In this blog post I will be looking at the loudness wars – the battle to make songs louder at the expense of its dynamic range through mastering. In the past, I often wanted to make my songs as loud as possible without realising how much life was being squashed out of them. But recently I have been a bit gentler with my settings so as to preserve the dynamic range and thus the feel of the song. And so I will be looking at loudness wars of the past as well as the future of loudness to determine loudness’ place in the audio industry.
So how does a track become so loud that its dynamic range becomes non-existent? A track’s loudness is typically achieved by using limiting to compress its audio signal so as to avoid clipping and then turning up the makeup gain to make the song “loud”. However by squashing the audio and then turning it up, the song sounds overcompressed and contains artificial digital harmonics. For some reason record labels feel the need to compete and boast which act is the loudest by pushing volumes higher and higher (Henshall, 2012). Matt Mayfield’s video on the loudness war explains this in more detail, his quote “when there is quiet, there can be no loud” sums it up:
Looking at this graph (courtesy of audio blog Music Machinery), it is easy to see that loudness levels have increased drastically over the last ten years. Which is interesting because according to mastering engineer Ian Shepherd (2012), people do not actually care about loudness levels and some prefer their music at lower volumes. However, services like Spotify and Apple Music are using standardisation techniques to end the loudness war and make all tracks’ volumes equal; Shepherd (2012) points out that “there is no evidence that ‘louder’ records sell better or chart higher”. Audio engineers like Shepherd have even made events such as “Dynamic Range Day” and “Turn It Down!” to protest the loudness war.
However, Sound on Sound contributor Emmanuel Deruty (2011), upon analysing contemporary albums such as MGMT’s Oracular Spectacular states that “the loudness war actually didn’t result in any reduction in the…’dynamic range'” . He states that it is all about style and while loudness might not fit bands like Metallica (whose album Death Magnetic was panned for being too loud), it might fit someone like Kanye West (who was praised for the loudness in My Beautiful Dark Twisted Fantasy). Underground magazine Robotic Peacock state that in Electronic Dance Music (EDM) “the loudness war does not have much of a place, due to the lack of traditional instruments” and that the distortion of synthesizers and overcompression can be part of the sound (Minnick, 2013). This explains why loudness is so craved and prevalent in the EDM industry.
Looking at both arguments of the loudness war, I argue that if loudness is necessary for a song then the key to achieving optimal loudness, engineers must simply craft a loud mix. Matt Houghton and Paul White (2012) of Sound on Sound recommend the use of Mid-Side processing to make a mix wider which would allow the mix to sound louder – the use of mix buss processing and parallel compression is also recommended (Houghton and White, 2012).
To conclude, loudness isn’t always everything and should not be achieved at the expense of a song’s emotion and energy. While I do agree that loudness depends on the individual artist’s style, I still feel that audio engineers need to understand what they are doing to an audio signal when they strive to make a song loud. Just because an artist sounds better loud does not mean they should sound limited. Knowledge – in particular knowledge of terms such as RMS and peak levels, is the key.
Deurty, E. (2011). ‘Dynamic Range’ & The Loudness War. Retrieved 1st August, 2016, from http://www.soundonsound.com/sound-advice/dynamic-range-loudness-war
Henshall, M. (2012). Vinyl vs CD in the Loudness War. Retrieved 2nd August, 2016, from http://www.soundmattersblog.com/vinyl-vs-cd-in-the-loudness-war/
Houghton, M. & White, P. (2012). Crafting Loud Mixes That Sound Great. Retrieved 2nd August, 2016. http://www.soundonsound.com/techniques/crafting-loud-mixes-sound-great
Minnick, P. (2013). The Loudness War in EDM. Retrieved 2nd August, 2016, from https://roboticpeacock.com/the-loudness-war-in-edm/
Shepherd, I. (2011). Learn the Loudness War secret that will give YOUR music an edge. Retrieved 2nd August, 2016, from http://productionadvice.co.uk/loudness-war-secret/
Shepherd, I. (2012). The Loudness War – an open letter to the music industry. Retrieved 1st August, 2016, from http://dynamicrangeday.co.uk/loudness-war-open-letter/
Shepherd, I. (2015). Online loudness. Retrieved 1st August, 2016, from http://productionadvice.co.uk/online-loudness/