How To Win the Loudness War

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Even in the most extreme examples, other factors are just as important. Anyone who can stomach the assault is welcome to listen to both versions of Iggy and the StoogesRaw Power and discover that for themselves. The original, mixed in 1973 by David Bowie, has an admirable rating of 11DR, while the reissue, mixed in 1997 by Iggy Pop, has the worst-possible score of 1DR.

Listening to both at the same volume, I’d be hard-pressed to tell you which one sounds “better”. I love the Stooges, but the honest truth is that both versions of Raw Power sound pretty damn terrible — each in its own special way, of course. With music like this, that’s sometimes part of the appeal.

Albums with identical DR ratings can vary wildly in fidelity as well. Electric Warrior by T. Rex with its 12DR sounds miles more hi-fi than Cream‘s Disralei Gears at the same rating.

This also holds true for RHCP‘s hefty-sounding Californication and Sleigh Bells‘ purposefully blown-out Treats, both of which clock in at 4DR. Likewise, My Bloody Valentine‘s Loveless has no trouble sounding hyper-saturated and intentionally clipped at around 10DR, while Norah JonesCome Away With Me sounds like satin sheets in the breeze at about the same ranking.

In fact, I had trouble finding many pop albums that should be worth listening to according to the Dynamic Range Database. Any rating in their system under 9DR is marked “bad”, and even Dark Side of the Moon with its album average of 10DR is labeled “transitional”.

The first records I found that earned a “good” ranking from the DRDB came from the catalog of the classic 70s krautrock band Neu!. They had impressive DR ratings of 14-17.

I love Neu!, but most listeners would wonder why their records sound so quiet, and so… unmixed. If you’re new to recording and want to hear what drums and piano sound like when they’re tracked plainly, conservatively, and then left completely untouched, pick up a Neu! record. It’s a good learning experience.

The only other major popular record I could readily find with a “good” DR rating was Steely Dan’s Aja. It had intimidating scores of 15 and up.

I’ll admit that Aja is good for what it is, but if you find an engineer who wants to make your record sound just like it, he probably arrives at the studio wearing a gray, thinning pony-tail and a polyester polo-shirt proudly embroidered with the words “Out-of-Touch”.

It may sound “perfect”, but c’mon – even Donald Fagen needs to make excuses for Aja.

The Solution

There’s only one way to win the loudness war, and that’s to sidestep it. Luckily, the deck is now stacked to encourage just that.

By default, today’s most popular streaming services like Spotify and Pandora now level-match all of their music for perceived loudness. And, as volume disparities between releases continue to grow, iTunes users have increasingly decided to enable Apple’s “Sound Check” feature. It brings this same loudness-matching functionality to iPods, iPhones, and personal music libraries.

Despite a few paranoid and inaccurate claims on internet message boards, normalization features like MP3 replay gain and Apple’s Sound Check esentially even-out loudness transparently, without the heavy-handed compression and compromising artifacts of the radio age. More often than not, the loudest tracks are simply turned down, and suffer no degrading effects. Some advocates are even working at convincing Apple to enable Sound Check by default, potentially improving the listening experience of millions of users.

All of this means that loudness is quickly becoming irrelevant, which is what prompted mastering engineer Greg Reierson to prophesize that “The Loudness War is Over” this time last year.

Despite complaints to the contrary, that’s already becoming true. Future listeners are likely to hear squashed music and dynamic music on a level playing-field for what could be the first time in history. In many genres, especially jazz, classical, folk, and organic rock music, more conservative compression and limiting at the mixing and mastering stages can have a positive effect on power, impact, emotional nuance and tone.

In other styles, expect old habits to die hard. As perceived loudness has risen to near-binary levels, music has morphed and adapted in response to technology.

Loud as a Lifestyle

David Byrne of the Talking Heads has explored the idea that live music adapts to the spaces in which it’s performed. The same holds true of our playback systems.

Indie rock artists like St. Vincent, Blonde Redhead and Modest Mouse have all taken cues from non-dynamic styles like dance and electronica to focus on the addition and subtraction of musical elements rather than on the nuances of dynamic expression.

Meanwhile, hip hop artists like Kanye West have used clipping and extreme limiting as statements of identity and defiance, as much as for those tools’ ability to increase volume in relation to other tracks. In these ways, the dynamic manipulation of sound and the tone of these tools have become an inseparable part of creative expression.

Just as it would be unwise to peak-limit Miles Davis’ Sketches of Spain to the level of Blonde Redhead’s Misery is a Butterfly, a song like “Hey Ya” would never work with the dynamic range of “Stairway to Heaven”.

Anything can be done well or badly, and in art, that distinction lies in the ear of the beholder. Depending on the circumstances, clipping and extreme limiting can be a tacky and counter-productive commercial choice (like on Metallica’s Death Magnetic) or an exciting and novel artistic angle (as in Deerhoof’s Apple O’).

The End of an Era

Listeners have always turned down music to their preferred level when it’s too loud. Now, technology is beginning to do this preemptively and without ill effects.

In a future where hot tracks and quiet ones are routinely heard at the same average loudness, it may be the music with the most dynamic variation that jumps out from the speakers to strike listeners as the most novel and exciting.

Although we’ve focused on cases where audible compression, heavy limiting and even clipping are aesthetic choices, loudness critics are right to point out that in some music, these effects are merely the unfortunate byproducts of a misguided desire to compete with the kids. Sometimes, ‘intent’ is all that separates a bold artistic choice from an unfortunate error in judgment.

Like it or not, what reverb was in the 80s and compression was in the 90s, limiting has been in the 00’s. We can look forward to it coming in and out of style for generations.

I know that whether I listen to the Flaming Lips’ peak-limited masterpiece, Yoshimi, at full blast or a dull roar, it has no effect on its ability to give me goosebumps. Even with all the headroom in the world, I wouldn’t change a thing about it.

Justin Colletti is a mastering engineer and managing editor of SonicScoop.

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  • Just this past AES show, at a panel with the mastering engineers, it was Tom Coyne who said it best. Just within weeks of release, after he had tastefully mastered the first release of a new artist, and had the record label sign off on it, someone from that label caved under the “loudness wars” pressure. He was advised to bring the levels up, and then had to have an assistant correct for all the “overs” that were subsequently created. He finally got the label’s approval for release again. This artist goes by the name of Adele.

  • No, whether a recording is slammed or not doesn’t determine whether it sounds good. But the exact same recording with peaks left intact would absolutely sound better. It’s easy to compare slammed re-releases and see which sound better. It’s nearly always the original unless the original release was flawed in some way.

    If peak limiting was a desirable sound rather than just a way to bring up levels, then why do all vinyl releases not have peak limiting?

  • FlameBait

    This appears to be correct. Thanks for the heads-up, Mr. Sears.

  • FlameBait

    I refuse to pay for overmodulated music. I use the Dynamic Range Database as my guide.

    To clarify: I may enjoy this new song. I may stream it. I may put it in my YouTube playlist. I may use a device, scheme, process, or app to acquire my own digital copy/version of this new song. But I will *not* pay for it if the final production causes me ear fatigue. (Are you reading this, Daft Punk?)

    So if you want me to transfer some of my income, to your account… clean it up. Now.

  • FlameBait

    Sadly, Mr. Coyne has left us. Quality-minded music aficionados will have to find more working sound engineers to take a stand against brickwalling.