Sadly, the good doctor's diagnosis applies to too many of the recordings we listen to these days.
I mentioned last week a recommendation for July Talk's Touch album at the end of that post. There are a number of catchy and enjoyable tracks on there... However, if we put this album through the foobar DR Meter, unfortunately, we see an album with really nasty dynamic range compression - DR4. Yuck.
Hmmm... Is there any way to change that?
foobar2000 1.3.16 / Dynamic Range Meter 1.1.1
log date: 2017-08-12 10:42:36
Analyzed: July Talk / Touch (FLAC)
DR Peak RMS Duration Track
DR4 0.00 dB -7.17 dB 3:35 01-Picturing Love
DR3 0.00 dB -5.91 dB 3:06 02-Beck + Call
DR5 0.00 dB -6.93 dB 3:48 03-Now I Know
DR3 0.00 dB -4.37 dB 2:27 04-Johnny + Mary
DR7 0.00 dB -9.98 dB 4:35 05-Strange Habit
DR4 0.00 dB -6.38 dB 2:51 06-Push + Pull
DR3 0.00 dB -5.17 dB 3:34 07-Lola + Joseph
DR3 0.00 dB -5.31 dB 3:06 08-So Sorry
DR5 0.00 dB -7.78 dB 4:23 09-Jesus Said So
DR4 0.00 dB -6.33 dB 5:15 10-Touch
Number of tracks: 10
Official DR value: DR4
Samplerate: 44100 Hz
Bits per sample: 16
Bitrate: 879 kbps
As you can see from the DR Meter readout, every track has at least samples hitting 0dB peak amplitude. Importing "Jesus Said So" into Adobe Audition 3 to have a peek at the waveform display, this is the sorry situation with that and every track on the album:
Clearly an unfortunate victim of the "loudness war" here; among others of infamy like Californication or Death Magnetic or the absolutely unlistenable Iggy Pop mix of Raw Power (DR1 baby!). Well... I guess DR4 is better than DR1 :-).
In the last couple months, I have been exploring the use of iZotope RX's "De-clip" plugin. Using DSP, we can to some extent allow software to re-expand those peaks back up. Here's what I do in batch convert:
As you can see, there are 3 simple steps... Use the "Gain" DSP to lower the volume by -6dB. Then use the "De-clip" plugin with the built-in preset of "Extreme Analog Clipping" to restore the clipped and compressed parts by up to around 6dB or so. Finally, since highly compressed material like this doesn't deserve to be saved back as 24-bit audio, I dither it with iZotope RX's MBIT+ just at the "lightest" noise shaping, and "low" dither amount setting to 16-bits before saving back to FLAC. It's possible that strong noise shaping could have been used already on the music tracks so I use the least possible in the final step so as not to accentuate the high frequencies.
And here is the result of that "Jesus Said So" track:
And if we do this for the whole album, looking at the DR Meter:
--- DE-CLIPPED album ---
foobar2000 1.3.16 / Dynamic Range Meter 1.1.1As you can see, the DR has expanded from DR4 to DR9 - an average of +5dB; nice.
log date: 2017-08-12 10:46:27
Analyzed: July Talk / Touch (De-Clipped, FLAC)
DR Peak RMS Duration Track
DR9 -0.48 dB -13.15 dB 3:35 01-Picturing Love
DR8 -0.70 dB -11.90 dB 3:06 02-Beck + Call
DR9 -1.86 dB -12.93 dB 3:48 03-Now I Know
DR8 -0.01 dB -10.35 dB 2:27 04-Johnny + Mary
DR10 -2.11 dB -15.98 dB 4:35 05-Strange Habit
DR8 -0.02 dB -12.40 dB 2:51 06-Push + Pull
DR8 -0.42 dB -11.17 dB 3:34 07-Lola + Joseph
DR9 -0.11 dB -11.28 dB 3:06 08-So Sorry
DR10 -1.05 dB -13.76 dB 4:23 09-Jesus Said So
DR8 -0.81 dB -12.33 dB 5:15 10-Touch
Number of tracks: 10
Official DR value: DR9
Samplerate: 44100 Hz
Bits per sample: 24
Bitrate: 1497 kbps
Zooming in a bit, we can see the clipping resolved and subtle nuances extrapolated into the waveforms:
How does this sound? Well, if you play the files directly, it will be obvious of course! The "de-clipped" version will be obviously softer (by about 6dB) and you'll need to push up the volume to compensate. The effect is subtle if you use ABX Comparator to equilibrate the volumes however. Obviously we are dealing with the same source file so it's not like this will make as much a difference as a true remix or remaster from an original unclipped version.
There are some benefits apart from the subtle de-clipping effect. For those with DACs that overload easily, this will reduce the distortion with the loud parts. "Intersample overload" from oversampling will be minimized or eliminated. Also, by reducing the overall volume, lossless compression software can do a better job with reduced file sizes. For example, this July Talk album went from 243MB down to 220MB after the de-clipping using FLAC -8 compression.
If you have iZotope RX, do play with the De-clip DSP module. I've found that the preset "Extreme Analog Clipping" works well but you can certainly increase or decrease the parameters. I've done this with a few other albums like some of Imagine Dragons'. For example, Smoke + Mirrors (which went from DR6 to DR9) and Night Visions (from DR4 to DR9). It can be applied to many modern pop songs; for example my daughter liked Miley Cyrus' Malibu single - DR5 to DR9 baby! Notice that with default settings shown here, the final DR value tends to be around 9 (although higher like DR11 can be achieved as shown below).
BTW: That Miley Cyrus single also had quite a notable DC shift fixed with high pass filtering.
Again, I'm certainly not saying this will truly "fix" the sound of distortions in LOUD music which is "set in stone" and already affected by the extreme mastering volume. Rather, it might in some situations make the sound a little less irritating on a hi-fi system...
Have fun! If you try it, let me know what you think on your system. Also, I have not looked around, but there might be free software out there that can be used. Let me know if you find free solutions!
As I was tinkering with the above, I was also thinking about this whole DR business and vinyl rips. Could this be at least part of the explanation of what is happening in vinyl playback to create the typically higher "DR" measurements with vinyl rips compared to CDs? Remember, if we poke around on the Dynamic Range Database, we generally see vinyl rips measuring higher in DR than the CD or other digital counterpart. In fact, if we search the database for "vinyl", you almost never will see a true LP rip less than DR10. In the past, I've touched upon this tendency here and here.
As an example of an obviously digitally sourced and compressed album, the Bruno Mars' XXIVk Magic album has a DR7 whether it's the CD or 24/44 HDtracks "hi-res" download when we search the DR Database. But notice that the vinyl rip has a DR12 rating!
Remember what is involved in preparing and producing a vinyl version of a digital album though... It needs to be "remastered" to a certain extent by introducing the RIAA EQ curve and various changes like mono-summing of low frequencies. Whether prepped digitally or in the analogue domain, that highly dynamically compressed CD/Hi-Res file would likely go through gain reduction, RIAA EQ introduced, plus whatever other tweaks to optimize for a vinyl presentation (like bass and final volume adjustments - this is important to adjust the 'pitch' of the groove). No matter what, a digital recording at some point would also go through a DAC for analogue conversion on its way to the vinyl cutting lathe - audiophiles should be curious as to the quality of the DAC device used in the studio...
I suspect this whole process affects the digital clipping and peak limiting. Furthermore, remember mechanical devices like the cutting head stylus and LP playback cartridge cannot instantaneously stop nor remain precisely accurate like "perfect" digital ones and zeros. Clipped and peak limited samples will never result in a "flat top" appearance; the peaks will always "round out" with vinyl playback, similar to how the "De-clip" module will extrapolate those peaks for us.
Going back to Bruno Mars, if we run the De-clip process above on the song "24K Magic", we indeed see that it adds a bit more DR to the waveform:
Running the original album and comparing the de-clipped output through the foobar DR plugin for a reading:
Aha! DR went from DR7 to DR11 on average across the whole album! Close to the DR12 from a vinyl rip as per the DR Database.
So, is this the mechanism whereby without using a proper high dynamic range source, the vinyl playback results in higher DR measurements? I suspect so to some extent. Since vinyl cutting and playback will then add their own distortions and noise, it will sound different when we sit back and listen to the final product versus the original loud digital "studio master". Coupled with the DR measurement looking "better", it adds to the mystique of analogue playback in a positive fashion even if it were just a low-res source to begin with (like this Bruno Mars album).
The bottom line is this - within the digital domain, we can use tools like the "De-clip" DSP plugin in iZotope RX to approximate and reconstitute severely dynamically compressed recordings and clipped samples hence improving the DR result. And when it comes to vinyl, IMO, just because a vinyl rip has higher DR does not mean that it must have originated from a superior master that was any less compressed. I strongly suspect that the processing to get the music on vinyl coupled with the mechanical effects of cutting & playback will expand the apparent DR. This effect might be audible and beneficial in some circumstances. This is consistent with Ian Shepherd's warnings about not measuring vinyl with the TT/DR Meter from 2013.
Listening to the vinyl rip and equivalently processed digital side-by-side at approximately the same volume would be the proper way to adjudicate preference.
As I noted above, we generally do not see DR<10 with vinyl rips. Although for high-fidelity audio, we generally want to see higher dynamic range measurements as a proxy for natural sounding recordings, it's worth remembering that some artists are not aiming for this. Some might actually want the distortion and dysphoric harshness of say DR2 for artistic effect. While I may find little pleasure in this artistic choice, one could see the inability of vinyl to offer this level of severe dynamic range compression as a limitation of the format!
So, in the September issue of Stereophile (Mytek Manhattan II review), Herb Reichert says "DSD and high-resolution downloads never sound completely right or real to me. MQA does." Interesting opinion especially since he mentions listening to an "MQA-encoded CD" in the next paragraph (!). Go try the MQA vs. Hi-Res Blind Test for yourself and let me know what you think. Remember, you only have until September 8th to get the results submitted to be counted.
Thanks to all those who have responded so far... Much appreciated! :-)
Listening to Freddie Mercury & Montserrat Caballé Barcelona tonight reflecting on the tragedy and worldly events recently.
Enjoy the music.
Thanks Chip for this image of the dbx 5BX-DS (I see the scanned manual online here). Looks like a very useful device these days and still goes for about $1000 used in good condition!