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

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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!"

But while the proposal has seen some success in the EU, it seems unlikely that audiophiles could rely on the US government to take a similar stand, in large part because it isn't a matter of public concern. "I don't see it happening," wrote Greg Milner, author of Perfecting Sound Forever: The Aural History of Recorded Music, in an email. "I think the general increase in awareness regarding the issue is more than counter-balanced by the fact that, by and large, nobody (in a sweeping, generalized sense) cares about music sounding 'good' in some sort of rarefied way. It's more important that it be heard above the noise of everyday life, since we hear so much of our music on the go."

Tom Coyne, a mastering engineer at Sterling Sound who has most recently worked on Adele's 21, Beyoncé's I Am....Sasha Fierce, and Britney Spears' Femme Fatale, also saw little push-back to loudness on the part of the industry. For labels, he said, "It's always louder," adding, "it should be something the public's concerned about, but I don't think it is."

Despite this, many say that the tide seems to have turned. "In the past year I have had more requests for the final mastering to be dynamic than I have in a long time," said Ludwig. "This has been very encouraging as before the only instruction was to 'make it hot'"—which is to say, loud. Milner has observed a similar phenomenon, and said that "mastering engineers have eased off the hyper-compression." While the industry might not be taking concerns about loudness into account terribly much—even Ludwig notes that "not much has changed in the best-practices department"—the race to the noisy top seems to have stopped, and maybe even turned back. A recent article in Mix Magazine even declared that "the Loudness War is over."

What might have caused this reversal of fortune? Experts say that while record companies and the public are still part of the problem, all the media attention last decade to loudness may have made artists more aware of the destructive effects of dynamic compression. And though labels and fans may have a say in how music sounds, the ultimate decision is still the musician's. Metallica, for instance, wasn't in need of any competitive advantage when they pushed Death Magnetic into the red; they just liked how it sounded. "It was the artist's choice to make it that level," Coyne points out. "If you don't like it, don't buy it. But don't tell them what they can or can't do. It's the sound they wanted—you can't fault them for that."

But if artists can decide to make their music sound loud, they can also decide to make it sound quiet. There are some scattered examples of this happening already. Indie songwriter Owen Pallett went so far as to record all of the vocals for his 2006 Polaris Prize-winning album He Poos Clouds without compression, a step not taken since the early days of sound recording. Compression has come to have a negative connotation. Jack White recently posted a lengthy response to fans' concerns that some releases from his record label, Third Man, were mastered too loud.

That's where Sleigh Bells comes in. Treats might be the best thing to listen to if you want to know what compression sounds like, since there it's used not as a way of tricking the listener's ears but as a deliberate technique. Miller said that the band's earliest tracks achieved the effect "by pushing the master fader up until the entire mix clips, literally brick walling it." They subsequently applied compression all to the tracks, and Miller said he "used it to make everything sound like it was fighting for the surface," the very effect that made Treats such an exciting experience.

Things will be different for Sleigh Bells' second album, though, Miller said. "I'm done blowing things out. Not a single thing is in the red, and I couldn't be more excited about it," he said. Asked about the loudness wars, he expressed the same concern about increased loudness as Ludwig and other critics of the technique. "Coming from me that sounds absurd, especially considering how loud Treats is, but at the time I didn't really compare it to any other records or know what I was doing, " he said.

Miller's comments speak to why loudness, for all its problems, is here to stay. Coyne reported that clients have begun to ask for a "gritty" sound somewhere between distorted and not-distorted, a sound that has its origins in pop production. "That's where it started, in the older days, making it sound a little dirty or a little raw. And now it's accepted, so much so that if a record doesn't have that little bit of grit, it seems like it's missing something," he said. (Think of, say, the production on Bobby Brown's "My Prerogative.") Miller, too, said that compression is satisfying because of its particular effect on the music, and said he originally used the technique because it "makes the songs sound more intense." And, as Milner pointed out, "compression is basically a musical instrument at this point in a lot of genres. The 'sizzle' of percussion in hip-hop and R&B depends on that hyper-compressed sound."

At the same time, Miller's comments also explain why noisiness may be on the wane. Ludwig pointed out that loudness makes an album sound dated, "like a bad drum machine from the 1980's." Coyne, too, saw a growing awareness of the phenomenon, and reported that two recent electro-pop albums he worked with were created with a very deliberate avoidance of loudness. "Everything comes full circle, so I think at some point things will calm down and people will be more into extreme dynamic ranges."

That, then, may be the end of the Loudness Wars: As brick-wall limiting became more popular and attracted more attention, it became something gauche, ugly, uncool. And there's no better way to keep something out of music than to make it seem uncool.

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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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