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Old 12-20-2010, 08:41 AM   #1 (permalink)
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Default The Loudness War

I'm trying to spread some info about the ongoing war in music to produce loud masters. Here's my views on the matter, would love to know yours:

The loudness war
So what is the loudness war? Well it refers to the ongoing competition between record labels and artists to have the loudest sounding record out there, often at the expense of sound quality. Have you ever noticed that when playing old records you sometimes have to turn the volume up to get the same apparent loudness as a modern commercial track? This is down to the way the track has been mastered. In the digital world the peak of a waveform can never exceed 0dbfs. But by using techniques such as heavy compression and limiting the waveform can be squashed and then turned up, so the average level (RMS) is higher. Also EQing techniques to give certain frequencies more weight can make things appear louder, see Fletcher Munson Curve.

When your volume knob is set at the same level, tracks which have been mastered this way will appear much louder. However, on many tracks this will have a negative effect on the sound and feel of a track. Most of the dynamic range is lost, meaning no punch, no body, no impact on the chorus, and often tracks which have been severely over compressed suffer from nasty distortion, not the nice warm fuzzy stuff we all like, but brittle digital crackles which make your CD playter sound like it's broken. Tracks often sound flat and lifeless, and if levels are matched they actually sound weaker and quieter than less compressed material. Think of a rock track; when you turn it up you want the snare to thump you in the chest, you want to be able to feel the music. A wall of sound will not give this effect, it will just cause your ears to start fatigueing and essentially stop you from enjoying the music. Some people are forgetting that pretty much all music systems have a volume knob, and its there for a reason. Yes, consistency is needed between tracks on a record, but not the kind of consistency we're seeing these days.

A lot of people are also under the misconception that over compression will make things sound more upfront and loud on the radio, which is largely not true. Each radio station has its own set of processers, which gives different stations different sounds. If you take a look at a waveform lifted from a radio station, you can see there isn't much dynamic range: Radio Aire and We Run Riot. This is understandable as radios are often played in places where there is a lot of background noise. However, most overcompressed tracks will actually sound weaker when played along something more dynamic, even without touching the volume knob. Radio processing tends to deal with more dynamic material much better. Try comparing a well mixed song from the 80's to something more recent which has been a victim of the loudness war, and you will be surprised at how much bigger and mroe open it will sound.

It's hard to see how this is going to end. If all music systems were fixed with some kind of apparent loudness matching algorhythm (like iTunes) this might help. However it would then be likely that people would just try and find a way to beat this algorhythm to get their track to sound louder. I personally think the key is education. Every time somebody comes to me and asks for somethign as loud as possible, I explain to them how it will affect their music. I think it's every mastering engineer's responsibility to do this, although at the end of the day we do provide a service and must eventually do as instructed by the client. [advertising removed by mod]

To the everyday consumer of music it's easy to see why something which sounds loud can initially impress, but to those of us who listen more closely to the music it is obvious how this pointless exercise is damaging modern music. With a little explanation, I'm pretty sure the everyday consumer would agree. So spread the word and bring back dynamic music!!
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Old 12-20-2010, 09:20 AM   #2 (permalink)
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I'm leaving this thread open because it's actually an interesting topic. But a word of warning: if you try to use MB for advertising purposes again you'll be banned immediately.
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Old 12-20-2010, 11:57 AM   #3 (permalink)
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Old 12-20-2010, 12:02 PM   #4 (permalink)
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^^^Is there some relevance to this?
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Old 12-20-2010, 12:11 PM   #5 (permalink)
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Have you heard it? It's infamously LOUD.

It's an odd argument though, as a musician myself I wouldn't think of telling a producer to make everything louder. I'd leave that up to the listener. Sounds like macho willy waving.
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Old 12-20-2010, 12:46 PM   #6 (permalink)
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I remember a couple of years ago Metallica got huge criticism for doing this on their album.
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Old 12-20-2010, 12:50 PM   #7 (permalink)
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Have you heard it? It's infamously LOUD.

It's an odd argument though, as a musician myself I wouldn't think of telling a producer to make everything louder. I'd leave that up to the listener. Sounds like macho willy waving.
Yes, it is an infamously loud record, but being released in 1973 before the great compression battles really got started, the loudness that the listener perceives is a result of the producer (Iggy Pop himself) pushing the overall track levels to the point of clipping the signal, and not the result of the album being mastered with a huge amount of compression, which is what the OP is talking about in his original post.

In the case of Loudness Wars, which is really a compression war, the resulting loudness is usually not from any sort creative decision or input from the musicians themselves who are creating the music , but a marketing technique used by record companies so that an album or song gets noticed or stays at the forefront of a listener's attention.
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Old 12-20-2010, 12:52 PM   #8 (permalink)
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The album I've noticed this the most is, strangely, St. Elsewhere by Gnarles Barkley. It makes it sound like total shit on headphones.
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Old 12-20-2010, 12:53 PM   #9 (permalink)
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I remember a couple of years ago Metallica got huge criticism for doing this on their album.
Yes, for Death Magnetic, which was the contemporary example I was going to give for an album that pushed the boundaries of compression in the mastering process and thus backfired, resulting in an album that was barely listenable.
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Old 12-20-2010, 01:13 PM   #10 (permalink)
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I think this gif illustrates it best.



Dynamics are a very important part of music to me, so I find it a real shame that this marketing tactic is so widespread.
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