Recorded music has been getting louder over for the past few decades. So much louder in fact, that everyday-listeners have begun to hear about it in general-interest papers like the Wall Street Journal, the Atlantic, the Huffington Post, and even the New York Times.
As records have increased in average level, so has the chatter surrounding these “loudness wars”. In some online communities, a shamelessly “hot” master is seen as a crime against fans. Some of the most zealous critics have even taken to publicly shaming mastering engineers or petitioning record labels to remix entire albums.
It’s easy to scapegoat the mastering engineers who oversee the final level of each album but in reality, mastering is a client service, and the engineer is only one voice among many. Somewhere along the way, “loud” has morphed to become more than a level — It’s now an aesthetic choice of its own, and has even transcended perceived volume.
This development has made arguments on both sides pretty messy, but the real solution remains simple. More on that later.
The Crusaders of Quiet
Ian Shepherd writes for the audio blog productionadvice.co.uk, and his most visible public role has been as a crusader for dynamic range.
Like many mastering engineers, Shepherd warns that when aggressive compression and peak-limiting are used to make tracks sound louder, it can also sap them of their life by flattening sounds, compromising musical dynamics, and introducing unwanted clipping.
He isn’t single-minded about the issue, and agrees that limiters and compressors can be used skillfully to improve “punch” and “impact”. To that end, he recommends that musicians and engineers learn to use specialized loudness meters to help them make more sensible masters.
These loudness meters allow users to measure the amount of dynamic range in their tracks, and compare it to the ratings of popular albums in the Dynamic Range Database. Shepherd recommends aiming for a minimum of at least 8db, and hopefully as much as 14db, of “DR”.
Shepherd has even created a public awareness event called Dynamic Range Day, which celebrated its third anniversary on March 16th. This year, he was joined by grammy-winning engineer Charles Dye, musician John Ralston, and production blogger Allen Wagner who helped advance the cause.
These three are the founders of TurnMeUp.org, a non-profit out to set new standards in dynamics. They aim to create a certification process for artists who want to sidestep the loudness wars altogether and bear the “Turn Me Up” badge on their releases.
The organization has been active since at least 2007, but still has yet to certify any albums. It currently remains stalled in talks regarding what objective standards of loudness and dynamic range to adopt.
Deciding on hard-and-fast standards may be difficult for a few reasons:
First, there are some some inconsistencies in the DR ratings themselves. Some mind-bogglingly loud and peak-limited records by dance artists like Daft Punk and Skrillex often show a higher dynamic range than expected, thanks to their use of sparse, percussive arrangements and creatively-placed drop-outs.
Second, in all but the most extreme cases, it can be difficult to find direct correlations between DR numbers and perceived audio fidelity. We’ll explore that in a moment.
And third, although founding member Charles Dye is fairly conservative with loudness and dynamic range, some of his work, like his mixes for Ricky Martin, would fail to pass even Shepherd’s lenient standards of a minimum 8db/DR.
Once the group does get their standards sorted out, there’s still a chance they may have trouble gaining steam, as new trends in listener playback are already working to make their solution less relevant. As one mastering engineer and Mix Magazine contributor wrote, the loudness war may even already be “over.”
The Evolution of Ear-Splitting
The loudness wars have been around almost as long as recorded music. In the days of jukeboxes, artists and labels wanted their records to stand out among the other 78s, and engineers of the era pushed the medium to its very limit.
Motown in particular was renowned for putting out hotter records with each release in an effort to make home stereos scream. In the process, the tools they used to do so became an inseparable part of the sound and language of recorded popular music.
When the CD was introduced in 1982, some hoped it would bring dynamics back to music, but all it really did was give tonophiles a new threshold. 30 years later, we’ve finally found the point of total saturation.
For all the hand-wringing, average levels on CD have effectively peaked in recent years. Like many others, I believe that there’s only one place left to go – and that’s back down. But it’s important to realize that it won’t be that way for all of us. And it won’t happen all at once.
The Changing Language of Music
Music is a language, and artificial effects are its buzzwords and slang. They’re once-meaningless sounds that can say a lot – often about where you come from and who you relate to.
Heavy compression, limiting, and even pumping and clipping may have once been accidental side-effects of some kind of loudness war, but today they’re part of the musical vernacular.
Audio engineers talk a lot about the loudness wars of the recording industry, but we often forget that there was once a parallel set of “wars” between radio stations. The battles on that front may have been key in helping to prepare listeners for the most radical changes to come in the recording industry.
In the last quarter of the 20th century, radio stations continuously upped the ante – far ahead of the recording industry – by using heavy-handed compression and limiting to to help their broadcasts jump out on the dial.
As young listeners (now accustomed to the sound of heavy compression on the air) grew up to make music of their own, songs just didn’t sound like hits until they could match the sense-memories of their favorite music on the radio. A similar acclimation likely occurred again with the next generation, raised on the hot CD and MP3 libraries of their big brothers and sisters.
Peak-limiting is a sound that’s now considered normal, and has even become expected in many circles. Although though Charles Dye’s work with Ricky Martin makes significant use of compression and limiting (and would fail even Shepherd’s dynamic range criteria) it’s easy to admit that those songs sound exactly how they’re supposed to.
What’s interesting is to realize that the same holds true for many records that sound significantly louder and more aggressively clipped.
Settling on Standards
Guidelines can be helpful, but in practice it’s often difficult to draw a direct correlation between dynamic range and perceived sound quality.
When Sonic Youth‘s Rather Ripped was released in 2006, it was praised for its “hi-fi” and “punchy” sound — even though the Dynamic Range Database gives it a “bad” rating of 7DR. I don’t know of many SY fans who would use those two adjectives to describe the band’s 1987 album, Sister, even with its DR rating of 11.
Similarly, few listeners would argue that early Flaming Lips records like Clouds Taste Metallic (9DR) and Transmissions from the Satellite Heart (10DR) sound “better” than their later classics, Soft Bulletin (6DR) and Yoshimi Battles the Pink Robots (5DR).
The latter two are albums that sound loud, slammed, and beautiful. On Yoshimi, producer Dave Fridmann uses aggressive compression and peak limiting to drive some sounds to the point of intentional clipping and distortion. With a well-crafted album like this one, it becomes clear that — in at least some cases — records aren’t “clipped because they’re loud”; They’re loud because they’re clipped.
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 Stooges‘ Raw 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.
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 Jones‘ Come 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.
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.