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The Loudness Wars

Even though I’ve been recording, mixing, and mastering music for about 10 years now I was not aware of the “loudness wars” until a few years ago and it wasn’t until last year that I committed myself to researching the issue in depth. I must admit that when someone first introduced me to the concept (a writer mind you, not a musician) my first response was, “What’s wrong with that?” Recordings have come a long way in the last 60 or so years especially in regard to clarity. Almost all of humankind’s endeavors progress over time, we’re always trying to improve (hopefully). I like most of today’s recordings in comparison to older ones: the noise floor is virtually non-existent, elements have much more clarity, and the music hits my car stereo’s 12” subwoofers hard!

Now that I’ve been doing a lot of mixing & mastering work in the past few years I’ve come to appreciate the opposition to the loudness wars. I think that the first problem comes from the label “loudness” itself, it’s a bit of a misnomer; the appropriate term should be “dynamics wars”. Today’s recordings have an extremely narrow window of dynamics—or the difference between the loudest and quietest parts—which makes the music ‘seem’ loud or louder (I frequently see EDM tracks with barely 3 dB dynamic range, shit, that’s loud!). As a musician I can appreciate the negative reactions to this practice. One of the marks of a great musician is their control over dynamics. Why? Because dynamics have direct affects on other musical phenomena such as phrasing, articulation, and blending with other musicians to name a few.

People against the practice of making music increasingly louder and louder claim that it’s destroying the music. In a way it is, it’s destroying the dynamics which are part of the components that make something ‘musical’. It would be like altering the melodies or chords of a song. But here’s where I have to jump off the train: you’ve already altered the music by the mere act of recording it. You know how much crazy stuff we have to do to record a sound so that it sounds as if we were there listening to it? Then there’s all the mixing & mastering that goes along to ‘correct’ the sound. In fact that’s where the term ‘EQ’ comes from, it means equalization because recorded sounds didn’t sound like proper representations of the real-world sound so they needed to be ‘equal’-led out.

Another thing to consider is the genre of music. Yes, Metallica’s Death Magnetic is loud. Way too loud. But the loudness here, to me, comes from the waveforms being pushed too hard rather than the dynamic range between the musicians being squished. Look, it’s metal, it’s supposed to be loud! Every single player is playing balls-to-the-wall loud without much regard to the volume of the other perfumers. This isn’t an orchestra here where the 2nd violins need to listen to the cello section playing the main theme so they have to play underneath them. No, it’s a metal band being as loud as they all can. Same goes for EDM, where do you think the tracks were meant to be performed? At a club with hundreds of people dancing, not a concert hall where the nosebleed seats need to hear the shading and nuances between flutes and clarinets.

Which leads me to yet another concept: not all genres of music rely on the interplay of dynamics. To force every recorded track to have a large dynamic range would be like forcing everyone to write songs using only a C# Hungarian minor scale. This is what makes the world of music so beautiful and interesting, every style and genre focuses on a set of musical phenomena (scale, key, rhythm, groove, harmony, et al.). Could you imagine if every musician consciously wrote music that utilized every single musical parameter? It would merely be a mental exercise. Dynamics are just one of many parameters than can be manipulated and organized in music.

In summation I think both sides have valid points, there exists a happy compromise somewhere in the middle. Most pop/rock music is generally loud to begin with. Rarely have I seen a live pop performance where the performers were using dynamic manipulation as a main musical element (as opposed to a jazz ensemble or symphony orchestra) so why mix and master an album with that in mind? Then again there is a point where a limited dynamic range is just fatiguing on the ear. This gray area between soft and loud is subjective hence all the fighting over loudness.
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