What I don't understand about the K-system

Discussion in 'Mastering' started by sachit, Feb 23, 2012.

  1. sachit

    sachit Active Member

    I've read a lot on the web about the K-system of monitoring, metering and mixing/mastering. The K-system basically attempts to ensure that a finished song has at least 12dB of RMS headroom, right? So that the song sounds dynamic and lively, as opposed to squished, loud and generally Mastered for !tunes. Also, the monitoring systems ensure that the engineers who work on the song have a lot of headroom to work in, so that a mix is dynamically varied and rich.

    Now picture this: someone walking in a park, wearing a pair of Beats audio or Bose earphones and listening to music. His volume is fixed to a level at which his current favorite squished song sounds perfect. Now he switches to a song that has been produced using the dynamic principles of K-system metering and monitoring. He will immediately notice a level drop, get irritated, and whip out his iPod or whatever and push the volume up a number of decibels to reach the same level. On his headphones, the carefully crafted three-dimensional mix with great sonic depth will sound frustratingly soft, messy and blurred. It's highly probable that he doesn't think too highly of the mix.

    Which is what I don't understand about the K-system.

    I have absolutely nothing against the K-system. Or Bob Katz. he's a great guy and I respect his ideals. I'm not trying to point out a mistake here. I'm just wondering. For what it's worth, I try to make my mixes dynamic and deep too, as opposed to brickwalled to death. But when I think of this scenario, I get confused. I've been asked more than once why my songs aren't loud, or why my songs sound like they're poorly recorded(it hasn't got anything to do with the recordings themselves - it's just that when people hear something that isn't loud enough they think the recordings must have been of inferior "quality").

    All opinions are welcome!
     
  2. Massive Mastering

    Massive Mastering Well-Known Member

    FIRST: K12 isn't "dynamic and lively" -- I've yet to hear a tune at -12dBRMS that was anywhere near as "dynamic and lively" as it was at something "more normal" (as us "old guys" know it as) like -16 or -15dBRMS.

    SECOND: If he's comparing "K12 crushed" against "-8dBRMS crushed" he might hear "softer" until he turns up the volume, but he certainly ISN'T going to hear "messy and blurred" -- The messy and blurred is going to be on the louder tracks.

    Take just about any pop/rock/rap/RnB recording (pre-squashed) and start squashing it. I'm talking about a mix done with plenty of headroom at every possible stage of production, that's sitting where a "normal" (NOT "old guy" normal - Just "actual" normal of maybe -24 to -20dBRMS) mix would sit. Almost universally, the mix will gain "punch" and "excitement" and whatever you want to call it up until around -16 to -14dBRMS. Then it will quickly start to lose it all over the next couple dB until it's just an unfocused, unclear mess of distortion by the time it hits -10 or -8dBRMS.

    I say "almost universally" as after 20-some years of doing this stuff, I have yet, not once, EVER, heard a tune that sounded "better" at -12 than it did at -15dBRMS. And I don't ever expect to. It goes against all possible logic.

    What Bob is trying to do with the K-System is to plant a seed for a "reasonable standard" -- And it's not really about RMS levels, but let's say it is for the moment. I was asked in an interview in the mid-90's if there should be a "volume standard like they're using for motion picture" for music. I said something like "Of course not -- I don't think people would just go and obviously damage their mixes just for the sake of loudness..." and boy, was I an idiot. I would absolutely KILL (something unknown at the moment) to have a reasonable standard. -15dBRMS would be a nice place IMO/E...

    I'd be really interested to see the number of bands that would crush everything to -8dBRMS and then simply drop the level to meet the standard... And I'd bet that number would be 0.
     
  3. sachit

    sachit Active Member

    Thanks a lot for the informative reply, Massive Mastering. And thanks for pointing out what I didn't understand there..

    Perhaps I haven't heard a K12 mix/master yet. I've heard old music though, loads and loads of it. And I understand what you mean when you say that an average level somewhere in the -16dB RMS range will be lively and dynamic, as compared to a K12 squished track or an 8dB RMS track. I can hear the difference when I play Paradise by Coldplay followed by Breathe by Floyd, or say Aqualung by the venerable Tull. None of them are K-standard mixes, but Paradise is Mastered for iTunes and the others are old-skool dynamically mastered.

    The thing is, that the average listener might not agree with the views of the pro audio community. I doubt anybody among the masses would be able to hear the loss of detail being discussed here. The masses would just find the volume level of the track low.. In that case, is it wiser to squash your mixes a bit and strike a balance, as opposed to making them "soft" or "squished"? I wouldn't like to do that, it goes against my instincts, but if the masses like it better, then what am I supposed to do?
     
  4. Massive Mastering

    Massive Mastering Well-Known Member

    It's something we ("we" as "all of us engineers and especially the mastering guys") deal with every day.
     
  5. audiokid

    audiokid Staff

    The whole industry has turned into a business of the loudest wins and what a challenge for mastering engineers with great hearing. Its going against all our gifted hearing and sense of imaging. We need a set standard. What ever happened to volume controls and nice stereo's. Oh I miss those days.
    Excellent thread.
     
  6. sachit

    sachit Active Member

    Thanks a lot for your informative comments, audiokid and Massive Mastering. It is a tragedy that the loudness wars are all over the place - and now even the less gifted can hear the difference and cringe, like me. Perhaps it's a test for the integrity of audio engineers. Those true to their craft will never squash their songs...
     
  7. Massive Mastering

    Massive Mastering Well-Known Member

    I was really hoping the Battle of the Metallica Backlash was going to be a turning point in the war... I guess all it really represented was more of a "breaking point" -- Sort of like $4 gas -- People will pay $3.95 for gas all day and complain about gas prices. Bump it up to four bucks and we go ape-sh*t.

    I guess that might be five or six dollar gas now... But that's the way it was before...
     

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