The Loudness War: you may have heard the term at some point over the past 15 years, and in fact, you may have even noticed that music has progressively gotten louder and louder over time as well. For those of us who have a keen ear; and perhaps it's fair to say this is a department exclusive for audiophiles and sound engineers, there has been a noticeable difference in the loudness of music, especially Electronic Music, over the past 15 years or so, making it harder to listen to frequently, and often creating what is referred to as a "tiring" or "fatiguing" mix.
While we can argue this is a new trend, the interesting thing is that it actually happened a long time ago as well during the days of 45's, where cutting engineers were asked to cut singles louder and louder in hopes Jukebox listeners would place their attention on the louder records, as well as getting Radio Station program directors to pick out the louder ones in favor of the others. Motown records were infamous for this, and were in fact considered to be some of the "hottest" records of the day for it. Artists who would find their record to be softer in volume than that of the very popular ones, would usually ask for their record to be re-mastered in order to compete in this early Loudness War in hopes to achieve better sales and recognition.
Today, in a slightly different fashion, the same has been happening, and for the same reasons: in hopes that the louder music will jump out to the listener and end customer, and appeal more; sound better produced somehow. It's truly a "Sonic Arms Race" as some would call it, creating a competitive environment where every artist and label feels that their record must be as loud if not louder than the next; leaving behind an era in between where even though Dynamic Compression and Limiters were useful tools in the mastering process,they were also used with care and with the idea that Dynamic Range was an important part of the listening experience. That is to say, the naturally loud and quieter instruments of a song were part of how one was supposed to experience the music. Listening to a Beatles or Pink Floyd album, even Kraftwerk, one can clearly see these are not loud records, but rather very dynamic, and offer a very enjoyable experience where each instrument has its place and set volume level.
The Loudness War came to a head in the commercial music industry several years back, after the 2008 release of Heavy-Metal band Metallica's "Death Magnetic" album, which was also released on the video game "Guitar Hero"; though not compressed in the same way the commercial release was published. This led to a huge backlash, where fans of the band actually signed an online petition asking for the album to be remastered, claiming a noticeable difference in sound, and preference to the Guitar Hero version, which was not as heavily compressed.
The good thing at this point was, that people in greater numbers were beginning to see the damage of taking a properly mixed piece of music, and then taking every instrument and pushing it to its ceiling. One has to ask, what would even be the purpose of mixing a song, if we were to follow by maxing everything to its absolute peak? Naturally, in a song there must be parts that tuck behind others, and parts that are meant to be louder and lead the listening experience. It would seem like an awful waste of time to then take the final master, and squash everything against its max peak ceiling, almost as if in the mixing process, every channel had been turned up one by one on purpose, and without recognizing the need for every part to have its place in the volume range.
While for some time there has been an illusion that louder is somehow better, and that the person responsible for mixing the song must be more experienced, the reality is that louder music is actually not better produced, but arguably poorly produced through the heavy use of Dynamic Compression, Maximizer plug-ins, and Brickwall Limiters; aggressively processing the overall signal to the point of creating essentially a "brick" out of the final wave pattern. The result is obviously a mix with little dynamics that while perceivably louder, fatigues the ear, often times making the listener not want to hear the record again; even if enjoyed and respected for having been a good piece of music. As famed Miami Bass producer Claudio Barella aka Debonaire comments: "Slamming audio levels into square waves has disappointingly become the ordinary standard set forth mostly by EDM. It's so simple to master audio for brickwall loudness that a caveman can do it."
Thankfully, as this trend continues, and there is more of an understanding that something truly is rather wrong with music these days. And that it's not just Audio Compression for digital downloading purposes, but a competing culture that has either forgotten, or never learned the value of proper mastering techniques. Then perhaps loudness will no longer be the ultimate goal, but instead it will be to make well-balanced dynamic music that is enjoyable to listen to.
The more this concept is re-adopted, it will also take away the other illusion that has been prevalent, that somehow a more dynamic piece of music is perhaps the poorly produced; something that engineers who have used conventional techniques through all this time have struggled with as it makes their music appear considerably lower in volume than most other material. Something particularly apparent in the club scene were much of the music is generally mixed by DJ's, and more dynamic records lead to uneven mixes that suggest somehow these pieces have something wrong in the production applied to them, driving many to question if perhaps loudness must be achieved for better sales and overall impression. Something else that has interestingly enough never been proven to be true. In fact, not only has loudness in no way equated to better sales, the opposite has been the case as more people recognize what is happening. The fact is, sadly enough, that we have literally taken millions of incredible albums, E.P.s, and singles, and in many ways destroyed them by taking away from the overall quality of the sound. In some cases driving listeners back to earlier periods of music, because it is simply more enjoyable to listen to; and not because of the styles necessarily, but because it is truly "easier" on the ear.
Around 2010, many great strides were made against the Loudness War when Ian Sheperd, a mastering engineer in the commercial music industry, started the "Dynamic Range Day" campaign, which was a huge success, and showed that industry professionals and fans alike where behind the idea that indeed something needed to be done in order to get music to sound better again. Companies like SSL, TC Electronics, and others began to support the movement over the past several years, with some of the industry's most notorious recording engineers openly calling for a change in the mastering process, as well as that of broadcasting practices, which also use signal processing to push music to its absolute amplitude in order to compete with other stations. Popular mainstream bands like Daft Punk, even began pushing for their newly released music to be mixed and mastered properly, with their album "Random Access Memories" winning five Grammy Awards; also for Best Engineered Album. Engineer Mick Guzauski stated after completion that "We never tried to make it loud and I think it sounds better for it".
Some time ago, other big steps were made against the loudness of music, with the founding of the "Turn Me Up!" campaign, which encourages the use of stickers on albums certified for having been mastered correctly, and even the Apple Corporation who has also gotten behind the idea of using a normalization process in streaming called "Sound Check" for iTunes Radio, and following on the footsteps of "ReplayGain". As a standard proposed by David Robinson in 2001, this method essentially uses software to ensure even levels of volume across different recordings played in a session. Something that as it begins to be implemented more and more as with iTunes Radio, will make producing louder music irrelevant, as it would simply be attenuated to the standards being set forth recently by organizations like the European Broadcasting and International Telecommunication Unions, who are trying to set a proper standard for how loud music ought to be.
Bob Katz, a Grammy Award-Winning mastering engineer and all around popular Audiophile, explained on his website that: "The way to turn the loudness race around right now, is for every producer and mastering engineer to ask their clients if they have heard iTunes Radio. When they respond in the affirmative, the engineer/producer tells them they need to turn down the level of their song(s) to the standard level or iTunes Radio will do it for them. He or she should also explain that overcompressed material sounds wimpy and small in comparison to more open material on iTunes Radio."
Debate within the industry continues on today about the subject of the Loudness War, specially about how to properly measure what is perceived as an increase in the loudness of music; which while the general consensus agrees music is indeed louder, some like Emmanuel Deruty of Sound on Sound argue that Dynamic Range ( Or Dynamic Variability as he argues ) has actually not changed, but rather that there is much more limited crest factor (peak minus RMS). Something that after analyzing 45 years of music in a study aided by Dr. Damien Tardieu of the IRCAM Institute in Paris, led him to the conclusion that it was indeed crest factor that had diminished, as opposed to an increase in Loudness Range or decrease in Dynamic Range. Ian Sheperd and Bob Katz have both challenged this analysis, saying that Loudness Range is a way of measuring volume variation within a song, while the European Broadcasting Union's R128 "Peak To Loudness Ratio" measure was a more useful way of measuring overall perceived dynamic variability; something that in their studies had shown to decrease throughout the 1990's.
Other people in the industry also argue that perhaps some types of music benefit from loudness, as EDM for example, which as Deruty explains: "It may be suited to your kind of music, or it may not. You might want to remain 'soft' on purpose. If you're doing heavy Techno music though, 'compact' is probably a good idea." David Noller, iconic Techno Bass producer, and highly influential performer as Dynamix II, also reinforces that idea, saying that: "Back in the prehistoric days of recording, they just didn't have the luxury of the tools they have nowadays to make everything sound larger and fuller. Now everyone compresses and limits to bring out each sound to its maximum potential to make the overall track sound louder, The louder the track is, the more people will hear of it. We are making music that is to be played on loud speakers in a loud nightclub/festival setting, so it would only make sense to crank everything to the max." However, there are many that still feel that this isn't the best approach, even with Electronic Music, which many argue sounds "offensively" loud these days, and often makes them shy away from it even if they still respect the works of many of these artists.
One thing is for sure, something has changed in music over time in regards to loudness; whether it is for better or worse. And while it may have even happened long ago, we've enjoyed a good amount of time where music seemed to be handled with care, and did in fact seem more dynamic and naturally flowing; something analyzed wave patterns of older music show via what is clearly a dynamic piece of music with variable peaks in the wave, not the "bricks" one tends to see on sites like Soundcloud, where many praise this approach as if it is somehow a more worthy accomplishment. Barella points out that: "Music must retain dynamics in order to express emotion & passion.", and it's a sentiment echoed far and wide across the music industry by many who simply feel this to be true.
The truth is that there are proper techniques in how music should be produced, which unfortunately with the advent of the digital revolution and computer software for making and recording music, what we have seen are the flood gates being opened up to the point that the over-commercialization of it all has created a culture that is in many ways very unaware of what it actually takes to properly record a piece of music; and even what it takes to be a true professional musician, and well-rounded recording engineer. Sadly to many, making music is part of a trend, something that gains them social status, while to the rest of us, it is a labor of love, and a deeply driven cause that encourages us to always try harder and be better, respecting our roots, and the work of those who laid that foundation for us.
Part of that has always been, that music should truly sound its very best, and that it is not a tool of competition that blinds us as to what is important, but a sacred craft that asks of us that we be diligent in the approach we take to making it and delivering it to the masses. Music can have a powerful effect on people psychologically and spiritually, which considering the power of sound waves and the physical influence they have on their surroundings, it would seem self-defeating to deliver them in a way that doesn't truly allow the music to flow in the way its meant to. Complaints of ear fatigue after hearing much of the modern records being made today are a good sign that this isn't being done in general, and thankfully people have stood up for the cause and changes are beginning to be made...the soul of the music itself is worth the fight!
Written by: Santino Fernandez