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