Loudness Wars and the Victory of Dynamics

A long time ago in a mastering studio far, far away, an unknown engineer struck the first blow in what would later be known as The Loudness Wars: a decades-long struggle to create the loudest record possible. In the early 80s, producers and mastering engineers the world over became obsessed with literally pushing the limits of the newly-adopted medium of digital sound and compact discs, which allowed for far greater volume while still remaining "clean". Utilising extensive over-compression, stereo enhancement, and EQ tricks, the over-all volume of seemingly every record since has been raised to the borderline of distortion. And, in doing so, they've sacrificed a huge amount of dynamic depth and quality that would otherwise exist on these records; when you make all the loud parts as loud as possible, then proceed to make all the quiet parts just as loud as the loud parts, you end up with a very two-dimensional sounding song. Sure, it blows your head off when you play it, but where's the subtlety? Where's the music?

As you can see, each time a new mastering engineer has got their hands on this Michael Jackson number, they've cranked the over-all volume up another notch. Naturally, there is only so loud some parts can get without distorting. So, once that point is reached, it's a matter of playing catch-up with any and all vulnerable softer sections to make sure the average volume is more uniform and, in the eyes of those on the front line of the loudness war, "better".

However, those on the front line are always the most vulnerable to attack, and they have met strong opposition from many artists, producers, engineers, audiophiles, and fans regarding the pros and cons of endless volume boosting; Bob Dylan has said of the practice: "... There's sound all over them. There's no definition of anything..."; engineers like Geoff Emerick, Steve Hoffman, and Alan Parsons have all nailed the same colours to the mast; Steve Lukather of Toto has said he tries to avoid compression of any sort on his records, in order to maintain the dynamic integrity of the music. There's no denying there's a strong argument being made by some big names against loudness wars, and this is just the tip of the iceberg.

There's also no denying that a single person can do a lot of good, but if you've got an entire company backing your message, it can certainly make the whole process a lot easier. And, in a way, that's just what the likes of iTunes Radio, Spotify, and, most recently, YouTube have all done for the argument against perpetual volume increases in music mastering. They've done so by introducing "replay volume normalisation", which is just a fancy way of saying they're turning the volume down... On everything! These three music streaming giants have taken the opposite approach to the modern mastering engineer and they're bringing all the loud songs down to match the not-so-loud ones, which is how we used to experience new music when the only way to hear it was on the radio. You might argue that, by doing so, YouTube and iTunes are just as bad as those pesky engineers who want your ears to bleed; "YouTube want me to crank my own volume just to get the desired amount of ear-bleed during my favourite bass drop? How dare they!" And, in a way, you'd be right. However, what these streaming services are actually doing is slowly changing our perception of what we listen to.

Of course, volume normalisation does nothing to change the fact that a track has been mastered to be 100% loud 100% of the time, but if you're forced to listen to your favourite piece of highly-compressed, super-boosted electro-pop at a lower level, it won't be able to hide behind its bombastic volume; it will more clearly show up as the two-dimensional piece of music it was forced to be, void of dynamic depth. It's only going to be a matter of time before listeners get fed up and start to demand music with highs and lows, darkness and light, whether by listening instead to new music that has those elements, writing their own, or simply by avoiding over-mastered tracks. Sooner or later, the tables will turn and we'll begin back down Piano Forte Road, demanding music that can hold our attention with more than just bone-rattling bass and skull-cracking treble unavoidably battering us for four minutes a piece.

In this way, iTunes Radio, Spotify, and YouTube (arguably the most important in this battle, as it is the largest music streaming service in the world) have ended the loudness war. There will be no point in cranking your master to 11 if YouTube are going to turn it down to 6 anyway. Better find another way to grab your listeners' attention.