If you ever thought that contemporary records sound much louder than the older ones, you are not mistaken at all!
The trend of increasing the amplitude of a track is what is called the loudness war.
While this tendency was already in use during the mastering process of 7” singles in the 1940s, it became almost a standard in music production throughout the 2000s, causing a lot of controversy and concerns among producers.
As we will highlight in a bit, increasing the loudness of a song could result in worse audio quality, although the technology now available presents a lot of aids in this sense.
How did the loudness war originate? And why did it become a trend? Is it positive or not for production quality? Let’s find out.
A bit of history
The advent of compact discs (CDs) resulted in bigger attention dedicated to loudness during the mastering process. This fresh technology allowed to widen the amplitude peak of a track through new signal processing techniques, such as compression and equalization.
However, the practice of increasing the loudness of a track was already in use when noisy bars and clubs featured jukeboxes with 7” vinyl records. This trend resulted in an inducted new need: to stand out, even on the radio or in the popular compilation albums that bloomed throughout the 60s and the 70s, songs had to be loud. That’s exactly how the war began: producers started pushing the volume of their tracks to make them shine and overshadow the other ones.
Fast forward to our hectic and competitive times: the loudness war seems to fit our context even better. We’ll find out more about how the loudness war affects our music consumption today in a bit.
Now let’s take just another tiny step back and see how the rise of CDs allowed producers to break the limitations imposed by the vinyl format and to increase the loudness of their tracks even more.
With digital recording processes, tools like compressors, limiters, equalizers, and so on made the loudness of a song potentially infinite. Of course, there is still a limit over which the sound is distorted, but the old boundaries are just a memory.
Compressors, more specifically, are tools designed to increase the amplitude of a track. The digital process to employ it, usually through a plugin, is straight-forward and easy to apply, so producers are even more encouraged to use it.
In the 80s and the early 90s, the average song would be at around -16.8 dBFS, but throughout the 90s the level often increased to -8 dBFS. Quite a rise!
The British band Oasis made massive use of compression techniques in their 1995 album (What’s the Story) Morning Glory? often indicated as the initiator of the loudness war.
A decade later, the legendary heavy metal band Metallica experienced quite a lot of troubles caused by the loudness war. Their 2008 Death Magnetic album was so loud it resulted in distortions and clippings (causing the anger of many fans).
Rumor has it that the tracks mastered for the videogame Guitar Hero sounded way better than the official CD!
In the same year, however, the trend started to reverse with Guns’n’Roses album Chinese Democracy, mastered with much less compression than other contemporaneous releases.
What is the current state of the loudness war?
We are experiencing another loudness war fought not just by music producers, but also by podcasters. “The louder, the better,” music and podcast producers seem to think, to stand out among the crowd.
Online platforms such as Amazon and Spotify have come up with specific requirements for audio files, often demanding an acceptable loudness level (now set to -14 LUFS, Loudness Unity Full Scale), but their attempt at uniforming the content they bare actually resulted in some tracks being made louder by their signal processing method.
Platforms such as Spotify drastically changed the way we consume music, shifting the attention from albums to playlists. Playlists often include singles by different artists and releases, resulting in a huge variety of mixing and mastering levels. For this reason, Spotify operates a Loudness Normalization on all the tracks it receives, trying to make their users’ listening experience as coherent as possible.
But why doesn’t louder equal better?
Lack of dynamics
One of the main issues with overly-compressed music lies in its lack of dynamics. When we increase loudness, we automatically cut out certain nuances in the mix. There is less definition and more…well, noise. The result could be a more static track, with no sense of motion or build-up. No punches, just a static noisy listening experience, could result in tired ears and unhappy listeners. Over-compressed music often feels dull, motionless, without emotions.
What happened to Metallica in 2008 is not that crazy. Over-compression could result in distortions and clippings, causing a severe and tangible decrease in audio quality.
The use of powerful limiters and other plugins can solve this problem, but often sacrificing dynamics even more.
What’s the solution?
The solution to this problem is quite straight-forward: we should stop producing loud, over-compressed music in the attempt of standing out.
As artists, we should make our music shine because of its dynamical range and motion. Not because of its loudness.
As listeners, we should demand our right to a pleasant listening experience, keeping in mind that less (loud) is more!