The Loudness War Debate Explained
So maybe you’ve heard about the loss of dynamics it music over the years, and maybe you haven’t. Maybe you’ve heard about the Loudness War and how studios have been crankin’ out heaters that are too hot…. and you’re wondering what it all means and need to have some contemporary insight into how your music fits into the picture. Well here you go a reasonable discussion about the matter entitled…. the loudness war explained.
For a more in depth wiki check out https://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Loudness_war
The following is somewhat objective and I (James Kananen) may have opinions that differ from your own… but anyways here’s some words.
So lets begin with a little bit of history. Starting at the birth of recording people wanted to make the loudest content possible. After all, the first speakers and amplifiers were not very powerful, and the frequency response was not great, so a recording with a little bit more volume would be able to be heard more easily. Engineers even in the 40s and 50s used studio tools like tape compression to make their mixes louder so their songs would be louder on the radio. Bangin’!
As the technology for recording increased, so did the volumes. First with analog brick-wall limiters, then with digital mastering and limiting plugins, recording engineers and manufacturing professionals tried to get the sounds as loud as possible through compression and limiting. After all, the louder the better right?! LOUDER everyone screamed and mastering engineers and studios responded with even louder mixes.
Also, as louder and louder technology grew, the ability to reproduce BASS frequencies grew, the low frequency energy in music also grew. Sub-woofers began to be commonplace in many different scenarios, and DJs and bands wanted to have lots of heart thumping bass in the form of lots of low frequency energy in the mixes, so engineers made their mixes louder and louder and louder until finally…. boom…. they reached almost 100% loudness 100% of the time. Metallica released Death Magnetic (which sounded horrible) Everyone kept screaming LOUDER LOUDER.. but there was no more loudness to be had.Well maybe this is an exaggeration but you get the idea of what happened in the 90s and up into the early 2000s with what later became known as the loudness wars in music. Here’s 3 masters… from the same Michael Jackson recording.
Many albums are available on the dynamic range database on a scale of 0-20, with 0 being NO dynamic range (100% loudness 100% of the time) to 20 (which would be very dynamic….going from 100% to 0% many times over the course of the song. 8-13 is deemed a somewhat debatable middle ground. You can also get a plugin to run your own songs through and get a number on that scale. So if you love The Beatles – Revolver… and you want your songs to be about that loud dynamically, you know you need to be around a 10 on the scale. Cool!
Well guess what. It’s over. The loudness war is over. In fact, there was an inevitable limit to how loud things we could get things, even long ago when analog compressors and limiters were used. With the advent of itunes Sound Check and Spotify loudness normalization, tracks that are deemed too loud are brought down in level to match the average level of other quieter more dynamic tracks. Mastering processes have improved to the point where compression is very transparent, and it’s much easier to get a loud mix without distortion now with a few plugins than it was in the 90s with outboard brick-wall limiters. A fairly loud mix now might sound comparatively cleaner than say Death Magnetic (which featured a lot of clipping brick wall limiting) There’s a lot of critically acclaimed albums that fall outside the “good” range on the dynamic range database and there’s a lot of records that sold many copies on the extreme ends of both sides. On the flip side there’s quite a few terrible albums that fall into the good range. Just because something has good dynamic range doesn’t mean it was mixed well.
What it really comes down to is preference. Do you want your tracks to stand out as examples of dynamic range that are not affected by contemporary pressures to be louder. After all the consumer almost always has the ability to turn the volume up for quieter more dynamic tracks that they want to hear louder. A good strategy is to prepare a few example tracks of material you like, or material that might be in a playlist alongside your music. Any decent engineer should be able to match the loudness level and dynamics to be close to the reference material.
Ultimately one or two dB of dynamic range loss is probably not going to make a huge difference in how a fan of your music is going to appreciate it. A lot depends on how the compression is applied, and some songs may call for aggressive compression and harmonic distortion, and others may require a gentle and transparent squeeze. Or perhaps the material does not require mastering at all, and you’re going for a more dynamic live sound that can be way quieter than modern radio-ready commercial pop songs. Its all a matter of taste… and if there’s one thing I’ve learned about music over the years, it’s that there’s more than one way to do it.
We do (reasonable) compression and limiting during our mastering process.