Loudness War

dynamic range day

The loudness war is a pejorative term for the apparent competition to digitally master and release recordings with increasing loudness. Older music typically has a very diverse dynamic, that is, there are quiet parts of the track and much louder parts. For example, acoustic interludes leading up to the body of a song might be produced at a very quiet level, with some of the loudest sounds being snare drums and other kinds of percussion.

While the rationale for the loudness war is often described as an attempt to make the quieter parts of music more accessible to a listener, the overall effect is that that dynamic between sounds becomes leveled out, with no sound standing out from the track as a much louder sound. This results in a loss of clarity, where it’s no longer possible to experience music as a distinct interplay of louder and quieter parts.

The practice of increasing music releases’ loudness to match competing releases can have two effects. Since there is a maximum loudness level available to recording (as opposed to playback, in which the loudness is limited by the playback speakers and amplifiers), boosting the overall loudness of a song or track eventually creates a piece that is maximally and uniformly loud from beginning to end. This creates music with a small dynamic range (i.e., little difference between loud and quiet sections), rendering it fatiguing and robbing it of emotional power. Digital media cannot output signals higher than digital full scale (0 dBFS), so whenever the peak of a signal is pushed past this point, it results in the wave form becoming clipped (distorted). In other cases, compression or limiting is used. While the resulting distortion is less obvious in the final product, when taken to severe levels, it can reduce the natural dynamics of other instruments within the recording and introduce other undesirable effects such as audible compression pumping.

The practice of focusing on loudness in mastering can be traced back to the introduction of the compact disc itself but also existed to some extent when vinyl was the primary released recording medium and when 7″ singles were played on jukebox machines in clubs and bars. Jukeboxes were often set to a predetermined level by the bar owner, yet any record that was mastered ‘hotter’ than the others before or after it would gain the attention of the crowd. The song would stand out. Many record companies would print compilation records, and when artists and producers found their song was quieter than others on the compilation, they would insist that their song be remastered to be competitive. Also, many Motown records pushed the limits of how loud records could be made, and were ‘notorious for cutting some of the hottest 45s in the industry.’

However, because of the limitations of the vinyl format, loudness and compression on a released recording were restricted in order to make the physical medium playable—restrictions that do not exist on digital media such as CDs—and as a result, increasing loudness levels never reached the significance that they have in the CD era. In addition, modern computer-based digital audio effects processing allows mastering engineers to have greater control over the loudness of a song; for example a ‘brick wall’ limiter is able to look ahead at upcoming signal to limit its level. Dynamic range compression, also called DRC or simply compression reduces the volume of loud sounds or amplifies quiet sounds by narrowing or ‘compressing’ an audio signal’s dynamic range.

The stages of the CDs loudness increase are often split over the two-and-a-half decades of the medium’s existence. Since CDs were not the primary medium for popular music until the late 1980s, there was little motivation for competitive loudness practices then. CD players were also very expensive and thus commonly exclusive to high-end systems that would show the shortcomings of higher recording levels. However, the concept of making music releases ‘hotter’ began to appeal to people within the industry, in part because of how noticeably louder releases had become and also in part because the industry believed that customers preferred louder sounding CDs, even though that notion might not have been true. While the increase in CD loudness was gradual throughout the 1990s, some opted to push the format to the limit, such as on Oasis’s widely popular album ‘(What’s the Story) Morning Glory?,’ which averaged −8 dBFS (decibels relative to full scale, where 0 is the the maximum level) on many of its tracks —a rare occurrence, especially in the year it was released (1995). In 1997, Iggy Pop assisted in the remix and remaster of the 1973 album ‘Raw Power’ by his former band The Stooges, arguably creating the loudest rock CD ever, reaching −4 dBFS in places.

Loud mastering practices caught media attention in 2008 with the release of Metallica’s ‘Death Magnetic’ album. The CD version of the recording has a high average loudness that pushes peaks beyond the point of digital clipping (a form of waveform distortion that occurs when an amplifier is overdriven and attempts to deliver an output voltage or current beyond its maximum capability). Ted Jensen, a mastering engineer involved in the ‘Death Magnetic’ recordings, subsequently criticized the approach employed during the production process.

In 2010, mastering engineer Ian Shepherd organized the first Dynamic Range Day,  intended to raise awareness of the issue and promote the idea that ‘Dynamic music sounds better.’ With music sales moving towards digital downloads and away from CDs, there is a possibility that the loudness war will be blunted by normalization technology such as ReplayGain and Apple’s Sound Check. Some cloud-based music services perform loudness normalization by default and may reduce the market pressure to hypercompress material.

‘Hot’ albums have been condemned by several recording industry professionals including Alan Parsons, Geoff Emerick (noted for his work with The Beatles), and mastering engineers Doug Sax, and Steve Hoffman. Musician Bob Dylan has also condemned the practice, saying: ‘You listen to these modern records, they’re atrocious, they have sound all over them. There’s no definition of nothing, no vocal, no nothing, just like—static.’ Ironically, the compact disc editions of Dylan’s more recent albums ‘Modern Times’ and ‘Together Through Life’ are examples of heavy dynamic range compression.

When music is broadcast by a radio station, the station will apply its own signal processing, which further reduces the dynamic range of the broadcast material to closely match levels of absolute amplitude, regardless of the original record loudness.

The nonprofit organization Turn Me Up! was created by Charles Dye, John Ralston and Allen Wagner to certify albums that contain a suitable level of dynamic range and encourage the sale of quieter records by placing a ‘Turn Me Up!’ sticker on albums that have a larger dynamic range. The group has not yet arrived at an objective method for determining what will be certified.

Broadcasting also has its loudness wars. Competition for listeners between radio stations and competition for clients between recording studios has also resulted in a loudness ‘arms race.’ Loudness jumps between broadcast channels and between programs within the same channel are a frequent source of audience complaints.

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