The Real Reason Music's Gotten So Loud

iTunes' SoundCheck won't end the so-called "loudness wars." It'll just give listeners a way to counter some musicians' undying instinct to "turn it up to 11."

Soundcheck probably won't stop bands like Metallica from offending audiophiles. (AP)

With each passing year since the advent of CDs and mp3s, artists have turned up the volume. Digital recording now allows sound to be louder overall without introducing audible background static and tape hiss, so audio engineers often elevate the volume of a song to the recordable limit through a handful of brute-force methods—dynamic range compression, limiting, brickwall limiting, and clipping—that sacrifice quality and fidelity for loudness.

This escalation over time has come to be known as the “loudness wars.” Most audiophiles hate it. Numerous petitions and online campaigns have pleaded for artists and engineers to avoid techniques that destroy the dynamic range of sound, saying it denudes music of its impact and emotion. When everything is loud, nothing is loud, the argument goes, and the results exhaust and agitate listeners. Bob Dylan referred to it as the dissolution of music into static.

At the Audio Engineering Society Convention in New York last month, the mastering engineer Bob Katz declared that iTunes’s new SoundCheck technology would put an end to the loudness wars once and for all. SoundCheck algorithmically adjusts excessively loud tracks to a more reasonable level based on average volume. While software like this has existed for some time, having iTunes enable it by default since version 11.1.1 ostensibly is a huge step towards eliminating the perceived benefits of compression across the industry. The market incentive towards loudness would be gone.

The problem with Katz’s pronouncement, though, is that the market doesn’t incentivize loudness in the first place. Studies have shown that there is no correlation between volume and sales. Broadcast radio, where the competition for loudness might be most fierce, already clips the audio waveform at a certain level to avoid conflicts with advertisements and speech. Many cloud music services like Rdio and Spotify already have volume adjustment logic built in with no noticeable effect on recording trends. Low-fidelity loudness has succeeded and survived for some time without much outcry from the public, just from the small population of audiophiles and sound engineers.

The truth is that artists and engineers make their music loud because they want to. And the desire to do so usually correlates more with trends in technology than with commercial concerns. From gramophones to electric playback of records and digital technology, a series of short-lived fads have sprung up wherein musicians abuse new listening mediums to make their songs as loud as possible to the detriment of fidelity. In a paper for the journal Popular Music, Kyle Devine reviewed the long history of feuds over formats and electrical amplification for attention:

The history of sound reproduction can be understood as a history in which auditory ideals and practicalities are in constant negotiation, where the priorities of audiences and “audiophiles” drift in and out of synch.

Throughout the ‘20s, records progressively became louder to take advantage of the proliferation of gramophones that had no volume knob. The phrase “put a sock in it” actually references cramming a sock into the horn of a gramophone to stifle the sound on louder recordings. Phil Spector’s Wall of Sound could be considered a volume fad of his time, wherein analog recording techniques and miniature orchestras were used to get a larger sound than otherwise possible on AM radio. Many classic punk albums–particularly The Sex Pistols’ Never Mind the Bollocks–actively embraced loudness without dynamic range, maybe out of some nihilistic approach to recording sound or to cover up Sid Vicious’s inability to play bass.

While The Sex Pistols may not have cared much about dynamic range, the current phase of the volume fad happens to mimic their nihilistic sensibilities, albeit doing so intentionally at the mastering stage of recording. Many of the new artists that suffer the most from compression also imitate The Sex Pistol’s shrill punk-rock approach to recording quality and style: pop-punk bands like Fall Out Boy, Green Day, and My Chemical Romance; pop with punk choruses like Pink, Avril Lavigne, and Kelly Clarkson; metal, punk, and hard-rock bands like Rise Against, Kid Rock, Rob Zombie, Andrew W.K., Slipknot, and Megadeth. The trend has even bled over into a number of hip-hop albums like Kanye West’s Yeezus.

The honor of the loudest, most compressed album of all time goes to the 1997 remaster of The Stooges’ classic Raw Power. The waveform of each song scrapes the top of the audio spectrum with little variation. For an album that most likely would not be played on popular radio, there would be no real financial or competitive reason to remaster a classic album like this except for a personal preference for superficial loudness. The irony is that The Stooges’ are often credited as being the originators of punk rock. Their original recordings are dramatically dynamic–not loud. The original Fun House recordings offer a perfect example of detailed sound and fury, where every saxophone note and cymbal is discernible from the rest.

Metallica famously produced what may be the loudest, least dynamic album that’s not a reissue in 2008’s Death Magnetic. When heavily criticized for the record's sound quality, the band members insisted that they had meant for it to be that way. They enjoyed the tinny, shrill, and loud recording style, refusing to change a thing.

And most likely that is the case for many of the others. Compression to gain higher perceived volume is the same approach as that of Nigel from Spinal Tap wanting his speakers to “go to 11.” Louder is always better. There isn’t so much a loudness war as a primal affinity for screeching volume.

Historically, that affinity to make music as loud as possible eventually clashes with audience tastes. The volume fads of the ‘20s eventually drew derision from Thomas Edison and others, and it eventually faded away. The Wall of Sound layering technique was incredibly influential to thousands of artists but the flattened sound was not, and that eventually disappeared in future Spector recordings like Ike & Tina Turner’s River Deep, Mountain High. While punk’s loud, fast, and angry aesthetic eventually morphed into metal, hardcore, and post-punk, its recording techniques didn’t always follow with it.

And something similar is happening now in pop music as more songs that aren’t in the vein of screaming punk choruses make their way onto the charts. While not high fidelity, groups like Adele and Mumford & Sons are easing away from the volume ceiling with moments of quiet that are actually, technically, quiet.

Both of them are examples of how the volume fad is largely dictated by aesthetic choice. Soul and folk are two styles of music that actively avoid distortion. The loudness craze hasn’t touched these and other genres that appear on radio or that might seem susceptible to a race for attention: classical, jazz, country, blues. In particular, Norah Jones sells millions of albums while her recording fidelity is considered highly respectable. For these artists, SoundCheck will mean nothing. And it will likely mean little for artists who abuse compression techniques. But it will be an essential tool for listeners offended by the loudness wars. In essence, it is the modern-day gramophone sock.