The funny thing about dynamics

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The funny thing about dynamics
It's somewhat of a mystery why vinyl can sound more dynamic when in fact it is more compressed. Much has to do with the technical measurement versus the perceived measurement. The meaning of dynamic range is the difference between the loudest and softest sounds. The bigger the gap between loud and soft determines the technical dynamic range number of a recording (but not the perceived dynamic range). Let's imagine for a moment two recordings of the same event. One has a dynamic range of 90dB and the other is restricted to 60dB—same live event, only the first version is untouched with full dynamic range while the second has been compressed to fit into the smaller dynamic range space. We can all agree that from a numeric standpoint the 90dB is far more dynamic than the 60dB. Let's now imagine we are playing back these two recordings at the same volume: the loudest notes on both recordings will always be at the same level. The compressed version has all the info of the entire recording and sounds just right. However, when we switch to the higher dynamic range version something happens: the quietest notes will be 30dB lower than those same notes on the compressed version and likely lost. To our ear/brain, this higher dynamic range version doesn't sound more dynamic, in fact, it likely sounds less dynamic because much of the information we use to mentally measure dynamics are simply lost. When we playback at the same volume the compressed recording our ear/brain registers a greater range of loudest and softest and thus we decide it is the dynamic winner. With me so far? Now, let's change the game. Let's instead adjust our listening level to the softest portions. To do this on the higher dynamic version we turn the level up so we miss nothing. (We leave the volume the same as in our first example on the lower dynamic version because we can already hear all the softest notes). Now when the two tracks are played back the loudest portions on the higher dynamic range version is much more dynamic than the compressed one and succeeds in scaring the crap out of us. A great example of this can be found in the San Francisco Symphony Mahler recordings with Tillson Thomas. Most of the music is at a softer level and so we crank up the BHK preamp from its normal listening number of 30 to 45. We hear everything from the pin drop to the crash of the tympanis and the furious bowing of the basses. The dynamic range on that recording is stunning. If you set the level correctly.
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Paul McGowan

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