Loudness War
aka: Record Of Loudness War

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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, and how it can make the act of cranking up your stereo have no effect. This non-effect is called clipping and is usually a result of excessive loudness.

Also note that this article is extremely technical; the issues of loudness and clipping are generally only noticeable if you know what to look for and have really high-end audio equipment.

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! However, vinyl records suffer from physical limitationsnote  that necessarily limit the physical (and perceived) loudness of a record. The search for loudness became easier with the introduction of the compact disc in 1982; now working with a digital storage medium, sound engineers found themselves liberated from the former physical constraints on perceived loudness.

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.note  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. In fact, it is an essential part of the sound engineer's toolkit, used to level out inconsistent volume in a track.note  Furthermore, it can be used creatively to manipulate the sound of a single instrumentnote  or even a full mix, "gluing" the tracks together. However, if used ineptly, it can result in unpleasant changes like undesired pumping, outright distortion, or a more abstract loss of "life" or "impact".

It is important to distinguish between brickwall limiting, an extreme form of dynamic range compression that prevents the amplitude from exceeding a certain threshold, and digital 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 compressingnote  music to a lossy format like AAC or MP3 can introduce digital clipping through intersample peaks. This can introduce clipping to heavily brickwalled material that previously did not clip at all, and needless to say, makes already clipping material sound even worse. (MP3 is often considered to do a worse job compressing loud music than other lossy formats such as AAC and Ogg Vorbis do, which is one reason the format 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.note 

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. The existence of technologies such as ReplayGain and iTunes Radio's Sound Check additionally means that the volume of pieces played on internet radio is now frequently normalised to the same level, meaning that the only effect loudness war stunts will have on material played through these sources is making it less punchy. Mastering engineer Bob Katz' comments on this have been widely reported and discussed, and some sources believe that this will lead to less widespread use of the practice in future recordings. (Indeed, some studies have suggested that the trend has already waned, with the average loudness of commercial releases peaking in around 2005).

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, which actually serves to nullify the ability to pull off loudness war stunts, even though it seems counterintuitive that this would be the case. While it's commonly believed that it's impossible to press a low-dynamic-range master to vinyl, this isn't strictly true; however, the format's limitations are of average loudness (as contrasted with digital formats, whose limitations are of peak loudness), meaning that if you want to press a low-dynamic-range master to vinyl, you will need to lower the volume to do so. If you tried to press a DR3 recording with the same loudness as it would have on CD, it would usually just throw off the needle or make the record unplayable. Since loudness war stunts will have little to no effect on a vinyl record's average loudness, this reduces the incentive to pull off such stunts; a DR10 master would stand out over a DR3 one on vinyl even more than it would on other formats, meaning that the only incentive for labels to press loudness war masters to vinyl is simply being too lazy to master the album separately (which, unfortunately, still happens fairly often). The Irony in all this, of course, 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. Another potential quick solution is to run the song through a high pass filter, which mimics the effect of pressing an album to vinyl. A CD run through a high pass filter with the right settings will be virtually indistinguishable from a vinyl rip from a comparable-sounding master, and will wind up with substantially higher dynamic range than the original recording. Note that the clipping will still be present if either of these solutions are used; it will probably, however, be substantially less annoying.)

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 .m4a 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.

A note about the measurements often used in this article and its subcategories: Two frequently used measurements of a record's loudness are its ReplayGain score and its TT Dynamic Range Meter score (written like "DR10" or "DR5"). A large negative ReplayGain score indicates a very loud record. This isn't necessarily a guarantee that the record will be heavily compressed (nor is a smaller negative score or a positive score a guarantee that there will be no compression), but most of the time it is correlated with this trope. The Dynamic Range Meter score measures the dynamic range of the recording more directly, though CD and vinyl scores sourced from the same master can vary (vinyl scores tend to be higher due to the nature of the format). Generally, the higher the Dynamic Range Meter score, the more dynamic a recording is, though that doesn't necessarily mean it'll be free from other artefacts of the war such as clipping. (A DR5 recording might have been compressed with an algorithm that doesn't lead to clipping, for example, while a DR9 recording may still have clipped peaks). The only foolproof way to determine whether a recording is clipped is to look at the zoomed-in peaks yourself (and it is worth noting that the clipped peaks of a vinyl or cassette that was sourced from a clipped master will appear diagonal rather than horizontal due to the nature of analogue playback; many listeners have also noted that the effect sounds less harsh on analogue formats for the same reason). A database of TT Dynamic Range Meter logs can be found here, though it is not complete (feel free to send in your own logs if you like; the plug-in is available for foobar2000 here).

It may also be worth noting that, due to the general trend of increasing loudness of commercial releases over time, a release that would have qualified as an example of this trope in 1995 would not necessarily qualify as an example of this trope in 2005 or 2015 (unless it's by Oasis). Similarly, an album that would qualify as an aversion of this trope now would not have qualified as an aversion in 1995. An album that comes out to DR8 generally qualifies as good mastering by today's standards, but would not have been two decades ago. When looking at examples of this trope, it's probably worth noting that they're graded on a curve, so to speak.

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

Examples

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     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 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 signalsóSongs 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 (though see below).
  • 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. They have abandoned this with their latest album, Jumalten aika, which comes in at DR9 and sounds great.
  • 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.
  • While the production on Merzbow albums tends to be frighteningly clear, in the mid-90s he made what are quite possibly the two loudest albums ever in Venereology and Pulse Demon, whose dynamic range comes down to DR0 and which contain what is generally held to be the loudest track ever in "I Lead You Towards Glorious Times". Given that the majority of his releases are much more clearly mastered, it's safe to say this was intentional.
  • Venetian Snares & Speedranch's 2001 release Making Orange Things destroys the competition when it comes to brickwalling. One of the tracks, "Pay Me for Sex", has a ReplayGain of -19.92dB and is currently one of the least dynamic albums ever released according to the unofficial dynamic range database (a couple of Merzbow's mid-90s releases, discussed immediately above, are even lower). In fairness, this is very much an intended effect as the album is made up of very distorted synths and harsh noises.
  • New York-based Psychedelic Rock band The Psychic Paramount's CDs are generally some of the loudest ever. Gamelan into the Mink Supernatural is DR0 and only a shade quieter than Venereology (see a couple of entries above). Their other CDs aren't quite as loud, but still usually in the DR3-4 range (Origins and Primitives, which contains a number of acoustic tracks, is better, being overall DR6). As they are also a Noise Rock band, it's safe to say Artistic License probably applies.
  • Deliberate over-amplification is part of the voice treatment for the Daleks.

    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.
  • Grand Theft Auto V's Self Radio added in the PC version is badly wrecked by the game's horrendously compressed audio. Depending on the song, it can either be quiet to the point of being drowned out by engine noises or louder than the game itself!


Alternative Title(s): Record Of Loudness War, Deaf Metal

http://tvtropes.org/pmwiki/pmwiki.php/Main/LoudnessWar?from=Main.RecordOfLoudnessWar