A war has been raging and you can hear its noise grow louder, but you may never have noticed it.
It’s called The Loudness War: “the music industry’s tendency to record, produce, and broadcast music at progressively increasing levels of loudness to attempt to create a sound that stands out from others.” For the past few decades, mastering studios have been tasked with baselining singles and albums at ever increasing volumes in order to keep up with, and attempt to exceed, the efforts of competing artists and radio hits. Airplay is at stake, and sheer volume is seen as the easiest method to get to the top of the charts. (The hardest method, by the way, is to write pop songs that strike an an irresistable balance between catchyness and pretension, so as to straddle the teeny-bopper hunger for the hook and the more mature sensibility of nuanced and thought-provoking performances, all laced with passion and youth and drive. So, you have to admit, you can see the appeal of the easy out here…)
The problem is not merely the immaturity of watching rival companies spending time and money shouting their way out of an argument. The fact is, this Decibel Inflation has what most consider to be an unacceptable side-effect: distortion. As volumes are increased with each mastering and re-mastering session, you lose definition and contrast between the highs and lows. In effect, the lows become high and the highs become higher. So you’re left with a more one-dimensional result than is likely desired. As Bob Dylan lamented:
“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.”
The Loudness War’s collateral damage is dynamic range. Modern records are set in a world where there is little difference between black and white, red and yellow, green and purple. It is instead a compressed landscape of shades that lack distinction. Dark gray and pale gray, rose and salmon, jade and lavender… The Loudness War is the reason your older albums sound softer than the one you bought last year, and why classic records are constantly being remastered. The old standbys can’t keep up in the current marketplace without a little lift.
If you want to hear an example firsthand, check out this YouTube clip: The Loudness War.
Of course, the matter does come down to preference. Some argue that the louder baseline volume of current recordings are in keeping with the increased sources of noise occurring in daily life, and the prominence of music playback devices that let listeners bring their music outside into these noisy environments. This is in stark contrast to the listening of LP’s in a reverb-friendly and relatively quiet room.
Unfortunately there are no checks and balances here. I don’t know when the breaking point will be reached, but I hope it’s not our eardrums…