The Loudness Wars: Is Music's Noisy Arms Race Over?

High-volume sound engineering may finally be falling out of fashion

Sleigh Bells flickr userErica Cassella.jpg

Flickr user Erica Cassella

Sleigh Bells

The loudest album of 2010 was almost certainly Sleigh Bells' acclaimed Treats, a collection of songs with the volume and distortion of nearly every element pushed into the red. Drums became blasts of noise, the lyrics were nearly impossible to decipher, and even though it was very much a pop album, it was almost painful to listen to. That, of course, was precisely why it thrilled.

Sleigh Bells had designed the album to sound that way. "I love the physical aspect of music," guitarist Derek E. Miller said in an email to The Atlantic. "I want people to have that experience of standing in front of a rack of sub-woofers, being blasted with air and feeling the center of your chest crush a little. I usually blur the vocals so people spend less time thinking about the lyrics and more time responding on a purely emotional level. Overdubs, hard pans, extremely short delays."

Then one day, his own music took him by surprise. "Our song 'Tell 'Em' came on a friend's playlist once sandwiched between a few songs, and I jumped," he said. "It kind of annoyed me."

The phenomenon Miller experienced with his own song is familiar to anyone who's put their iPod on shuffle. You turn the volume up for an older song like Bruce Springsteen's "Thunder Road," but then you have to turn it way down again if, say, Cee-Lo Green's "Fuck You" comes on next. That effect is the outcome of what's been called "the Loudness Wars," a phenomenon that NPR saw fit to include as one of the major stories of music in the '00s. Through a technique called brick-wall limiting, songs are engineered to seem louder by bringing the quiet parts to the same level as the loud parts and pushing the volume level of the entire song to the highest point possible.

"I'm done blowing things out," Sleigh Bells' Derek Miller says. "Not a single thing is in the red, and I couldn't be more excited about it."

Think of a song like the Beach Boys' "Good Vibrations." Without limiting, the volume of the loud parts in the chorus would be at a 7 and the volume of the quiet parts in the breakdown would be at a 4. With limiting, it's like someone's sitting next to your stereo, playing with the volume knob so that both the quiet and loud parts are at 10. They still have the same emotional feel—Brian Wilson isn't playing the piano any differently—but everything sounds louder.

This dynamic limiting both tires the ears and makes instruments sound worse, turning bright drums into dull thuds and letting small details get lost in a blaring wash of sound. But because of the need to stand out on radio and other platforms, there's a strategic advantage to having a new song sound just a little louder than every other song. As a result, for a period, each new release came out a little louder than the last, and the average level of loudness on CDs crept up to such a degree that albums actually sounded distorted, as if they were being played through broken speakers. It's a phenomenon that began with the advent of CDs and digital sound processors in the early '90s, and only got worse as time went on. (This is the sort of thing that's better explained through sounds than words, so you may want to give a quick watch to a good YouTube video on the subject before moving on.)

For genres like pop and rap that already used heavily-processed sounds, this wasn't a big problem, and some say limiting has been a productive tool. For music that uses live recordings of drums, guitars, and piano, however, such processing arguably ruins the experience of listening to music made by humans. The biggest furor surrounding loudness centered on Metallica's 2008 album Death Magnetic, a piece of music so loud that some fans called it "barely listenable" and prompted one person to complain that "to hear this much pure damage done to what was obviously originally a decent recording, in the mistaken belief that it sounds good, is hard to stomach." At the time, the outlook seemed bleak. If there was no impetus to get quieter but every advantage to pushing volume to the maximum level technology could achieve, why wouldn't the trend toward increased loudness continue forever?

To counter this seeming economic inevitability, some critics of loudness turned to legal remedies. Audio engineer Thomas Lund has been working in Europe to lobby for governmental regulations on a standard loudness limit on all CDs and digital music. (The limit has so far been adopted as a universal standard by the International Telecommunications Union, which describes itself as "the UN agency for information and communication technologies.") You already have something like this at home if you use iTunes: Just check the box that says "Sound Check" in the preferences menu and the volume level on all of your songs will be equalized. Lund's proposal would do the same thing for any music you could buy.

Taking advantage of the trend towards listening to music from the digital "cloud"—via services like Pandora, Spotify, and Apple's forthcoming iCloud—the proposal would institute a volume limit on any songs downloaded from the cloud, effectively removing the strategic advantage of loudness. "Once a piece of music is ingested into this system, there is no longer any value in trying to make a recording louder just to stand out," said legendary engineer Bob Ludwig, who has been working with Lund, in an email. "There will be nothing to gain from a musical point of view. Louder will no longer be better!"

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Mike Barthel is a writer living in Seattle. His work has appeared in The Village Voice's Sound of the City blog, the Awl, and Salon.

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