Listening and the Modern World

Our world has never been louder. Cities are full of loud engines and angry motorists making good use of their horns. MP3 players and smartphones are widespread so our music or radio can follow us anywhere.

How loud is our world, though? Continue reading “Listening and the Modern World”

First World Problems – Tinnitus

First World Problems – Tinnitus


As technology advances it becomes possible to play music through ever more efficient amps and loudspeakers. The introduction of neodymium magnets to headphones is one of the big leaps in clarity which I noticed in a not so scientific way by upgrading my Sony MDR 150 to the 300s. Loud environments like city centres and public transport now offer no resistance to my pleasure of music. Is that really a good thing?

These headphones offer more volume and better quality of sound, in my opinion better quality doesn’t come from louder music but a fundamentally clearer sound which these headphones offered, its the reason I have had them for so long. However, I also feel in today’s world of rapidly developing tech and perhaps a total absence of education from manufacturers to its consumers at the very least, I feel we are rapidly deafening ourselves.

With the ever decreasing difficulty in getting a hold of a portable music player and cheap as chips headphones we only have to walk around town to hear music blasting into people’s ears, to my dismay I have witnessed this in Uni of Salford MediaCityUK. Technology has to advance and I don’t blame manufacturers for developing more efficient means of reproducing sound.

To give a minor comparison, bright screens is the visual equivalent for me however with phones, laptop monitors and probably some televisions there can be the option of automated brightness level which reacts to where you are and how bright the screen is being asked to display. For example, a dark coloured page in a dark room will display quite a bit brighter than a sheer white page in the same room. This really help solve the problem. Is there an audio equivalent?

No. Music is inherently so transient that we can’t “automate the brightness”. Compression kills the musicality for example. There is no real way we can flatten the volume of music in a way that won’t anger lovers of music like me.

One great feature I have seen is in the music library program MediaMonkey which is a fantastic iTunes and Windows Media Player alternative. This has the option to:

1) Analyse each audio file in your library and apply an amplification or attenuation during playback. This feature is very handy as it stops you from raising the volume of a quiet track and then getting your ears blown of when something loud comes on after. This feature is similar to Apples Soundcheck on their iPods and they both raised a Damien Rice song by about 3 to 6 dB while attenuating a Foo Fighters song by a colossal 12 dB. Can you imagine listening to the Damien Rice song in a loud bus and being greeted by “Good Grief” by the Foos? Though to be honest, I don’t notice Apple Soundcheck doing all that much compared to the cheeky monkey.

2) MediaMonkey also allows you to physically write this adjustment to the file by replacing it with a file with the attenuation or amplification applied which means its “safe” on anything you play it on. Basically, re-saves the file louder or quieter than it used to be. The Monkey also can level the volume in this way when you copy a CD to your computer.

3) A further feature which is the basis of 1 and 2 is that you can set a target dB level for it to attenuate and amplify towards. We have to remember that it is essentially normalising the track so it’s finding the loudest part and raising or lowering it to the target. A badly mixed song with a very loud snare drum at one instance for example could be lowered but the rest of the song would get quieter, bringing back the need to turn quiet songs up and being blasted out of it when a loud big comes up.

Is this a reason FOR the rebel alliance (audiophiles) LOSING the Loudness Wars to the mighty Federation? (Idiotic music labels who are responsible for modern pop). This is where essentially everything gets squashed into a song with little or no dynamics or “soul”? Not that anything produced by xFaktaaa is good in the first place, I’m not going to tackle this but its a consideration.

Back on topic, on paper this solves a lot of problems which we encounter but it does not stop the slab of flesh and bone silly person from simply turning the volume up. Feature 2 may even things out but I’ve already mentioned its drawbacks.

How about a standard?
Drawbacks aside, we have standards for: Sampling, frame rates, timecodes, surround arrays, proving we can write to a formula which results in difficult reading of papers (see tinnitus link).

Why can we not have a headphone standard? Mediamonkey offers flexible normalisation of tracks so volume becomes fairly level so why can’t headphones be produced to such a standard where:

If an audio file has been normalised to a target of a certain dBfs value, than a set of headphones which meets this new standard when connected to a media player playing at full volume using Apples Soundcheck or similar will reproduce sound at a safe SPL.

In other words, with these special headphones and a music player designed in a similar way, the loudest it could ever get is a safe level for our hearing.

This would mean music players need to be calibrated to a certain spec to make sure that they chuck out a signal that cooperates with the idea of calibrated headphones. No big problem in my eyes.

This approach would cause problems with people who love their dub step etc. but I think we have to admit, our modern world is so loud that there are places where we simply can’t listen to music safely.

Lets do it!