Honor Roll

This is a collection of well-mastered pop CDs that have good micro (and macro) dynamic content. Microdynamics contain the transient movement or dynamic rhythm of a recording. Transients also affect perceived loudness. Macrodynamics contain the variations in average loudness over time. As we move into higher resolution recordings, I hope that DVDs, DVD-As, and SACDs will make it into this list. I’ve organized the recordings in order of increasing intrinsic loudness. Intrinsic loudness is the perceived loudness of a recording at a known position of the monitor control. So we can measure the difference in intrinsic loudness between two CDs by observing the difference between the two monitor positions required to make them sound equally loud.

Remember that we have no control over where the consumer sets his personal volume control, so the whole idea of “absolute loudness” is a fallacy. That is why I’ve introduced the term “intrinsic loudness” to help us compare recordings at a given known position of the calibrated monitor level control. Also note that high intrinsic loudness necessarily produces lowered microdynamics because of the compression/limiting required to prevent peak overload.

Monitor level control Digital Domain audio mastering mixing productsThis is a Monitor control marked in degree of attenuation. The ZERO position produces 83 dB SPL, C Weighted, on a per-channel basis with -20 dBFS RMS pink noise. This is explained in How to Make Better Recordings, Part 2. All other control positions are relative to this zero position.

For example, if CD #1 sounds as loud at a control position of -5 as CD #2 at -7, then we can say that CD #2 is 2 dB louder than CD #1 (CD #1 requires 2 dB more monitor gain). This is such a powerful language that I propose that all 21st century audio engineers communicate using the common language of the calibrated monitor. The size of the control room, the distance of the loudspeakers from the listener, and the number of people in the room absorbing sound affect the monitor gain. If your room is smaller than mine, you will likely use a lower monitor gain.

The Loudness Race is Self-Defeating

In general, a hot CD will have lowered transient clarity and less dynamic range. As the intrinsic loudness goes up, the sound quality can go down. So you can judge the quality of a CD to a great degree by the position of the monitor control required to generate a comfortable loudness. Engineers differ in their opinion of what is an acceptable intrinsic loudness, but most of us agree that the sound quality of the average commercial recording has been going down hill for quite some time due to the loudness race. The vast majority ofpeak-normalized pop music recorded since 1940 sounds perfect at approximately -6 to -8 dB monitor position, which is therefore a de facto standard. This monitor position yields an average SPL (C-weighted) of about 83 to 86 dB (on forte passages)* when reproducing many pop recordings made through about 1993. I believe the -6 to -8 dB monitor position is the approximate point of no return. Depending on the music, a skilled mastering engineer can make a fairly good-sounding recording which works at about -9 position, but the sound will not be as clear or as “sharp” or as “open” as a recording whose intrinsic loudness is lower. You can’t beat the laws of physics.

The Purpose of The Honor Roll

  • to help combat the sound-debilitating loudness war. The absence of post-1990 CDs on this Honor roll is a sad commentary on the sonic casualties of this war.
  • to demonstrate that tasteful dynamic range, transients, and microdynamics are an important part of the art and enjoyment of music
  • to demonstrate that monitor control position and sound quality are often related
  • to give examples of a quality standard, presenting some of the best-sounding popular CDs ever made, which mix engineers can emulate and which are not squashed
  • to show examples of mastered CDs which are hotter than one might want to mix but whose loudness was achieved without seriously affecting the musical and sonic goal of the record
  • to give examples of CDs which sound great on the radio and in the living room, have not so hot levels, and which we can use to demonstrate to producers and A&R the futility of trying to match current insane intrinsic loudness levels

Your Room Is Unique—and You Are Unique

Theoretically, calibrating to the SMPTE standard should result in repeatibility in monitor settings from room to room. But everyone has a different room, different loudspeakers and sits at different distances from their speakers. For example, I originally determined monitor gains using my Reference 3A speakers. As good as they are, these speakers slightly compress sound, reducing transients just a bit even though they were driven by a 250 watt/channel Hafler amplifier. Then recently, I upgraded to the “no compromise” Lipinski speakers, which reproduce transients with startling accuracy. The net result is that my monitor control is now running a dB or so lower with the Lipinskis than it did with the Ref 3As. I also like to listen “with intensity”, which is far from casual level.

Regardless of all these variables, the Honor Roll should translate well to your own circumstances. Just add or subtract your own personal “calibration” and you will probably find things correlate.