Happy Dynamic Range Day!
Dynamic Range Day is a 'holiday' created by Saint Ian and Allen Wagner to promote and inform the public, engineers, and artists about the dangers and damage being done by The Loudness War and what they (and you!) can do to end this madness. There is so much info over at the DRD site, so if you haven't checked it out yet, please do so right now. Go on - I'll be here when you get back.
As an Edumacator®, one of my duties is to show students how to use a DAW (in our case Logic Pro) from startup to mixdown. In less than a month. o0
We can get them up to speed with recording, instrument and effect plugins, editing, and basic arranging with little to no trouble. They've been using computers and software most of their lives, and what we show is like using a word processor to them, and therefore very natural.
Mixing, however, is a dark art.
Because everything they've heard over their life has been pushing digital technology to the hilt, and all the tunes they've ever heard are over-loud, over-effected, and over-compressed. Trying to break them out of that paradigm takes a lot of work, and we've done our best to structure the audio programs to keep pushing the 'academic' method of recording and mixing as they move through the curriculum. But again, it's tough when all they have been exposed to by their fave artists is all jacked-up levels and every single musical element has been crushed and squashed to near-lifelessness. (we're not even talking musicality here)
This early in their musical 'careers', they think that making a track in Logic (or any DAW) is putting in the content (let's not even go there either), cranking the levels up and up (well into the red) to get every part heard, and then trying every single effect preset on every single instrument, channel, aux, and output to make it sound right. This is how they think their favorite artists do it. In their mind music goes straight from DAW to Spotify.
Logical thinking given today's technology, certainly. But once the understanding of proper gain structure, recording levels, musical structure, and practical understanding of processing and balance come into play, most do see the light. The rest take their stand in the tug-of-war of creativity versus science - that it has to be loud, it has to be hypercompressed, and it has to be just like everything else out there or their audience will ignore it and find something else.
No. No. No. No. NO!!
Loudness is completely in your listener's control. No matter how loud or processed it is on mixdown, they can turn it up if it's too quiet, and turn it down when it's too much. It doesn't matter how loud (or soft) you make the final product - the listener has the final say. If it still sounds like a hot mess when it's at the level the listener wants, they will recognize it (and that's when they'll move on to something else).
As for sounding just like everything else, you are at the whim of your audience again. Maybe they want to listen to the same music over and over, Maybe they'll get tired of thay genre and go out searching for something new. Maybe they are only looking for something different. You have zero control over what people want to listen to. Give them your heart and soul and you stand a much better chance of captivating and retaining them.
For all the information to be found over at the DRD website, there is mounting evidence that louder doesn't mean more sales, more streams, or more listeners. Overcompression may not only damage your music to the point where it's not just fatiguing to hear, but might just permanently affect your hearing ability as a whole with long-term exposure.
As to the samey-same of the charts? I believe it's nothing but fear and desperation, kids. They are all too afraid to upset the apple cart.
But you can have it all by using the science! Following The LUFS Standard ensures that everyone has a target to aim for when mixing and mastering, and your listeners don't race for the volume control every time your 'uberloud' masterwork explodes into their earbuds. Compression, EQ, effects, and distortion, used sparingly and creatively, can make your sounds 'pop' without getting in the way of everything else (like hypercompression). This allows you to retain dynamics (which our ears like) while reducing listener fatigue. This is a win-win for everyone. You now get to be more creative because you don't have to worry about outgunning (volume-wise) your fellow artists. The listener gets to enjoy your muse and your voice, Dear Artist, with a better listening environment which will certainly increase their memorability of your work. As for wanting to sound like everyone else - use them as influences. Create your own sound from those influences like the Greats did before you.
Dynamic Range Day is our Holiday, fellow Music Geeks. Like the end of year Holidaze®, try to keep it in your heart all year long.