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Loudness War: How Daft Punk changed the way Mastering works

23 Jan 2017

Interview kind: text · Reading time: 12 minutes

Daft Punk’s Random Access Memories is a milestone in the worldwide music business for several reasons: the cycling nature of the arrangements, the ambiguity of certain musical keys (e.g. Get Lucky), the symbolism of cinematic images, the hypnotic magnetism of the lyrics, the mix between analogue and digital sounds and the hybridism of this particular genre, from disco music to funky. This album is a masterpiece for its outstanding mastering techniques: we’re not talking about a revival of the 70’s album’s dynamics, but of the construction of a modern dynamic. From a psychoacoustic point of view it’s soft, fresh and gives the listener a relaxing sensation, although it provides occasional sparkles of loudness. The focal point is to make the listeners aware of something different they’ve never heard before, but at the same time make it enjoyable.
 
Every sound engineer is familiar with the renowned “Loudness War”, a widely discussed subject on forums, blogs and magazines all around the world (there’s a free online Dynamic Range Database, which is a useful tool to understand the evolution of this phenomenon).
 
Even Wikipedia has a dedicated section to it: “Loudness war or loudness race is the popular name given to the trend of increasing audio levels in recorded music since the early 1990s, which many critics believe reduces sound quality and listener enjoyment”. Considering the fact that the maximum amplitude available on a Compact Disc is limited to 96dB, the overall volume can be increased only by reducing its dynamic range. This technique is obtained by applying an extreme compression, boosting the quieter parts and cutting the peaks that exceed the volume limit.
 
The Loudness War was born in the 80’s as a consequence of the upcoming CDs and was exasperated in the early 2000 with the birth of lossy formats like MP3s. Having the possibility of listening to music anywhere through small earbuds has made music itself more disposable for the masses.
More and more people listen to music to escape from the noises of the urban soundscape, so turning the volume up has become a real necessity.
 
The most disturbing thing is that distortion, which is the natural consequence of this procedure, has become a synonym of commercial success in every musical genre. In Greg Milner’s book Perfecting Sound Forever (2010), mastering engineer Chris Johnson wrote a list of the best selling albums in the world, assigning individual scores based on the platinum awards they had won. A further technical analysis revealed that the majority of them had a very small dynamic range. Loudness War hasn’t spared anyone, from Red Hot Chili Pepper’s Californication (1999) to Depeche Mode’s Playing the Angel (2005); from Christina Aguilera’s Back to Basic (2006) to Flaming Lips’ At War With the Mystic, released the same year.
 
This mastering technique dominated for fifteen years until Daft Punk’s Random Access Memories put a giant question mark over it in 2013. This work of art is a milestone not only from a musical point of view, but it represents a new approach to mastering records. Even at first hearing, the listener can perceive an obsessive care of the dynamic range and it’s weird to believe that such a sudden change of trend came from a dance album, a genre certainly not well known for it’s wide headroom.
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To fully understand the reasons behind these innovations we must know who the two producers are. In an interview published on S.O.S. (july 2013), Mick Guzausky, mixing engineer on RAM, revealed that Thomas Bangalter, an audiophile with a high perception of every slight shade of sound, already had clear ideas regarding the dynamics of the whole album the moment he stepped into the studio. Therefore every step of the production chain followed this principle.
 
Guzausky says that, before the actual mixing, they had to choose every single track. Every instrument was in fact recorded simultaneously on digital and analogue devices. If more saturation was needed, they could use the reels recorded on the ATR Master Tape. For example, Get Lucky was almost entirely taken from digital sources. A slight compression was applied on the instruments, for example on the vocoder parts to make them more personal and intimate. The guitars were hardly ever compressed, the kick drum was processed through a parallel compression with an 1176 and a NY compression was applied to the whole drum bus with an API 2500, a very transparent vca tool. Most of the voices recorded by Guzausky were processed through the classic LA2A and other compressions were applied on sources to gain specific effects. The album was mixed at Conway Studios in Los Angeles and it features a wide number of vintage analogue compressors, usually set in bypass-mode to obtain the distinctive sound given just by the transformers. Every experimentation was guided towards a specific direction.
 
“If it started to sound too loud, they wanted me to pull things back again” says Guzausky; for example at one point the snare punched through the mix with too much processing and so they had to take a step back. An SSL stereo EQ was used during the mixdown, along with an Avalon EQ, which has a brighter and cleaner sound, and a Neve 33609 bus compressor. At this stage, the work was handed over to the mastering engineer duo Bob Ludwig - Antoine Chabert with the aim of preserving it’s already wide dynamic range.
 
 
Fully aware of the precious material they had to work with, Thomas and Guy-Man started a long road trip from Los Angeles to Portland, on the East Coast, where Bob Ludwig had his studio. The two artists handed over the stems, both digital and analogue. During an interview with Analog Planet, Ludwig claims that he had to choose between six alternative tracks for each stem, with Daft Punk themselves. Because of the massive work done by the French producers, it’s easy to understand why the mastering process was so essential. Because of their obsession with perfection, the two engineers kept making subtle volume changes to fill the gap between songs.
 
The only thing we know for sure is that Ludwig made some precise equalization operations and made the necessary AD conversions. Ludwig himself had something to say about the final result: “The sound is analog-rich, warm, almost fat, with bass that's deep, muscular and lavish. The stage is wide and deep. The midrange is lush and the top end never offends with grit or harshness, yet is open and airy with cleanly rendered transients”. These qualities couldn’t have been achieved with over compression and extreme limiting. But RAM still needed to be “wrapped up” so that it could be listened by thousands of people on different devices. To provide this last step, Daft Punk chose their compatriot Antoine Chabert, mastering engineer at Translab Studios in Paris. Chabert left the tape reels in America and refined Bob Ludwig’s master with a full digital setup. From this single file Chab, as quoted in an interview for quobuz.com in may 2013, acquired four different audio formats: Audio-CD, Audio-HD (32bit, 96 kHz), MFT (Mastered for iTunes) and vinyl. He used a couple of digital mastering equalizers Weiss EQ1 to balance the frequencies of the different formats. The key part of this process was trying not to ruin a production perfect as it was at the time.
 
A lot has been written and not much has been listened. We could carry on talking about high end sound or which parametric equalizers are best for mastering, but at the end of the day what really matters is what the audience feels when listening to a song. So I tried to import all of the tracks on RAM in .wav format on ProTools and activated the TT Dynamic Range Meter. I choose this particular plug-in for my analysis because it shows very clearly the crest factor of each song, which is the relationship between peak and RMS. The first song I played was Get Lucky: being the top of the charts radio single, I expected it to be the one with less dynamic range. Instead, the plug-in revealed it had an average of 9DR. In particular: intro (12DR), verse (9DR), bridge (8DR) and chorus (9 DR), repeated twice; break (12DR) followed by chorus, special (10DR) and the final chorus.
 
I then played Beyond, hoping to find some real loudness. This song has a majestic orchestral intro with a gradual dynamic increase from -14dB to -8dB RMS. But the real surprise are the two verses, which both have 17DR.
 
The circumstances remain the same with Give Life Back to Music, which preserves an average of 9DR. To find something a bit “louder”, I had to wait for the last song, Contact, which has a lot of synth parts, distorted guitars and pads with high RMS values that intentionally break the rules of the rest of the album: it’s an instrumental track that reaches 5DR. 
From a sonic point of view, the element that certainly stands out is the bass. Not just for Nathan East’s and James Genus’ flawless performance, but for the massive sound, warm and embracing, that can be perceived through pressure. Talking of Loudness War, when RMS levels increase, the first noticeable distortions are located in the low frequency zone. To deal with this issue, mastering engineers usually apply steep high-pass filters but, as seen before, this album is not the case.
 
The bass is the keystone of this album and nonetheless are the drums. This instrument, not being over compressed, doesn’t affect the overall RMS level too much. For example, the snare drum has a small stereo image and lacks of frequencies around the 250 Hz zone. When you have such a solid backbeat, it’s easy to play around with the dynamics in the mid-high frequencies, leaving enough space for the funky guitars.
 
 
Like any other Daft Punk project, Random Access Memories will go down in history as an experimental album for various reasons, from an artistic point of view and from a more technical side with mastering. After a detailed analysis of the various steps that brought this album to life, I can surely assume that this work of art will become a benchmark, but not a model to follow.
 
From a discographic point of view, it’s in fact an anomaly. It won’t be easy to replicate all of the contingencies of the situation: the above-the-line musical culture of the producers, the millions that were spent for the different production steps, the two years spent in the studio, the very deep synergy between musicians, producers and technicians and last, but not the least, the unique music style. Even if this model won’t easily apply to the next Foo Fighters’ or Ellie Goulding's record, it’s still a clear message addressed to all of the technicians that work behind the scenes to divert them from their usual habits. Educating the average user will take much longer. Just try and read the comments below Get Lucky’s video on YouTube: “Why doesn’t this sound like that (any other pop artist nowadays) song?”. “Is it normal that I have to turn the volume up to hear everything good?”. One thing is for sure: RAM is never going to end up on Chris Johnson’s black list like any other record crushed by the Loudness War.
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