Loudness War

Top: Dynamic range. Bottom: Dynamic pain.note 

"I like my music like I like my life — everything louder than everything else."

Before we begin, this article isn't about cranking up your stereo; it's about the music itself and the media it's etched or printed onto.

Ever since the dawn of humanity, it's been a known fact that people respond more easily to louder audio stimuli. Thus the illusion that "LOUDER = BETTER". With the advent of music recording technology, the music industry sought to capitalize on this; if our album is louder than their album, and the listeners don't adjust their volume dials to compensate (or can't, if they're hearing it in a bar, a gramophone with no volume dial etc.), our album will sound better! But, they hit one tiny obstacle along the way: Vinyl records have an absolute limit on how loud they can be. The search for loudness became easier with the introduction of the compact disc in 1982, which besides a larger storage space also boasted an improved dynamic range (about 90 dB.)

Any recording medium has an absolute limit when it comes to amplitude, and compact discs are no exception. Once audio engineers managed to max out, the only solution to go even more Up to Eleven and out-loud those other CDs was to break out the dynamic range compression, which squashes every bit up to the same volume level, causing listener fatigue. The often-used analogy here is that of attempting to read a text written entirely in capitals with a huge font. In movies, Orange/Blue Contrast has a similar effect; since the contrast is pleasing to the eye, producers will push at as far as possible, often over-saturating the film in these colours and squashing out more subtle colours entirely.

Compression is not inherently bad. Used with a light touch, it "smooths out" recordings to remove unintentional volume spikes caused by random fluctuations during recording, or by layering the "loud moments" of two instrument tracks on top of each other (not unlike using sandpaper to minimize jagged edges on a wood carving). This can give an album a fuller sound and more consistent volume across tracks. But when taken too far (or simply done ineptly), it can result in severe clipping, unpleasant and harsh-sounding distortion that happens when the signal is pushed to the saturation point. It is important to distinguish between brickwalling, which simply removes dynamic range from music, and clipping, which actually introduces digital distortion into the signal by removing the peaks and troughs from a waveform. Another important thing to note is that compressing music from a lossless format such as CD or WAV to a format like MP3 or AAC (especially MP3) makes clipping even worse (hence Mastered for iTunes being meant to reduce clipping) due to the peak ranges of the signal being reduced and cut off. This is common with music that is not necessarily clipping in lossless formats but is still brickwalled. Despite this, AAC masks the artifacts of clipping almost perfectly while MP3 does not, even at the highest bit rate, which is one reason MP3 has a negative reputation among audiophiles.

The absolute peak of loudness started slowly creeping up in 1995, when Owen Morris mastered Oasis' (What's the Story) Morning Glory? to -8 dB RMS. Since then the tendency has been to make records louder. The resulting loudness war is due to a variety of factors, such as commercial concerns, stupid executives, following the leader or listeners / musicians who are unaware of this phenomenon, can't tell the difference and don't care, actually LIKE how it sounds, or are taking advantage of it for artistic purposes.

One of the most egregious aspects of the industry's reliance on increasing loudness is that hundreds of albums that originally had good dynamic range are now being "digitally remastered" with almost completely brickwalled peak levels.

By contrast, one of the sadder aspects that Nick Southall highlighted was the belief that if you master the songs loud, they'll be played more on the radio. It doesn't work like that: Radio stations (as well as TV stations) have their own compressors and equalisers to squash everything up to the same volume, with the result that any CD will get loudness war'd for broadcast and an already hyper-compressed CD will just sound like shit squared.

This is the main reason why people say vinyl records are "higher quality" (besides personal taste reasons such as the crackle and hum of records). The inherent quality of CDs is far better than records, but since "records are for audiophiles", there is far less incentive for audio engineers to trade-off quality for loudness on records. Additionally, vinyls have a smaller dynamic range, and any attempt to pull loudness war stunts on them will usually just throw off the needle or make them unplayable. The Irony in all this is that digital formats like the CD finally made it possible to make audio as quiet as you wanted without any analog hiss obscuring it, but with a lot of equipment out there accommodating the audio levels of the War, exploiting this quality will often make things simply too quiet to hear.

For further information, Imperfect Sound Forever is required reading. More information is available online, including these two videos that do a great job of providing abbreviated explanations. There's also a 20-page forum thread dedicated to poorly mastered albums for examples. See also this, to show things are more complicated than they seem. A website allows you to use offline software to measure the dynamic range of a CD, express it as a number and add it to its ever-growing database.

There are algorithms that can be used to repair clipped audio to a certain extent; none of them are perfect, but they will generally produce end results that sound better than the commercially released versions with clipping. More info on one of them is available here. (Note that the next page of the forum thread in this link contains rather disorganised information on Adobe Audition's declipper, which is much more sophisticated and produces much better-sounding results but does not have the benefit of being free software.)

(Alternatively, a quick, cheap partial solution, using a program like Nero Wave Editor, is to simply reduce the bass using the graphic equalizer, since bass-boosting is usually part of the loudness enhancement process. If done properly the bass-reduced version will sound only marginally 'thinner' than the original, while having more peak fluctuations; the "Normalize" function can also be used to adjust the volume of sections of the song, although care must be taken to avoid sudden jumps in volume between sections.)

One potential way to find non-loud versions of songs is that video clips posted to video services like YouTube often avoid the loudness issue as they are mastered separately. In many cases, versions of albums that are specially mastered for iTunes (which are often advertised as being such) also have more dynamic range (although frequently you can only buy these in lossy versions, which carry their own problems; fortunately, the compression algorithm used to sell iTunes music in .aac format is very, very good, to the point where many people will not be able to tell the difference from a lossless source). Failing that, people will Keep Circulating the Tapes of whichever version is the least clipped, or even look for places to rip masters from (full-band Rhythm Games are one source) so they can try their hand at mixing themselves.

When loud music is used as a weapon, that's Loud of War. Not to be confused with Lodoss War.

Examples

    open/close all folders 

     Compression for stylistic reasons 
  • One of the first examples is The Rolling Stones' single "Have You Seen Your Mother Baby, Standing In The Shadow". Although it's never been explained why, contemporary recording standards suggest that it must have been deliberate.
  • One of the most infamous examples is Iggy Pop's 1997 remaster of Raw Power by The Stooges, being constantly in the red and occasionally averaging -4 dBFS. The album was intended to sound loud, blunt, and unsubtle, but there's a difference between "exhilaratingly loud" and "headache-inducing, unlistenable sonic mess". Even his bandmates James Williamson and Ron Asheton think he fucked up horribly here. This is often cited as an example of an artistic use of the phenomenon, as Iggy Pop has been cited as saying he wanted to "recreate the feel of an old, worn-out vinyl". Given the overwhelming amount of crackling, distorted midrange on the disc, it's easy to say this goal was at least somewhat accomplished. However, given that the results often cause listener fatigue, most people wish he had used some other method of creating this feel.
    • There is hope, however: Sony released the "Master Edition" in April 2010 with the original David Bowie mix reinstated and slightly beefed-up to fix some of the valid criticisms of his original mix (inaudible bass and the like). It just might be the first step towards reversing the trend in general. Even better was a 2012 vinyl remaster, which is discussed further under "Aversions".
  • Strapping Young Lad invokes this for the sole purpose of creating a gigantic and unrelenting wall of sound. It's unpleasant, but that's the point. (Note that while all SYL CDs are horribly brickwalled, only Heavy as a Really Heavy Thing and The New Black are clipped). Averted somewhat on the vinyl editions, which are significantly quieter.
    • Devin Townsend's solo album Terria is notable for having a very compressed bass drum which gives the album a unique feel. Ironically, this is one of his quietest masters.
  • Many acts on Ed Banger Records, like Justice, SebastiAn and Vicarious Bliss, who use absurd amounts of compression to create a signature sound, and in Justice's case, using digital noise and clipping as an instrument.
  • Virtually any recent act that psych-rock producer David Fridmann has worked with, like The Flaming Lips, MGMT and Tame Impala. It can be traced back to MGMT's Oracular Spectacular: They asked Fridmann to turn up the gain to make it sound "dirty", turning "Kids" in particular from this to this.
    • In defense of Dave Fridmann, Kliph Scurlock, The Flaming Lips' drummer has this to say, implying that it's the bands who push for brickwalling instead of Fridmann himself (taken from this post):
    "I've seen things written here and there that it's all Dave and that he a 'habitual ruiner' of recordings, but I'll go on record right now as saying that Dave never tries to 'pull a fast one' over on bands and we know exactly how things sound when we leave his studio. In fact, he's fought for this song or that song to be quieter overall on more than one occasion."
  • The alternative rock band Sleigh Bells went for an intentionally compressed sound, although their guitarist Derek Miller later admitted that his own music's loudness was annoying to him.
  • Queens of the Stone Age's Songs For The Deaf. The entire album is supposed to sound like it's being listened to on a car stereo.
    • For the curious: album gain -10.88 dB. And Rated R two years earlier has an album gain of -9.92, which casts doubt on the "car stereo" theory.
      • This is likely due to the fact that Songs for the Deaf has an extremely dark, bass-heavy mix, and ReplayGain uses loudness contour analysis to determine how loud an album actually sounds vs. how loud it actually is. Lower-end frequencies don't trigger higher values nearly as much as upper-midrange signals—Songs for the Deaf is notably abundant in the former and lacking in the latter. Recent updates to the ReplayGain system have leveled out in this area, becoming closer to the absolute-volume RMS standard.
  • Intentionally invoked by a number of Noise and early Industrial artists, most notably by Whitehouse on Birthdeath Experience (1979) and Right To Kill (1984), on which everything is "in the red". Hell Is That Noise, indeed. Averted by legendary harsh-noise artist Merzbow, whose production tends to be frighteningly clear.
  • Neutral Milk Hotel's In the Aeroplane Over the Sea, inexplicably, is really badly clipped, especially considering it's a folk album. May be a side effect of the lo-fi aesthetic Jeff Mangum was going for (the band actually lists "white noise" as a musical instrument), but it's still really, really weird. Despite the fact that a rather substantial portion of the album is just acoustic guitar and voice, if you look at the zoomed-out waveform of the album there are almost no dynamics to be found.
  • Experimental hip-hop group Death Grips. Exmilitary, their debut album/mixtape has an album gain of -13.04dB. One song, "Spread Eagle Cross the Block", has an insane ReplayGain value of -14.64dB. No Love Deep Web, their third album also uses very heavy distortion but not quite to the extent of their debut (album gain of -11.62dB, the loudest song at -13.13dB). Their other album, The Money Store is still loud but not as loud as the other two.
    • They've also released the stems for Exmilitary on their website (as Black Google) to encourage remixing (with the side effect that people can make their own de-loudness war'd mixes) and released an "unmastered" version of The Money Store which is nowhere near as loud.
  • Japanese noise rock band Guitar Wolf intentionally try to be as loud as possible. You have been warned.
    • Incidentally, they apparently aren't too fond of the loudness war, because back when they started out, their music being as loud as it was made it pretty much unique, whereas now their music sounds almost normal. It's also worth noting that Jet Generation came with a sticker saying, "Warning: this is the loudest album ever recorded. Playing at normal volume may cause irreparable damage to stereo equipment. Use at your own risk."
  • Ulver's Black Metal album Nattens Madrigal has a ReplayGain value of -16.22 dB, which indicates a gigantic amount of volume compression (especially considering that there are probably five minutes' worth of ambient passages between the tracks dragging the values down somewhat). This was likely a deliberate aesthetic choice to make the album's production even colder. It's also worth noting that, while Nattens Madrigal is notorious for having horrible production (there is an Urban Legend that it was recorded in a forest, which the band has dismissed as impossible), the band took care to avoid any clipping when mastering it. Unfortunately, they were not as careful with the band's later album Blood Inside (recorded in a completely different style, as Ulver are wont to do), which is significantly less compressed but still has clipping. Most of the rest of Ulver's discography averts this trope, being mastered at more reasonable levels.
    • The remaster of Nattens on Trolsk Sortmetall averts this. Unfortunately, the version of Bergtatt on the same release is louder than the original.
  • Folk Metal band Moonsorrow consistently use compression and distortion to give a larger than life sound to their albums. This is most noticeable on their debut Suden Uni, their 2007 album V:Hävititty and their 2008 EP Tulimyrsky. The albums have been remastered and re-released on vinyl, where they are still clipped, but it's less severe/noticeable.
  • Frequently intentionally invoked by Hellektro bands such as Suicide Commando, whose Implements of Hell album is almost solidly brickwalled as well as having horrendous clipping on par with Death Magnetic.
  • Subverted with Rachael Please, whose tracks are ridiculously clipped in order to get the effect he wants.
  • Intentionally used by most dubstep artists, including Skrillex(except for the vinyls) and Bassnectar.
    Amusing casualties 
  • Because the dynamic range of most digital music is squeezed right near the top of the format's capacity, the available volume settings in many modern mobile devices such as the iPod are literally incapable of playing correctly recorded digital audio at the proper volume. This means that even with the internal amplifier at maximum volume through the included headset, what should be normal passages are quiet, and intended quiet passages are inaudibly soft.
    • It seems half the comments on the YouTube showing of Star Trek: The Original Series (only available to Americans) are about the advertisements being way, way, WAY louder than the low-levelled audio. Video advertisements being infamously louder than TV programs (with much of the same brickwalled audio quality that even the uninitiated can recognize as 'sounding like a commercial'), and the TV program being leveled at about what you might get in the 1960s (or maybe a DVD), suddenly the advertisements get perfectly normal people screaming to all-out boycott the products advertised.
      • This comes up in Australia every few months.
  • Recent NHL Hockey games have touted being able to import custom audio for use as in-game music or sound effects. Unfortunately, the pre-existing audio is amplified so much that the feature is nearly useless. While you can increase the game's music volume in order to hear the imported songs, not all of the pre-existing sounds can be replaced, meaning you run the risk of blowing out your eardrums.


Alternative Title(s):

Record Of Loudness War, Deaf Metal