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CD Loudness Wars

Dynamics or loud, you can’t have both… or can you?

The CD loudness wars started shortly after the birth of the CD in 1982.  Every new CD is being mastered to sound louder than previous releases and, as a consequence, music has taken a back seat to this “hyper compression” trend.   The situation has got so bad recently that it’s not uncommon to find chart CDs with a dynamic range of less than 4dB.  Madness when you consider the CD format has a dynamic range of 96dB.

Audio waveform pictures showing normal and hyper compressed music

Normal track waveform                           Same track, hyper compressed  

To achieve high loudness levels demanded by the market, mastering engineers are forced to compress and limit to such an extent that the music is being severely clipped; top and bottom of waveform chopped off.  This results in the permanent removal of transients/peak information.  Hyper compression is therefore irreversibly damaging the music.  Such tracks are also extremely fatiguing to listen to and makes a complete mockery of the high fidelity capabilities of the CD format.   

Since it appears the loudness wars cannot be stopped, we are actively exploring other options to limit the damage and put the music back into music CDs.


Double CD

For Floron's second album entitled “Red to White Light”  we mastered two different versions for a double CD release. 

Floron 'Red to White Light' double CD

The accompanying sleeve notes explained:  

Bonus CD
This pack contains two CDs of the same music.
Except they’re not quite the same... The ‘loudness wars’ trend has lead to ever-louder CDs; the Red CD follows that trend and may be more suitable for listening to on the move, in the car or in other noisy environments.
The White bonus CD isn’t about following trends; it’s about the music. Capturing the entire dynamic range – the natural, expressive peaks and valleys of volume – this CD may be more suited to HiFi systems and rewards more sensitive listening.
A unique way of presenting music as it was truly intended, the choice – Red or White – is yours.

This double CD method does of course have the drawback of raising raw material costs but it was a cost Floron was prepared to absorb in order for him to present his music in the way he wanted. 


Single CD, Double Content

The enhanced CD format (Blue Book), also known as either CD Extra or CD Plus, is a standard five inch CD that carries both an audio section and a data section following it.

Enhanced CD logo

The enhanced CD logo  

The audio section of an enhanced CD is read by a standard CD player; the data section is invisible.  The data section only becomes visible when the disc is read by a computer.


Enhanced Results

Now we can use the audio section of the Enhanced CD for what the CD format was designed for; high quality audio!  The data section can then be used for 320kbps “almost CD quality” MP3 files of the same songs. 

Example enhanced CD schematic diagram

Example enhanced CD schematic

A CD with a running time of 40 minutes requires around 400 megabytes.  Adding another 88 megabytes for the hyper compressed MP3s (placed in the data section) raises the total to just 488 megabytes.  Since a CD can hold 700 megabytes, space obviously isn’t an issue.  There's plenty of free space for ‘added value’ extras* too: pictures, outtakes, sample MP3s from the previous album etc…

*Some record companies have issued Enhanced CDs and used the data section for extras such as: video clips, photographs, lyrics, documents, web links etc but I’m not aware of any other company that has yet used the data section for two versions of the same songs.


You can have both loud and dynamic 

At Kymatasound we are committed to quality music recording and reproduction. However, we recognise the loudness wars aren’t going to end any time soon so we therefore offer all clients the double and enhanced CD options.

Together, let's put the music back into music CDs!


© Tim Rainey 2007

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 Feedback, questions and comments welcome
Last updated:  2 January 2010
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