Today is Dynamic Range Day, which is dedicated to making music sound better by promoting the understanding that dynamics are more important than volume in music. It might sound a bit obscure, but if you want your digital DJ sets to sound great, you absolutely need to understand this.
For DJs, it is a simple enough lesson to learn and one that can make your DJ sets sound better forever more – but you have to understand the basics first. In this post, we’ll give you five simple steps to remember to make sure you always come out a winner in “The Loudness War”.
1. Understand what the battle is about
There’s no better way to understand what we’re talking about than to watch this video. Unless you’ve seen it before, don’t go any further into this post until you have. Want to hear some audio examples? Try here.
2. Insist on high quality music files for your DJing
You need to know the difference between good and bad music formats, and make sure your files are high enough quality to start with, as dynamics suffer as music is compressed, which is what many music formats do to it. You can read all about music formats here, but as a rule, 320kbps MP3s are a good starting point. Remember, though, that just because a files is a 320kbps MP3, that on its own doesn’t necessarily mean anything as regards sound quality. It could have been naively “remastered” at 320kbps from a lesser format.
You can’t switch back and forth between 128kbps MP3, 320kbps MP3, WAV etc – once a format has removed musical information from a song, you can’t magically put it back. It would be like re-recording an old cassette tape onto a CD and expecting it to sound CD quality! Which brings us on nicely to point 3…
3. Listen carefully to your tracks before playing them out
This is where decent studio monitors or at the very least a good set of headphones can help you. Nowadays, with the bar to recording your own music lowered so much, a LOT of music is released, a lot of remixes are made, and a lot of frankly awful-sounding stuff makes its way into DJ sets.
As you’ve learned from the video, sometimes even commercially released material can sound awful. So make sure you listen carefully to tunes first and ask yourself whether they actually sound good enough to play over a sound system in public at all.
4. Consider using software such as Platinum Notes to add dynamic range back to limp recordings
Platinum Notes, from the same people who make Mixed in Key, is designed specifically to take recordings with poor dynamic ranges and add a bit of life back into them (among other things).
It’s not cheap, but if you’re serious about great sound quality, you may want to consider it. Of course, you should still trust your ears above all else, but many DJs have reported good results from this software, including us.
If you want to turn things up, turn up the very last point in the chain where you can (usually the amp that powers the speakers). All kinds of compression can kick in at various stages if you don’t stay out of the red, which is going to reduce the dynamic range of your music progressively as you let things slip more and more.
(Compression is what happens, either deliberately or otherwise, to a signal with good dynamic range, in order to turn it into one that has poor dynamic range, or is “over-compressed”.)
6. Don’t over-compress your own productions
It’s not long before DJs turn producers. Ableton Live and similar software encourage creative types to get right in there and start looping up other people’s sounds to make something new.
And while compression is a common and often desirable way of adding drive to dance music (and can be used rhythmically and to great effect in certain styles), be aware of it.
Leaving space for the elements of your recordings to fluctuate between quiet and loud means that all else being equal, when the volume gets turned up, they’ll simply sound better.
Have you noticed this phenomenon in the music that you choose to play? Have you noticed it getting more prevalent? Are you a DJ who uses software to add dynamic range back to your recordings? Or a producer who loves to compress the hell out of stuff? Let us know your thoughts and experiences in the comments.