to think that it’s better. This is a fun fact every audio professional should be aware of. If you know this though, you can be alert to these things and really work on making things better, not only louder.

In live sound most engineers connect impact and high sound pressure level. Most think under 100dB SPLA you can’t really achieve THE CONCERT experience.

The problem with this mentality is that it’s not only simply false, but it can be hazardous to your hearing! Of course there’s undeniably a bodily sensation when you not only hear but feel the sound due to high sound pressure, but we must know that this is only true for one or two minutes. After that the impact disappear as the body get used to this feel, but the dangerously high volume might damage your hearing, even permanently. If you a concert goer and after the show often recognise the ear ringing effect, then the show was too loud.

spl meter and calibrator

Actually it is a trap. Live sound guys get accustomed to high SPL environment. Their brain learn it, and like if it was a drug, require even more after a certain period of time. But what is suitable for them might be too loud to a healthy listener. And we must NOT forget the fact that if everything is constantly loud, then nothing really seems loud. We only destroy dynamics and contrast in music. Honestly it is too easy to fall into this be louder trap.

To a certain degree even I appreciate that higher SPL can create a very sensational feel. BUT! And this is a huge BUT! Too often this means engineers use the bass drum and the bass to create this sensation. Which is, of course, results in the loss of intelligibility and clarity, and mask many important instruments and frequency ranges. Essentially you’ll end up featuring some instruments that shouldn’t be solo but forgetting others that support the songs.

I think I’m not alone with this, I rather be on the soft side with proper balances, enjoying how the musicians play than to hear a bass drum/bass guitar show with some other thing on the stage. In my opinion, working soft with great balances is harder. You need to pay attention to detail instead of just going up to red on the meters.

As you can see, I’m completely biased, I don’t like overly loud shows. Some of my colleagues say you need high SPL for certain types of music. I’d say you might be somewhat louder with those, but those still not require ear damaging loudness. One of the most popular example here being Skrillex. They say you need to be loud as hell to enjoy that type of music or a metal band. Well, I’ve got bad news for those colleagues. I was there on the main stage at Sziget festival when Skrillex was the headliner at that night. It was so tastefully mixed, kept proper balances, preserving dynamics in order to have real impact when they wanted that. Yes, believe it or not, they produced a very dynamic show. Sound quality over high SPL.

hearing protection

Avoiding the trap

Here’s some useful tips to avoid being an ear destroyer.

First, probably the most obvious one is to use a calibrated SPL meter during the show. Frankly I really support festivals and venues where there is a sane SPL limit you have to keep, but if there’s no such thing at your show, still, you can be the boss on how loud you go. I think it is better to be on the soft side than being overly loud.

When you check the band before your show, after listening to their performance the PA for a short period, wear ear-plugs to avoid fatigue.

Plan ahead the ballpark you want to be in. It’s a good idea to give yourself your own limit. Even, when you’re familiar with the songs, you can make a plan for big impact parts of the show.

Appreciate proper balance over loud volume. It is always better to aim reaching great balance than being the loudest guy on the planet. Remember, the majority of the audience is going there to listen to their favourite band. Which mean they probably listen to their albums so if you achieve a similar sonic picture, they’ll appreciate it more than just being loud.

Try to aim for a mix that has depth to it. Not every instrument supposed to upfront in your face. If you properly create depth, most of your problems already gone as instruments will be separated, don’t fight for attention constantly.

If you’d like to further explore this subject, here’s a short article in Guardian.

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Small Pro Tools tip #1

This is just a really small tip, a tiny helper to make your work more efficient. Often having impossible deadlines I find myself spending time with unnecessary tasks as analysing the finished mix with some offline loudness meter plugin. Couple of weeks ago though, I discovered that if I use offline bounce and leave the plugin open (on screen), at the end of the bounce I can see the result of the loudness measurement, including the whole show’s loudness graph.

insight offline bounce

This works beautifully with Izotope’s Insight, but it seems that it doesn’t work for example with Avid’s ProLimiter. But if you’re an Insight user, you’re in luck. Don’t miss the opportunity to streamline your workflow, bounce and measure at the same time. Enjoy!

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Loudness metering and standards 2

The last post was a kind of rant, now I want to focus on the process, the improvement, where we are now. As I already mentioned, this is a long process, so obviously we couldn’t solve each and every issue here, but there’s some promising result, and a few of us are very persistent, we are sure about that we will successfully implement at least a quasi EBU standard into our daily workflow here.

Where we are now

At least, after a few weeks of heated debate, we managed to to get a formal agreement from the decision makers that they really support an international standard, or a system, which is based on an EBU standard. It is kind of funny that the Hungarian broadcasters don’t really care about any real standard, and although I know we cannot change everything inside and outside the building, we might spread the good work practice and form some more “calm” loudness environment.

So now we had the some brainstorming, know what could be the golden middle for everyone, let’s make this a reality.

Tests

As I’ve mentioned the aim is not simply to implement a standard, but to really analyse, understand and implement a standard which could work in very different situations. Just for a reminder these are the situations where the “new” loudness standard should work flawlessly:

  • TV broadcast for various stations
  • Radio broadcast for various stations
  • Webcast
  • CD and DVD (commercial)
  • Digital distribution (partly planned in the near future, downloadable, shareable materials)

We made some tests during the last few weeks and found that the current r128 is somewhat too soft to meet all the requirements. Partly because no one in this country adheres to any current loudness standard, but partly because it seems that the –23LUFS is too low for the Webcasts and for the Digital distribution packages and the radio station found that too low also.

Now it seems that if we are able to stick with –18–20LUFS that would be almost the perfect golden middle. With this little higher average we still out of the very detrimental range of the “final make it broadcast loudness-limiter”, the well-adjusted broadcast processors works fine with this, on-air it doesn’t seem/sound too soft or loud and the very popular Webcasts seems to work very well.

The first baby step will be to make this an internal standard throughout the video and sound studios. It wouldn’t require huge efforts, just a little diligence and practice. In the meantime I provide each and every mix as r128 compliant, or a little hotter one depending on the usage (web, etc.).

I decided to make some external testing too. The last few shows I mixed are completely within standards, perfectly hit the –23LUFS. Still waiting for the reaction from the National TV. I have some educated guesses what will their reaction be, but don’t want to tell you before I got the results. Will report back, I’m curious too.

Some material to check out

If anyone seriously interested in the current schemes, there are plenty of material available on net. Here you can find some really useful links about the current loudness standards, they may help you to pick up some new information, or if you’re new to this whole loudness thing, these will aid you on the way to fully grasp every detail about it.

First, the papers:

EBU – recommendation r128 pdf

The full audio seminar by Florian Camerer:

 

EBU R128 in Transmission and Production – Thomas Lund:

 

And don’t forget that Designing Sound dissected the loudness theme quite extensively.

This is the starting point, but in my experience if someone really go through this stuff and thoroughly understand it, then it’s only a matter of a little practice and this whole thing is a smooth sailing from a mixer’s perspective.

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Loudness standards

It’s tough. I mean not really, but when you try to convince a whole department in a huge building in a country which is unable to accept reasonable standards, it is definitely getting tough. It’s hight time that we try to inject some EBU standard into our daily work. We all know we need it, but there are always some who feels this whole thing is unnecessary.

The hotchpotch

Right now if you take a closer look around Hungary (tv, radio, studios, etc.) you’ll have a hard time finding people who stick to any international standard, or at least heard of them. It’s very sad, but this is the truth. As we are one of the biggest company here who make a good amount of radio and tv shows, we decided that we need to implement and use good loudness standards.

Right now it’s like the old wild west in a classic western film, everybody does what he/she thinks is good. Obviously this is what created the huge chaos we’re working in right now.

Anyone who would like to see the light at the end of the tunnel, right now have to consider these terms/abbreviations/standards: ARD, ITU, EBU, DIN, PPM, QPPM, True Peak, dBFS, LUFS, LKFS, OIRT, etc.

See what I mean? Impossible. Even more complicated when some bends a standard to his own liking. The end result is, surprise: disaster.

Even the few who knows these standards have to have a zen-like patience to work through his way. After a few days I knew it won’t be an easy task, yet it is really, I mean really necessary. So, the first step is to examine all the old and new standards. At this point, we have to know and understand pretty much all of it. Small group, no brainstorming, focused work, done in a few days. Fortunately the EBU has very quality material to learn from, I can only recommend them to everyone, I will share a few papers here to help anyone in this regard.

Finding the golden middle…

After the complete examination we tried to find something, which is good. This means it adheres to the new standards (more or less), acceptable for all of us, and it is understandable and acceptable to our partners outside the building.

I know, the perfect solution would be that if Hungary would accept and embrace the EBU standards (r128 for example), but that is (sadly) unlikely to happen in the near future so we have to fight our little war here. The task is not simply to work out some nice solution which is kind of like the acceptable standards. There are many engineers involved and/or affected and as usual, we have our colleagues who are really against these things. I mean they are really! After the first big negotiation we heard things like this:

“Why would we need these fancy standards? Everything has been fine for the last 30 years and we only used our ears!”

“Again, you’ve found something to bother us with!”

“The old way was surely better, we don’t need these new rules!”

“Just leave us alone, we know our stuff.”

“I’m sure these things come because these fancy computers…”

And so on, and on and on. So right now, we should find the golden middle and educate our partners and colleagues on these standards so they will understand the benefit and won’t fear working to a given standard. I can understand that no one is really like to work out of his comfort zone but in my opinion, these new standards are really good and easy to adhere to.

The long way ahead

Of course we won’t let the chaos win over us, so we have our plans. For starter we know we will try to stick to r128. Not completely, as it seems we need a few dBs louder than that (about –18LUFS) it seems. That seems to seamlessly solve many issues in every department here and at our partners at the TV and Radio. Although it seems that too many things collide, there’s a good chance that with some patience and well prepared timing we can make this quasi EBU r128 accepted.

We have the means to make this happen, only have to convince everyone around us, which is not easy, but maybe, maybe it is possible. We have already made some new material which is almost perfectly fit the r128 and those seems to work very well in many situations (TV broadcast, archive, Radio show) and even the old analogue transfer is flawless. Yes, we still need to prepare for analogue transfer and transmission. Year by year there’s a chance that we can leave that behind us, but I wouldn’t hold my breath.

For those, who like me need to comb different standards together, I recommend a few good starting points. The first is a spectacular EBU paper which perfectly describe how the vastly different standards can peacefully work together:

EBU levelling and loudness

the other is the r128 paper:

EBU recommendation r128

Fortunately this month is the Loudness month at designingsound.org, I’m sure that I’ll gather even more ammunition for my quest to make everybody work to a standard here. You can still subscribe to a live seminar about loudness, thanks for Shaun Farley for that.

Stay tuned, I’ll post the status of my endeavour.

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Survival kit for live sound work

As you may know, I still have multiple jobs for a number of reasons. My “second” job is being a live sound engineer both in FOH and monitor positions. As now the festival season has been started, I prepared myself to not only survive, but to enjoy it, and more importantly, protect my ears as I’m planning to use them in this post industry for very long years.

So what would one need to have in order to really be safe out in the high-SPL festivals?

Safety measures

First let’s see the necessary things, which won’t directly help you to do your job, but will help you retain you hearing, and protect you from exhaust.

Ear plugs. They come in every shape and form and price. A custom made is a very good choice as it is very accurately attenuates the outside noise/sound i.e. you can mix a loud show with it, because the frequency curve remains almost the same. A good solution, although not cheap and you have to be very careful not to loose them. Also clean them regularly as they go into your ears!

Cheap earplugs. These are the ones you can buy in every industrial safety shops. There are many brands, and it is safe to say that either will do a great job. Look at the attenuation curve and decide. I always have a pair with me, even when I’m not working. I go for a model that attenuates about 28–32dB. It is much, but needed. It won’t allow you to mix a show, but can give you nice isolation in a concert environment, so when you need a rest, or just waiting for your turn, it does a very good job.

I even have a rather strange habit to put them in during the show for a minute or two. This time is not enough to really rest your ears, but enough for them to “recover” from short term fatigue, so when you pull them out, you’ll have fresh ears in the middle of the show for example. On a long day, this can be a life saver.

I recommend to have at least a few pairs with you at any venue. Use them, and of course, clean them regularly. A quick cleaning tip: if you don’t have a chance to properly clean them before you have to use them again, use some antibacterial hand cleaning gel to clean them. Every pharmacy sells these little bottles and they are so small you can carry them in you pocket.

If you happen to forget to bring earplugs with you, even some tissues will do the job, although they attenuate far less than an earplug.

Hearing protectors

My ultimate choice. Just as the earplugs, they come in many shapes and colours, but the main point is how much they can attenuate. Even some cheaper one will do a wonderful job. I use a model which attenuates an average of 36dB. Average, because these are industrial tools and almost always have some frequency-attenuation scale. Obviously at low frequencies these protectors are able to attenuate less, and as frequency goes higher, you’ll find more and more attenuation there.

What are the advantages compared to the earplugs? Many. First, they are more comfortable to wear as they are like headphones, don’t go into you ears. Second, many times you have higher attenuation. Third, you can combine them with some earplugs to achieve extreme attenuation. Although that would diminish the first advantage, but you get the point.

Headphones and earphones

This is really not a viable option when you mix Front Of House, but in the monitor world, it can work. Actually it is working.

I use headphones to mix monitor whenever I can. You have to get used to it, you must know your headphones intimately to achieve a good mix. So don’t just grab them and start using it. Be prepared for it first with using a combination of wedge and the headphones, then as you become more and more comfortable with your headphones, you can stop using the wedge.

This way you choose the volume level you mix at, have more minute detail, can catch feedback frequencies faster as you don’t have the extraneous noise around.

Always check yourself

Loud sound not only damage your hearing, but can completely wear you out in very short amount of time. I encourage you to wear, use some kind of protection whenever is possible, even if it is an option only for a few minutes. Your mix and healthy hearing will thank you later.

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