Fighting the Loudness War

As an audiophile, yesterday I celebrated Dynamic Range Day. Most people don't realise that for years, music has been becoming louder and LOUDER. Why? Because a loud single has a better chance of grabbing the attention of the listener.

The assumption is that the listener has no time or motivation to 'raise the volume'  manually and thus perceives the song as being of lesser quality. This was especially true in the old days of vinyl and AM Radio, but it still goes on today.

So just like a nuclear arms race, mastering engineers have had to make music increasingly louder. As a result, all the subtle dynamics are squeezed out of the music. 

This is a trend that has been going on for quite some time and it only seems to be getting worse. Not sure what I'm talking about? I'll try to put this in perspective. Just take a look at this example, comparing Eminem's My Name Is (1999) to Kanye West's All Of The Lights (2011).

Music recording and production is something I've been doing for the past 13 years and I've had to learn a lot along the way. As a DIY musician, I record most of my music myself in my own studio. I also do the mixing and 'mastering' myself, partly because I love a good challenge and partly because it'd otherwise be too expensive for me. It isn't easy, and there are many technical issues to keep in mind. Overcompression is one of these issues. The sad part is, most producers know it's a problem, but  some still sacrifice dynamics for loudness.

By the time the heavily compressed song makes it on the radio, more heavy compression is applied once again in order to compensate for the differences in loudness between all the different songs and genres played on any given day. That's why some 'modern' songs just sound 'nasty' on the radio while those classic 80's ballads always sound so nice.

Whenever you buy an album and it says 'remastered', be careful, because that just means it sounds LOUDER, but it doesn't necessarily make it sound better. It's just meant to compete with the other [louder] music out there today.

What is dynamic range? That's the amount of decibels between let's say -32dB and 0dB. In digital music, the loudest possible volume is 0dB and that's where clipping occurs [read: nasty distortion]. 

Metallica's Death Magnetic album had an average of only 3dB of dynamic range. Which means you're constantly listening to almost the MAX possible loudness (0dB). This is very exhausting to the human ear and is in fact bad for your health. Similarly, Red Hot Chili Peppers' album Californication had an average dynamic range of 5dB. Some songs, though very cool, were just too LOUD. Loud masters basically sound like squashed sandwiches, not very appetizing right?

Back in 2012 while studying at university, I suggested the Loudness War as a thesis topic. Unfortunately the professor thought it was too technical for the programme. He told me to go ahead, do the research, but send it to a newspaper. I didn't... But the Loudness War as it's called, still fascinates me.

There's good news though. Nowadays iPods and desktop software such as Spotify include built-in normalization. This means all the songs you listen to will have a similar average loudness. This means mastering engineers no longer have to be afraid of producing soft songs. This means artists no longer have to be afraid of releasing music that sounds softer than the competition. This also means, that listeners can enjoy better sounding music, suffer from less fatigue and run a lower risk of suffering from hearing problems in the long term.

I used to overcompress my songs as well. The demo version of Curious Faces has a dynamic range of only 5dB, while the re-recorded single version I released has a dynamic range of 8dB.

Perhaps one day I'll be brave enough to go for 10dB.... ;-)

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