Loudness War? Or Contest – March 2009 revisit
Updated: Apr 17, 2018
Below is a 2009 post on an aspect of "The Loudness Wars." #theloudnesswars
Certainly the previous post of meaning and subjective bias ties in with the perception of
Originally published March 4th, 2009
Yes, #loudness contest, not war. Where’s the war really? There are many people who want their music mastered loudly and there are some who don’t. There isn’t so much a war but a contest between those who want their music LOUD. There’s been really no effort to deter the propagators of loudness in the industry. I’m not referring to normalization or replay gains (2017 update: see #iTunes standards). Those kinds of things don’t get to the psychological level in questioning loudness in audio. They just tell humans “don’t do it that way do it our way.” What impact or deterrence did one really make by doing that? Many people still want LOUD and more importantly many people don’t understand that actually LOUD isn’t necessarily the best sounding one. By the way #Metallica’s “#Death #Magnetic” isn’t the start of it either but nevertheless anything they do stands out and is highly influential. And that’s my point here, leveraging the listeners values through influential models and educating them on what good audio really is. Also, my intent is not to blame solely #mastering engineers. Mixing has just as much responsibility, especially with the accessibility of tools that allow volume maximization.
Processing for loudness is the issue. When you maximize volume for” digital 0,” whether in mixing or mastering, that is the “loudness” we refer to when we talk about so-called loudness wars. It’s what the process of achieving loudness does to the fidelity of program material. “Loudness” itself is relative anyway. We can pretty much control the loudness of a musical track on the playback medium of preference with true volume. If you want to listen to something loud, turn the volume knob up! And if you want to listen to it not as loud, turn it down, naturally. Control playback system loudness is not the same thing and is mostly harmless versus maximization for “digital 0.” The idea of songs of different mixes/masters in contention for that aspect of loudness is just silly. I’m afraid the “personal player” culture has some hand in it. If we all know for the most part that our music is on the front lines competing with some other track from some other album before and after it, the strive in being mindful of that contention, to make it louder be it through mixing or mastering or both, transgresses the initial purpose: that is, creating music, being music, and being musical. Striving for loudness has nothing to do with music only bombastic-ism.
I mean really, the term should be “trashing” perhaps and not “loudness maximizing”. I’ve heard plenty of lively, bold, warm, full, colorful, dynamic, snappy, dimensional tracks that were also made plenty loud. That is, it was taken to a point of stress (perhaps one could call it bestowing character or color) upon the audio and perhaps backed away just enough to retain all of the good aforementioned things; to retain the MUSIC. So I’m not saying we shouldn’t process to be loud relative to what one starts with. There is good that comes out of that stage of making a master louder. There is a certain tension, energy, and vibe when the mix is being pushed. But there is also that line drawn in the sand where one should back off as to not ruin the mix. We’re talking having the best of both worlds here. A sense of being driven, having the loudness but also protecting the music. We’re talking a fundamental backing down of at least 3 – 6 dB off of that mixed stereo track – at the very least! Making that the new “0;" the new ceiling, will be the start of giving us our music back but still keeping to a modern effort (striving for some appropriate degree of inducting loudness) that should have stopped itself at a certain point of loudness perhaps about a decade ago. This signifies some kind of standard to be implemented. But we’re still missing the incentive to adhere to such a standard.
While there are short quips and sometimes diatribes and opinions by professionals and audio enthusiasts as to a scientific “what” when it comes to understanding what is and has happened to music, crest factor, dynamic range and the like for the sake of loudness, I’d like to state here perhaps a psychological “why”. As in, why loudness became so important and ultimately such a pertinent goal at the end of the whole process of creating an album. In short one could say competition. That is the obvious idea. What is perhaps not so obvious is the degree to which we consider ourselves competitive. We altogether overlook the very visceral level of what we value or what’s considered valuable.
In any endeavor, one could look at its inception, its development, and its apexes and find a similar cycle. Initially, there is a genuine interest for the endeavor in and of itself. There is a child-like curiosity, passion, and thirst in attaining knowledge about it and further developing it. As time passes others embrace the very same thing creating connection and maybe camaraderie. Then as more time passes and the aspect of its techniques and methods are brought more into light, the next level naturally is putting ideas into action. Now one guy does something good, another does it “better.” A sense of competition arises. And at the crux of our nature, our visceral sense of competition takes over. Refinement and nuance is done away with for a more brute force. This sense of competition is always lurking. Either for the sake of extreme difference because “it can be done” or to stand out. It’s what has happened to the audio world. The innocence in making nice sounding music has been supplanted by the competition for loudness. The next level fad supersedes the initial pursuit. Who can deny that “our period of time,” from the late 90’s into the 2000’s, was and is not an apex for the audio world as well? Again not to say it’s the only one, but certainly a significant time indeed. More significant in the sense of heightened awareness of audio, the increased accessibility to the craft’s techniques and methods and also a whole new perspective that can emulate the perspective of yesteryear! And not to mention more ways to mess music up! It was the birth of the digital domain. At the apex of an endeavor there is a need for “more” but unfortunately what we turn to is not more of a good thing but more of pushing boundaries at the expense of aesthetics. Just some extreme to constitute “more”, suffices. It is what has happened to audio after all. Where is the respect for it? If one wants to destroy transients, distort music (without regard to aesthetic intent), squash it, level it, 2-d it, suffocate it, weaken it, smash it, destroy dynamics within it (all of these characteristics of course contingent upon how it sounds ultimately), then what kind of respect is left for it really? At our particular apex we have the loudness contest. “Joe Schmoe made it THIS loud, I have to make it louder” says the brazen will imposing itself. In the interim, enter music executives and/or producers, A & R people, those who are not necessarily the artists in other words. They just add more fuel to the fire. You see, the brute has taken over at this point. Compete for “more” i.e loudness. The initial interest and passion has been replaced with an animal and brute drive. Of course the competitive spirit floats between these drives. In the effort to understand the craft initially, the competitive drive supported and sublimated audio and music. Eventually when that effort becomes yesterday’s news and a new goal is set, it happened to be for loudness. This brute effort contains the competitive spirit but for different ends. For, music delivered as an artist’s message is an aesthetic one. But competition is not bound by that taste, it can take up a more base pursuit so long as it allows to thwart itself into “winning.” Like anything else, it’s the application of a drive that makes it bad or good. Loudness is a part of music, not an absolute and static element of it. Therefore, once again, any attempts at focusing on loudness for the sake of loudness are idiocies. Competitive yet idiotic. After the competition of aesthetics is pursued for some time, something either replaces that contest or supplements it. Loudness was what was left after aesthetics and unfortunately that’s what in part drives the competition.
Why does loudness attract people? Well usually, in an A/B listen the minion of loudness is trying to win the crowd over with the louder track. So it’s a matter of maybe 5 – 6 seconds of listening and switching to the competing track. Back and forth, back and forth and the louder one comes out on top. Okay, why? Well, this kind of comparing is first of all, not musical. Secondly, who truly listens to music in second spurts? What takes over then if not the musical ear? The combative ear! And what is the combative ear looking for? The biggest BOOM! he or she can get in that short duration. Just like in war, the bomb with the biggest boom, explosion, and destruction is the most brutal and combative weapon. It is awe-inspiring; mind blowing; unbelievable BUT has nothing to do with music. They are explosion lovers, nothing more.
My opinion is this contest of loudness could end once people understand why they want to make things loud, a more psychological “why.” Once you understand that, you could feel quite foolish. Once that’s understood, people of influence could set examples, be models of what “good audio” is and scoff at ridiculous attempts at extreme loudness. Humiliation for the greater good. Education and shedding light on the reality of LOUD masters not actually sounding better than their more dynamic counterparts is also a huge eye [ear] opener. Once the awareness of the dumb brute force and base competition aspect of it is revealed, one can instigate competition in the opposite direction. Who knows, maybe “The Good Sounding Masters with Dynamics and Fullness Contest” could begin. #dynamicrange