Friday, January 30, 2009

The Loudness War

Hi Everyone,

I neglected to properly introduce myself in my previous blog entry, so I figured I'd do so here. I'm Dr. Something, or Alison. Feel free to address me as either. I'd like to thank Goldie and the rest of the Crappy Indie crew for welcoming me into this prestigious fold. I'm very excited about adding my typewritten voice to this web publication.

So... onto an aesthetic discussion I've previously thought about bringing up in an online music forum, namely The Loudness War™.

This term refers to a trend in music mastering, wherein engineers use a shitload of compression in order to up the entire volume level of a recording and make it "stand out" among other recordings. While this process increases the overall volume level and "punch" of recordings, it also decreases the dynamic level, The quietest moments become considerably louder, while the loudest are bound by the physical limitations of the medium (there's about a 50dB range for vinyl, and a 90dB range for CDs). So you get something that's just all around loud, and often these louder recordings peak so often and intensely that they cause distortion.

Basically, I'm hugely into dynamics. The first music I fell in love with as a kid that wasn't something my parents were listening to was Beethoven's symphonies. Boy was I a rebellious kid! I'd argue that his music's most salient feature is its intense use of dynamics, and ever since, I've often gravitated toward music of many different genres that makes dramatic use of quiet and loud sounds and many levels in between. And while I'm not a sound engineer, I've still noticed this trend and it irritates the hell out of me.

Earlier today I stumbled upon this essay by recording engineer George Graham, that does a fantastic job of both describing this trend (far better than my above summary), and articulating frusrtation at the loss of dynamics in these works. And that essay is what prompted this post, especially his mention of many home or low budget recordings taking on this quality, due to widespread and user-friendly computer programs that allow for easy or even automatic compression of recordings. While I definitely understand that some bands with a bigger, fuzzier sound can sound fine under those circumstances, I hear a lot of music, including (perhaps especially) indie recordings where such hyper-compression is used seemingly as a way to make projects sound more polished or "pro," in comparison to raw, unmastered demos. I find it particularly sad to hear acoustic albums that are "over-mastered" in this way. It seems to plasticize the sound of acoustic instruments, leaving them devoid of their natural texture and timbre. I'm always sad when I see a great live group, get their CD, and not only the jewel case, but the music ends up being coated in shrink-wrap.

Has anyone else noticed or been bothered by this? Conversely, is there anyone who prefers the louder, more compressed recordings for their greater punch and uniformity? I'd be interested to see if there are other Portland indie fans who have an opinon on this.


Amber Dawn said...

Strangely enough for someone who loves music I'm relatively inarticulate in describing what i think about things like recording quality. I also don't really know enough about the recording process I think. I know it's frustrating when things sound too "slick".. I think it can also go the other way too, where people are in love with a "lo-fi" sound to the point where they make shitty recordings so you can't even hear what the music sounds like. I guess I do agree with you in the fact that I feel like the best mastering\production is the kind that does its job but isn't noticeable.. like you want to say "this sounds good" and not, "man, they mastered the fuck out of that!" mostly I wanted to say that I, too, was a child who fell in love with Beethoven, that and Tchaicovsky's "Swan Lake" - until I was like, 6 or 7 I would hardly listen to anything but classical because it was "too noisy".

Dylan said...

Wow! Such a cool article, keep 'em coming.

I have been producing Electronic/Dance music for a while and even among electronic producers (where the trend was already to make things super loud) the overall loudness of recordings is being amped up. Some of them (and this almost seems ridiculous but boy, these recordings blow your eardrums out) will compress their music incredible amounts and THEN continue to boost the volume of their music until it clips above 0db by up to 11 or 12 decibels! Like, sometimes enough is enough I think. But like all music I think it's definitely a style that you can choose to utilize or not. (and when I'm listening to one of Chopin's Ballades I'd rather not have my home speaker system constantly exploding with sound).

Anyway, sorry for ranting! Good topic matter

Jess Gulbranson said...

I think you really have to listen to a lot of popular music for a long time- basically everything- with a mechanically minded ear to really get pissed off by the loudness trend. There are plenty of 'loud' albums that are very dynamic even though they run hot. The loudness issue has been bigger for me now that I am trying to master my own music. I find that I'm always second-guessing myself... does it really sound better? And if all the songs run hot, do I really want to be 'that guy?' Ugh. I tell you one thing, whether the compressor had ever been invented or not, dynamics always was, is, and will be important.

Ste. Goldie said...


I love this blog post. Had coffee the other day with new friend Allen Hunter of Klevland and many other musical endeavors... Dr. Something do you have ESP?

A note to all of the new bloggers:

Don't forget to label your posts with your name, or blogger name. Readers love to see the other stuff that you've written. It is also a handy tool when looking for your past posts.

Ste. Goldie said...

oh yeah -- Mr. Hunter and I had coffee AND talked about this VERY TOPIC.


Ben Meyercord said...

I love dynamics. Like have you guys heard Mogwai's version of "my father my king". It is awesome because it starts of really quite and then you turn up your stereo then it fades into its true volume, which is loud, but I think it's cool because they trick you into making it louder than you may think is necessary. Those guys, right?

Eriq Nelson said...

Sometimes its hard to tell with digital music. After music is ripped to MP3, then volume leveled, then passed through active EQ, the compression rate doesn't stick out that much. Obviously, vinyl and CD differ greatly but the vast majority of listeners are going toward MP3. Audiophiles will always notice the difference and I think it's been more important to us any way, even before the advent of the iPod and digital download distribution. There are times when that level of dynamic compression are welcome too, take the Joe Henry produced "Knuckle Down" from Ani Difranco. There's something special about his production values in that record, even though it falls under the same realm as other highly compressed works. I think it's about talent, not technique.