The losers of the loudness wars

It’s been somewhat of a gradual process, but the average volume pressed on CDs has gotten louder and louder over the past 20 years. The casual listener might think this is a good thing, but it actually is not. Because people perceive something to “sound better” when played at a higher volume than the same thing played softly, commercial and other interests have driven what is called the “Loudness Wars“, i.e. the attempt to create CDs that are just a little bit louder than other CDs.

However, there is an upper ceiling to the volume of the music that is recorded to CD. Beyond this maximum level is distortion or noise. So mastering and mixing engineers employ the techniques of compression and limiting to get the perceived volume louder. But there IS a downside to compression, and that is the squishing or flattening of the music. Untrained ears can’t readily identify compression, but if you ever get the chance to go to a recording studio, or even experiment with a compressor on your home computer (through good speakers of course), you can learn to hear the effect of compression on music (a little bit or a severe amount). Listening to severely compressed music for more than a few minutes is also fatiguing on the ears. Our brains “expect” to hear sounds with dynamics.

Loudness and compression “works” for electronic styles of dance music and some other types of modern electronic music. Quality of sound is not the main concern, just a thumping bass and maximum volume.

When creating remixes for dance competition, you naturally want your songs and remixes to be as loud as all of the others. It feels awkward to have your song come onto the sound system at a volume much lower than the song before and the song after.

But you CAN take the loudness war too far in the dance competition world. My girlfriend chose a modern version of the jazz standard  “It Don’t Mean A Thing” for one of her soloists this season. The version she chose is by the Charlotte Swing Band. While this is a fantastic and exciting Big Band version of the song, this recording has been squashed to within an inch of its life in the attempt to get it as loud as possible on the CD.

Just last month, I witnessed something notable at a regional dance competition. I watched as the sound engineer reached for his volume control and TURN DOWN THE MAINS to the house sound system when this song started playing. He had not done so for any other song prior to it that day that I was aware of. Amazing to have witnessed the sound engineer do that since overall, the SPL (sound pressure level) to the house at the competition was quite high (loud) for the room.

Witnessing the sound engineer turn down the volume for this song has really stuck with me. While you want your songs to sound loud, there is a point at which trying to get it still louder will come back to bite you as it did here. I actually have since remixed this song for future competitions to bring the volume slightly lower than originally printed in the iTunes version. I also rolled off some of the very low end and some of the very high end, to try to bring it back to a more “normal” level. However, I can’t uncompress what has already been compressed. The compression level is so severe, it sounds as if it was being played through a television set. With a lot of brass, this severe compression gives the music a quality of something like what you would hear the Tonight Show band playing. Perhaps that’s what the mix and mastering engineers were going for.

Add me to the list of mix engineers who would like to see a return to lower volumes printed onto CDs (such as the K-meter system) so that the volume resides in the LISTENER’s control. If you want a song louder, don’t demand a louder CD, turn up the volume knob on YOUR system.

If you’ve got a song for dance competition that was recorded years and years ago, and you want to get it up to today’s normal loudness level, I can do that for you with professional results. Feel free to contact me for more information about that.

Here’s a great guide posted on YouTube that explains this phenomenon so that you can both hear and see what’s going on:

One thought on “The losers of the loudness wars

  1. Pingback: Clipping distortion « Squirrel Trench Audio

Leave a Reply

Your email address will not be published. Required fields are marked *