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The Loudness War

By Steve Savage

In my last blog posting I wrote in defense of Auto-Tune. So if it’s not Auto-Tune, then what is wrong with pop? To the extent that technological capabilities have created a problem, it’s the loudness war that created it.

A brick wall limiter is the tool that makes digital audio files loud and in the process it can crush the dynamics and render the music lifeless. The effect is actually very powerful. When first hearing a piece of music with heavy brick wall limiting one is likely to say: “Wow!” It is powerful — heavy on the “wow factor” — but it’s not musical; it’s more like an assault. You may be impressed but you may not want to hear the music again or at least not very often.

Brick wall limiting is made possible by digital technology but the desire to make music louder has been around for much longer. The fact is (for complicated reasons and only up to a point) that louder always sounds better. Artists and record labels used to compete to make their vinyl LP’s louder than others. But with vinyl there is a technological limitation; if you make an LP too loud it skips, the needle can’t track the grooves. With digital music files we can push more and more of the sound up against the “wall” (digital zero, which is as loud as it can go). As we do so the music sounds louder and louder, and less and less musical.

Diagram showing the difference between Limiting, Hard Clipping and Soft Clipping by Iainf. Creative Commons License.

Metallica’s 2008 release Death Magnetic caused a furor because of the degree of brick wall limiting and over 13,000 fans signed a petition asking that the CD be remastered. Nonetheless, the album sold very well; “louder” does get your attention. Despite ongoing complaints from consumers and attempts to educate the public by concerned mastering engineers, there seems to be very little impetus to counter the continued trend toward massive brick wall limiting.

On a recent CD that I co-produced with the artist Bonnie Hayes, we put the following disclaimer on the jacket: “This record was mastered to sound good, not to be loud. It is up to you to turn it up!” Of course, I did apply some brick wall limiting, I just didn’t crush the life out of the music and you can play a record as loud as you want. But if a song with no brick wall limiting is in a playlist on an iPod, that recording will sound wimpy compared to the others.

So what’s the solution? Some people are saying that new consumer trends like Spotify will end the loudness war because the service compensates for variations in volume and removes the advantages of heavy brick wall limiting. It’s not clear if that’s true and services like Spotify aren’t yet dominant enough to change practices. In the meantime, popular music continues its losing battle with video games and other entertainments for the attention of the public. Even the mainstream press has taken note of the Loudness Wars, but no peace agreement is in sight.

Steve Savage is an expert in the art of digital audio technology and has been the primary engineer on seven records that received Grammy nominations (including Robert Cray, John Hammond Jr., The Gospel Hummingbirds and Elvin Bishop). He also teaches musicology at San Francisco State University. Savage holds a Ph.D. in music and has two current books that frame his work as a practitioner and as a researcher. The Art of Digital Audio Recording: A Practical Guide for Home and Studio from Oxford University Press is the result of 10 years of teaching music production and 20 years of making records. Bytes & Backbeats: Repurposing Music in the Digital Age from The University of Michigan Press uses his personal recording experiences to comment on the evolution of music in the computer age. Read Steve’s previous blog posts: “Why Auto-Tune is not ruining music” and “Is Lady Gaga an artist?”.

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Recent Comments

  1. Pennywhistler

    “The desire to make music louder has been around for much longer. The fact is (for complicated reasons and only up to a point) that louder always sounds better. Artists and record labels used to compete to make their vinyl LP’s louder than others.”

    You are confused. And you are confusing distinctly different things.

    1) With LPs the desire was to get the sound louder than the noise floor, but not so loud as to cause audio distortion and/or cause the needle to jump right out of the groove. This is very much like recording audio cassettes. A lot of audio manipulation was required – riding the faders and putting all bass instruments in the center of the stereo V-groove.

    There was no contest to see who could make LPs sound louder. None. Never. A Mahler symphony sounded about as loud as a solo lute LP.

    2) The FM Radio “Loudness Wars” were a result of a mistaken belief by radio programming consultants that listeners would turn their dial (!) from one end to the other, and stay with the loudest station.

    There never was any proof of this but, then again, there never was any proof that these few (and expensive) program consultants did anything but make pop music radio bland and identical-sounding nation-wide, starting in the 1970s.

    It’s why you don’t listen to pop music radio any more, unless you listen to “indie” stations.

    3) Highly compressed digital CDs are trying to break through the highly compressed audio sound these same program consultants forced every pop music station to employ.

    And we all know how awful THAT worked out.

    Notice that classical, jazz, folk and certain country-bluegrass labels and radio stations do not compress their signal … and sound so much better than pop CDs and stations. (Hip hop stations are generally an exception, as their music rarely derives from live sources.)

    4) Hard clipping is not compression and neither are brick-wall limiting. I presume you already know that.

  2. Pennywhistler

    Nothing I wrote in my other post implied that your article was not informative and accurate.

    All I was saying was that LP mastering, radio station compression and CD limiting are different issues with different histories.

    And don’t get me started on TV sound … and why commercials always sound louder than the surrounding program!

  3. Oisteink

    Consumer electronics vs hifi also comes into the equation. During the LP hightime most of peoples equipment was rather high quality, while during the later parts of the CD era, price have been more important. On cheap equipment loud music will sound “better”.

    *English is not my first language :)

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