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A Win-Win-Win-Win Solution to The Loudness Wars?
By Glen Stephan on June 18 2008 11:00 AM | Permalink | Author Info

The war of words rages on in the audio engineering world between those who believe that louder is better for the music industry and those that believe that the resulting loss of dynamics is worse for the music industry. How about an idea that could end the war by letting all sides win?

I propose that there is a potential response to The Loudness Wars that could make all sides of this debate happy: Let the manufacturers of the playback hardware put the decision in the hands of the consumer.

For many years now, most radios, audio recorders, and other such audio devices have had some form of Automatic Gain Control (AGC) circuitry in them that helps level out the perceived loudness of a signal being played or recorded. How and why they do this varies somewhat from device to device. Follow the hyperlink above for more details on this circuit. The better quality radios of the 60s and 70s usually had an on/off switch for the AGC so the user could decide whether they wanted to listen to what they heard with or without the circuit’s idea of what should sound best.

While most AGC circuits are very basic, I believe they hold a potential key to ending The Volume Wars in a way that would make the record labels, producers, artists, engineers and consumers happy – or at least happier than the current state of affairs leaves them.

What I propose is that the manufacturers (in conjunction with some governing organization such as RIAA, NAB or MPEG) start an initiative to include a modern-day, technologically improved version of the basic AGC circuit on their playback devices. This enhanced AGC would be in the form of a fairly decent-quality, musical-sounding limiter circuit, a modern-day version of a vintage leveler in everybody’s iPod. This enhanced AGC limiter would allow the user to decide whether he or she wanted to listen to a recording with it’s dynamics left more or less intact, or whether they preferred to have everything at more or less the same perceived volume level allowing all songs to “compete” without the user having to bother themselves with the volume control.

This 21st century version of the AGC would consist on the outside of a three-position switch, the three positions being Off, On and Auto. Higher quality units may also include a gain control knob for greater user control of the amount of limiting and signal smashing applied, but for ease of use and ease of sale, the basic circuit would just be that single 3-way switch. The off and on positions of that switch are pretty self-explanatory, “Off” means there is no AGC applied, “On” means there is. “Auto” would be a new feature letting the artists, producers and (yes even) the record labels still have some say in how their stuff sounds. An agreement could be made on a data bit that would be included as part of the PQ code, CD/DVD info or MP3 ID tag data inside the digital file that would tell any AGC circuit that is set to “Auto” whether to be on or off when playing back that track or disc. This “Auto” feature would relieve the average end-user who doesn’t care about this stuff from any extra burden worrying abou the AGC switch. As importantly, at the same time still give the creators of the production some say as to which side of the Loudness Wars they wish to be on.

The important idea here is that the artist/producer/label could, if they so wished, produce an disc or cut that still had some quality dynamics and lacked the clipping and so forth of a smashed pancake for those who wanted the sound quality and whom have the more discriminating ears. These users would just switch the AGC off and listen to the music au natural. Those users who prefer loudness to dynamics and who just want to rock out without having to worry about their volume control, can just switch the AGC on and listen to everything like that all the way to their audiologist’s office. Those who just want to hear things the way the artist/label intended it and don’t want to even think about stupid stuff like The Volume Wars can just leave it all set to “Auto” and not worry about it again. This is of course a win for the listener, as both sides of the war can have their way in how they hear their music.

This is a win for the labels and artists, as it will open up their potential listening audience to a wider demographic: those on both sides of the War. Plus it opens up at least some market for re-sale of older product that has the new AGC control bit now included. And yet it will still give them at least some modicum of say over the sound content by letting them set the automatic setting in the content itself.

This is also a win for the manufacturers and the marketplace; it gives them an extra feature to sell on their new gear (What do you mean you don’t have an AGC on your player yet?! Get with it, baby! Your player is so 5 minutes ago!), another upgrade path (for the price of an extra gallon of gas, you can add your own gain knob), and another field of competition between brands (Our AGC is better than your AGC!)

And it’s a win for us engineer-soldiers in that we no longer have to suffer in private about having to ruin our own perfectly good mixes by smashing the crap out of them in mastering while disingenuously kowtowing to our volume-loving paymasters in public.

It’s not a perfect plan, but it’s a plan that offers far more pluses to far more people than it does minuses.

Which is not a bad thing to say about any plan.


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