The loudness war


Dynamic range compression is used at almost every stage of the audio production chain. It is applied to minimise artifacts in recording (like variation in loudness as a vocalist moves towards or away from a microphone), to reduce masking and to bring different tracks into a comparable loudness range. Compression is also applied in mastering to make the recording sound ‘loud.’ since a loud recording will be more noticeable than a quiet one, and the listener will hear more of the full frequency range. This has resulted in a trend to more and more compression being applied, a ‘loudness war.’

Broadcasting also has its loudness wars. Dynamic range compression is applied in broadcasting to prevent drastic level changes from song to song, and to ensure compliance with standards regarding maximum broadcast levels. But competition for listeners between radio stations has resulted in a trend to very large amounts of compression being applied.

So a lot of recordings have been compressed to the point where dynamics are compromised, transients are squashed, clipping occurs and there can be significant distortion throughout. The end result is that many people think, compared to what they could have been, a lot of modern recordings sound terrible. And broadcast compression only adds to the problem.

Who is to blame? There is a belief among many that ‘loud sells records.’ This may not be true, but believing it encourages people to participate in the loudness war. And each individual may think that what they are doing is appropriate. Collectively, the musician who wants a loud recording, the record producer who wants a wall of sound, the engineers dealing with artifacts, the mastering engineers who prepare content for broadcast and the broadcasters themselves are all acting as soldiers in the loudness war.

The tide is turning

The loudness war may have reached its peak shortly after the start of the new millenium. Audiologists became concerned that the prolonged loudness of new albums might cause hearing damage. Musicians began highlighting the sound quality issue, and in 2006, Bob Dylan said, “… these modern records, they’re atrocious, they have sound all over them. There’s no definition of nothing, no vocal, no nothing, just like static. Even these songs probably sounded ten times better in the studio.” Also in 2006, a vice-president at a Sony Music subsidiary wrote an open letter decrying the loudness war, claiming that mastering engineers are being forced to make releases louder in order to get the attention of industry heads.

In 2008 Metallica released an album with tremendous compression, and hence clipping and lots of distortion. But a version without overuse of compression was included in downloadable content for a game, Guitar Hero III, and listeners all over noticed and complained about the difference. Again in 2008, Guns N’ Roses producers (including the band’s frontman Axl Rose) chose a version with minimal compression when offered three alternative mastered versions.

Recently, an annual Dynamic Range Day has been organised to raise awareness of the issue, and the nonprofit organization Turn Me Up! was created to promote recordings with more dynamic range.

The European Broadcasting Union addressed the broadcast loudness wars with EBU Recommendation R 128 and related documents that specify how loudness and loudness range can be measured in broadcast content, as well as recommending appropriate ranges for both.

Together, all these developments may go a long way to establishing a truce in the loudness war.