It’s hard to believe that in 2011 the loudness wars are still an issue. For the past decade or more, mastering engineers have been fighting against the race to 0dB (and beyond) in an effort to right the wrongs of the 90s. But records are still released that have had all the life compressed out of them. Why?
What are the ‘loudness wars’?
First a quick history lesson for those unfamiliar with the term. The ‘loudness wars’ refer to a trend in music mastering to consistently push recordings to be louder in order to compete with each other that emerged as a result of infinite ratio digital limiters. These limiters made it possible to continually push the level of the recording up without the associated clipping that would have occurred with analogue, or primitive digital limiters.
Misguided A&R executives pushed for louder and louder recordings to make songs stand out on the radio. Instead, these recordings just had the life squashed out of them as the result of hyper compression.
Why is this bad?
The sort of hyper-compression used in mastering this way removes any semblance of dynamic range from the recording and makes it a uniform ‘loud’ all the way through. This makes it fatiguing (and therefore unpleasant) to listen to and often ironically results in the track sounding less loud by turning it into the equivalent of sonic wallpaper. In particular, the bass drum loses its punch by not being any louder than the rest of the mix. Dynamics is a fundamental aspect of music, and this approach removes it.
Aren’t the loudness wars over?
There is a widespread view that the loudness wars are over, and to a certain extent they are. Technology has moved to a point where records simply cannot get any louder, and there is a much greater understanding of the drawbacks of this approach to mastering. Not least that it was misguided in the first place – radio stations apply their own compression to tracks to achieve a uniform volume, meaning that no matter how loud you pushed your own track, you aren’t going to be any louder than anything else. In fact, the less compressed your track, the better it will translate on radio.
However, there is still a hangover. Dance music in particular is particularly guilty of pursuing a uniform 0dB level to try and sound louder than all the other tracks in the club, and again, this is at the expense of dramatic rises and a punchy bass drum. Artists and A&R also often still chase the same loudness as the commercial recordings they grew up with, not realising that they were badly mastered as a result of the loudness wars.
What can be done?
The simple answer is education. Mastering engineers need to give clients a less compressed master and explain why pushing the level higher is not a good thing if they ask. The introduction of dedicated loudness meters may also help in this process by offering objective data for what is traditionally a subjective property (loudness).
Not only can listeners turn up their stereo, but with so much music being played on iPods and iTunes, a great deal of music is also automatically normalised for a uniform level anyway. There really is nothing to gain from pushing the level higher anymore.