Too LoudHave you heard of the Loudness Wars? If you hang around recording forums or websites for long, you’ll probably run into people fighting to the death over this issue. 🙂

So what is it? The Loudness Wars refer to the ever-increasing volume of today’s albums.

If you were to pop in an album from 20 years ago and play it alongside an album from today, you’ll notice that the current album will be much louder.

How is this accomplished? Through compression and limiting. You squash the dynamic range of the recording, then bring up the overall volume. Probably the most popular tool for this is the Waves L-series of limiters (L1, L2, L3, etc.).

So why is everyone trying to make their records louder? I think it originally started as a way for you to make your track more noticeable on the radio. If your song was louder than everyone else’s, it’ll get attention, right?

Now it’s just becoming the norm. Everyone wants their album to be as loud or louder as everyone else’s.

Here’s my question for you. What do you think of this? To be honest, I kinda like it when my music is nice and loud and in-your-face. Some engineers take it too far and compress/limit to the point of distorting the audio.

What’s your take on these Loudness Wars? Leave a comment!

We’ll be covering the process of mastering in-depth in the HSC Production Club during Week 12. Today’s your last day to sign up. Doors close at 6pm CST. You can sign up here.

Photo credit – striatic

  • TG

    Everything in moderation, I always say.  You want the audio to hit the 0db mark, but if you’re distorting or removing so much dynamic range that the track loses its character, you’ve failed.  The purpose is to get the right amount of overall volume while not taking away from the character of the track.  Of course, this is completely subjective, but in my experience should be determined by the artist, producer, and mastering engineer in conference.  I’ve participated as an artist on projects that were mastered so loud as to be either shrill or monotonous.  I’ve also been on projects that could easily have been a little louder without sacrificing anything.  And then I’ve been on projects where the mastering engineer got it right… just the right volume without giving anything up.  The sweet spot is hard to obtain and is where the mastering engineer earns his stripes as not only an engineer but an artist.  If s/he lacks good taste, look out.

    When in doubt, I listen to albums of similar genre that would be considered “budgetless.”  For example, (and I hate to even admit to this) if you’re in the pop arena, listen to a Britney Spears CD.  Say what you want about her music in general, the production, mix, and mastering are virtually perfect in every way.  Why?  Because the best of the best work on the albums and there are simply no budget concerns at all.  DMB, Jay-Z, and most of your big names have the resources to get their music right no matter what.  In the real world, where guys like me work, you don’t have the best engineers in the world and you have budget constraints, but you can train yourself to know what you’re listening for, communicate it, and achieve it.

  • EYAD HADDAD

    did you do parallel Compression for mastering ?

  • EYAD HADDAD

    Can I do parallel Compression to my final mix to make it louder and not loose the dynamics ???

    • Try it and see!

    • Hueseph

       Well, the straight answer is NO. You make everything louder in the aux channel and all the quiet parts are going to be inconsequential.

  • Lukas

    We probably all like it when it’s loud, but up to a certain point, I’d say.
    As the levels get higher our ears simply adjust to the artifacts automatically and we bring that limiter threshold even lower. Then it becomes really harsh or even distorted, so we bring it back up a little. Comparing to other commercial stuff, the mix is still not loud enough, so we decide to actually bring the threshold down again thus compromising quality for the sake of loudness. I think it is sick.
    I really enjoy listening to the tracks that are rocking and it doesnt have that much to do with their overall level. I simply prefer to turn the volume knob up and experience transparent, loud and kicking mix. I just can’t stand them lifeless, flat and hyper-compressed tracks, but what can we do – that is the current trend (I blame radio stations, who add even more limiting to already limited tracks…)
    About 6-8dB DR usually sounds acceptable to me.
    As always, balance is the key.

  • I don’t know if I’d agree with William B that the loudness wars are why everything on the radio sounds the same – that’s really a result of lazy record executives who don’t want to take risks and would rather churn out similar “tried and true” things.

    I’ve always been one to be on the “more-dynamics-please” side of the loudness war but don’t mind limiting on some styles of music, but draw the line like KeyOfGrey and start getting annoyed when you can hear the pumping.

    One downside of dynamics that I came across recently was listening to an artist (forget who) who went quite easy on any dynamics control. I found myself getting annoyed at having to ride the volume knob to try and keep things from getting too loud or too soft! 🙂

  • I have to agree with William Jones, some records do go over the top and it just kills the sonic quality. But I do like my music loud, just not too loud that it distorts the heck out of it, you just gotta know how to do it right.

  • Well…
    I look at the whole loudness war as over to tell you the truth (hear my logic). See we at this day and time can remember when music was plain flat out musical in the sense that it had dynamics and was full of free flowing moving parts (much like todays music but warmer more reachable). Now todays music whether we want to believe it or not isnt just louder but more strict in terms of all styles of music playing to there strengths and dynamics were the first thing to go. Why says the newby recording engineer…Simply put because music like anything else got to a very competitive point where the sound of the overall song was replaced with the percieved loudness of every song already out at the time. Thus throw a few bills at the mastering engineer and there you go instant radio sound without the caring (who was the wiser…we were)

    This is why almost (not all but very few fit this category) all songs on the radio sound the same. But really great mastering engineers know how to play both sides of the fence and even though its common practice to blame the mastering engineer’s for all things loud the lack of dynamics is a 2 way street as well. Im a new age engineer who knows that a great mix can be done on a console and ITB but am also hearing more and more of my breatheren not care about dynamics and just try to get that loudness in a mix SMH. For shame to the young engineer who does this for you know not what you do and do not what you know…

    I’ll admit i am one of those to blame for the lack of knowlegde in our chosen field but not anymore. Honestly I think the loudness wars were lost but the ideal of it lives on. I don’t want my hard earned mixes to lose there soul to be loud when the radio station compresses them anyway its stupid on the mastering engineers part. If this is the case then slap me with a L2 and strap on the ozone caus i’ll just ride a preset to success.

    My 5 cents…keep the change 😉

  • For what it’s worth, I have blogged…

    How to make your song stand out on the radio

  • B.C. Fortenberry

    It’s easy to go overboard. I’ve heard mixes of songs that used the soft verse/loud chorus form, where the “loud” chorus was actually softer because of all the dynamic processing clamping down due to the louder program material.

    I’m convinced that the goal of some label execs is to master discs hot enough that the can be played without a CD player.
    🙂

    You can’t blame it on the mastering engineer if you haven’t left them any headroom during tracking. I think Joe’s covered this, but if you’re recording 24 bit audio, you don’t have to pin the meters to have a healthy signal. Tracking more conservative levels gives the mastering folks more headroom to work with.

  • I think the loudness wars have a lot to do with the musical zeitgeist of the last 10 years. Current rock and pop seems to almost have forgotten about dynamics — everything is loud. So it sort of follows that the production should match. This applies to a lot of the bigger indie bands as well, blaring power chord eighth notes for the whole song. But I think we’ve hit the peak, and more people are starting to crave something more dynamic and interesting (and easier on the ears). See: http://www.turnmeup.org/

  • My opinion on the Loudness Wars is pretty well-known, I guess – I got over 50,000 hits to my mastering blog in the week when I first posted about “Death Magnetic”, for example:

    Stop The Loudness Wars

    It got linked to by Wired magazine, the LA Times and a whole lot of other places – my 5 minutes of fame :-p

    (For anyone who hasn’t heard what that CD sounds like, check out this YouTube video: How to lose the Loudness War or the interview I did for the BBC.

    But just for now I want to say – the idea that loud CDs sound louder on the radio is a myth, and has been since forever.

    Radio has used heavy multiband compression for years now, to ensure consistent playback levels, and decent reception in low-signal areas.

    Which means a dynamic, punchy CD will sound just as loud as a crushed-to-death Metallica thing.

    To get stuff to sound great on the radio, you need to hit the “sweet spot” where your track to just sits quietly underneath the broadcast compressors without any extra processing.

    Beyond that, all you get is pumping and distortion.

    You know what ? I think I feel a blog post coming on…

    Ian

  • WILLIAM JONES

    I haven’t liked anything Metallica has done in a while LOL!

  • Wayne AKA wilbury69

    I like it loud but not over compressed. I guess I’m from the old school and like some dynamic range included in the music. I think in some cases more is less. Not music compresseed in a can and dumped out and formed. That’s my opinion and I’m sticking to it!

  • I can stand the loudness as long as it doesn’t cause “pumping and breathing”.

  • Just like any artist, a recording engineer needs to know how to use the tools at hand. Which brush do you use for subtlety, which do you use to make a big statement?

    When I’m recording jazz, strings, world music, folk — I go light on the compression 2:1, 3:1 and leave a lot of headroom for the nuances to be experienced by the listener. For rock you push it so it sounds louder, but I feel you still need the give and take of the dynamics. There’s a fine line between loud and Death.Magnetic-loud. I feel it’s just bad music making to have it all sound the same dynamic – after a while loud sounds soft if it is loud all the time.

  • Brandon Morgan

    i think there’s a much richer and fuller sound with todays albums due to the loudness… of course, it can (and does) get taken overboard, but when i listen to a song from today versus a song from 30 years ago, it feels much richer. Maybe thats just a subjective opinion… but the compression brings out the punchiness in the low end and makes the song come alive.

  • I agree with you guys. I like it when my mixes are really tight, but still punchy. That SSL Bus Compressor and L1 do it for me. But I don’t go overboard. Once I can hear anything bad, I back it down.

  • David S

    I agree with Kato, in that I feel it depends on the song. Whatever serves the song the best. I agree about Metallica’s Death Magnetic, I got a copy from my friend right when it came out and thought he got a bootleg due to the horrible mastering/mixing of it. However, I’ve encountered many people that don’t agree that it sounds totally distorted. They like it just fine. Same goes for the concept of “Loudness Wars”, many people I’ve talked with don’t hear the difference between a modern master and a master from the 80’s as far as the loudness. So, I’ve come to the conclusion that many of the average listeners out there cannot differentiate at all between different sounding audio. They just want to bang their head or shake that booty. I, on the other hand, am very, very anal retentive to my audio and notice even the slightest difference to the point that i spend most of my time fiddling w/ the eq on my stereo rather than banging my head.

  • I abide by the saying, “if it’s too loud, you’re too old.” 😛

    Seriously, though, I think if an artist prefers that compressed dynamic range of loudness for a song, more power to them. If it’s in service to the actual song and feel, I’m all for it. What I do miss are good old fashioned quiet songs that you don’t hear anymore, probably why I’ve been on an acoustic-y folk kick the last couple years. I suspect this trend will eventually meet with a “quiet movement” of songs too, everything old is new again. Great topic!

  • Kato

    I think Metallica’s Death Magnetic is the worst mastered album ever. It just sounds horrible! I can’t get through it!
    Loud is nice for pop. I expect a jazz album to be quieter than a pop one… it goes with the style. On the other hand Continuum by John Mayer is an excellent example of a pop album that sounds modern and is radio friendly, but still sounds warm and has plenty of dynamics. It’s always about good sense in the end!

  • WILLIAM JONES

    I think that some recordings are really O.T.T.(Over The Top)when it comes to that issue. And many recordings are not as dynamic as they used to be. So, I guess what I’m saying is that I think recordings should be loud. Just not so loud that your speakers are distorting!