What we Lost in the Loudness War

Loudness is not volume, the listener does not control control it. Loudness is hard to explain, but it’s sort of just the “amount” of music on a recording medium or, these days, in a digital file or stream. More music is better. Yes, up to a point. The mid 1990’s were the beginning of what recording engineers started calling The Loudness War. New digital recording technologies coupled with the compact disc format made it the war possible. Trends in the recording industry made it inevitable. The Loudness War was not without casualties. A key characteristic of what makes music music fell victim to the loudness war.

This video explains it much better in two minutes than I could and the difference between a pre-war and post-war mix is quite clear even on laptop speakers.

It’s horrifying. And there really were entire albums released with this style of mix. Dynamic range is part of where music lives, it’s part of what makes it music. And so much of it was lost. Please take a moment of silence (and what could be more appropriate?) to mourn the fallen.

Technology and the Loudness Skirmishes: 

The vinyl-heads and anti-digital kooks claim that narrow dynamic range is inherent to CD’s and digital music. This is incorrect because one of the key features designed into the CD digital format was a wider dynamic range than was possible in earlier formats. Only a small part of this range came from the high end above what was possible to put on tape and vinyl. Most of it came from the low volume end. CD’s had no surface noise or tape hiss.

The CD-bashers also don’t know that there were minor loudness skirmishes long before CD’s were dreamed of. These skirmishes were influenced by how and where people listened to recorded music. The jukebox started the first skirmish in the late forties to early sixties. Suppose you are a kid at Arnold’s. You put some dimes in the jukebox and select five songs. One of these five songs stands out over the other four. The Fonz notices and says “Aaaaay”.  Record companies soon reach the limits of what can be put on the vinyl with minimal losses. Loudness scores a victory which is later reenforced by automated sound level adjustment systems that appeared at radio stations in the sixties. Your record may not sound its best if you mix it to match radio standards, but it might sound worse compared to other songs if you don’t try.

Wide dynamic range and low loudness made headway against loudness in the seventies and eighties. Prices dropped for high quality amplifiers and speakers. Home stereo equipment became a status symbol available even to the working class. And there was Disco, you can’t dance to music that doesn’t command attention with a crisp and strong beat. Engineers asserted themselves as artists, and many musicians loved it. Mick Fleetwood and John McVie want to be heard, and any mix that brings out their individual styles will make Stevie a star. We would have overlooked her talent otherwise.

Loudness Strikes Back when Frequency Range is Diminished: 

Loudness started creeping back in the mid 80’s. I think this was in part due to the Sony Walkman. As bassist John McVie demonstrated in the seventies, the low frequency range benefits from wide dynamic range and big speakers. You can’t hear these differences in technique and skill on a Walkman. Loudness began to return. I credit Melissa Etheridge’s 1988 debut album with staving off the Loudness War for a few years. Its hastily rerecorded and remixed tracks that just barely made her deadline with Island records influenced engineers and helped keep dynamic range alive during the transition to the CD format.

It didn’t last. The full on Loudness War that started seems to have been driven largely by record companies who wanted to take the new technology “up to eleven”.

Can the Fallen be Brought Back to Life? 

Perhaps they can, but the old masters are still falling. I strongly recommend against listening to a remastered “anniversary” edition of a classic album from before 1995

But there has been a resistance to the forces of loudness for years now. I would like to think it’s the result of the revolt of the engineers prompted by the above video, or the “digitally demasterd” reissue of Vapor Trails, but as usual, new technology and commerce have tipped the balance away away from loudness and wide dynamic range reasserts itself.

This has allowed the dead to come back to life. The maker of the first video in this post compares the original 2004 Green Day release to the 2012 remix in this video. The difference is clear even on laptop speakers. When I replayed it through an amp and decent speakers, the results were goosebumps as the video said:

I really did want to love American Idiot back in 2004. It was the only full length antiwar album that year. Green Day took a big risk and I wanted it to succeed, but I thought it sounded sloppy, like a band riding on the coattails of previous success. I was wrong. they wrote well and worked hard. I plan on paying money for this “demastered” edition.

Has Loudness been Defeated?

Not by a long shot. As long as earbuds, small speakers, and low wattage prevail, loudness will rule. However, I have been impressed with some of the phone and pod dock systems coming out. Some of them have impressive frequency and dynamic performance for systems of their power and size. We could be poised for a dynamic range renaissance.

I don’t have a lot of recording or mixing experience, but I do have quite a lot of experience with live soundboards. If you have questions or complaints about your musical experiences, please comment.



2 thoughts on “What we Lost in the Loudness War

  1. Huh. I thought they had different mixes for radio and cds. Certainly there’ve been times in the car I was all in a rush to turn down the radio — turned up to overcome road noise — when the LOUD part of a song I was familiar with came on, only to find it wasn’t actually that loud. Foo Fighters’ Pretender comes to mind, though, and they probably have the money to do what they want.

    You should be a fan of PJ Harvey though. Even in the nineties she was the rock queen of dynamic range.

    Liked by 1 person

  2. Thanks for your comment. I dusted off my old Rid of Me CD, and yes, it’s a lovely mix. It’s from before the Loudness War though. I’ll have to listen carefully to more of her more recent music to here how the mixes are.

    You are correct that there are sometimes different mixes for radio, but some of what you noticed in your car was the radio station adding a bit of compression to the dynamic range. In the case of the Foo Fighters, I think the fault was in the mix since it came out in 2007 during the era of peak loudness.


Leave a Reply

Fill in your details below or click an icon to log in:

WordPress.com Logo

You are commenting using your WordPress.com account. Log Out /  Change )

Google+ photo

You are commenting using your Google+ account. Log Out /  Change )

Twitter picture

You are commenting using your Twitter account. Log Out /  Change )

Facebook photo

You are commenting using your Facebook account. Log Out /  Change )


Connecting to %s