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The Loudness War

When people say that music doesn't sound as good these days, they usually just mean they aren't having as much sex these days.

But, if you liked the way pop music used to sound fifteen years ago, then the music genuinely doesn't sound as good these days, and it's for straightforward technical reasons.

For several years, record companies have been fighting a secret war, the Loudness War, and it has changed the sound of pop music. Really, "changed" is too small a word for it. It has abolished the dynamic range of pop music. The loud bits are no longer loud, and the quiet bits are no longer quiet. And here is why…

Record companies want their albums to sound louder than the other guy's album, in shops, on your hi-fi, wherever, because people tend to think that the louder of two songs is the better of two songs. That’s just the way our brains are wired.

So record companies have been boosting the overall loudness of CDs. But there's a maximum loudness limit to the digital signal on a CD. Increasing the overall loudness increases the loudness of the quiet bits: but it doesn't (it can't) increase the loudness of the bits that were already at maximum loudness.

Imagine the loudest part of a song as Mount Everest, and the quietest part as the bottom of a valley, five miles below. There is a physical upper limit on how loud the song can get on a CD: metaphorically, nothing can be taller than Mount Everest. Ten or twenty years ago, songs had a five-mile dynamic range: songs had dramatic peaks and troughs. Quiet bits whispered, and loud bits roared.

By raising the volume of the quiet bits, the Loudness War has filled in the valleys. Which makes the mountains seem much, much smaller.

The loud bits still roar: but now the quiet bits roar too. So you turn down the overall volume on your iPod or stereo or computer, to a more comfortable overall volume. Which means that, perversely, you don’t get the benefit of the “louder” album. But you do lose the dynamics which made the original song interesting.

This is why re-releases of old albums often sound strangely flat and undramatic compared to your memory of the vinyl or early CD original. They ARE less dramatic. They’ve been remastered “louder”.

It also makes them more tiring to listen to.

You know how you talk to your friends? Mostly you’re just talking away, but now and then one of you gets excited and shouts, and it’s exciting because it doesn’t happen very often? Well, if Warner Brothers reissued that conversation, YOU WOULD ALL BE SHOUTING ALL THE TIME. PASS THE SALT. THANKS. I’M GLAD IT’S RAINING, THE GARDEN NEEDS IT. WOULD ANYONE LIKE A COFFEE? SURE. ME TOO. YEAH I’LL HAVE A COFFEE, NO MILK. I LOVE YOUR HAT.

Very, very tiring. And if someone got shot in the middle of it, Jesus Christ appeared, and the world ended, you wouldn’t notice, because it would all happen at exactly the same volume as a polite request for a biscuit.

Here’s a great visual explanation of what’s been going on, in three minutes of excellent video:

More on this later maybe, if anyone cares.

References (3)

References allow you to track sources for this article, as well as articles that were written in response to this article.

Reader Comments (4)

Paul Moor who also lives in Berlin ( me to a site (Arts and Letters Daily) that had a copy of your article "Divine Comedy."

It is one of the best articles I have ever read. Interesting use of words and artful expressions that elicited some wonderful insights for me.

When I was young (now 64 years old)I read novels constantly--mostly the classics. About 20 years ago, I stopped altogether and have missed the internal dialog ever since.

Your article brought some clarity to the dissatisfaction that led me to abandon fiction. Enjoyable reading and I will add your blog to my list.

June 10, 2007 | Unregistered CommenterJerry Pounds
Thank you for such strong words of praise. I do hope you enjoy the blog. It will dart about a bit, but I hope in interesting directions.

June 12, 2007 | Registered CommenterJulian Gough
I like this piece a lot and keep making people read it.

Here's the most recent development in The Loudness War
September 18, 2008 | Unregistered CommenterRobert Cotter
Thanks Robert, I'd noticed a spike in visitors to this post and wondered why they were dropping by...

That Metallica story you link to is extraordinary. It's demented, to compress that much. Massively counterproductive, it damages so many other things about the songs. Still, back in the day, the Black Album did sound amazing, and all innovators go too far eventually. But wow, that audio analysis of their new CD looks like the first Jesus and Mary Chain single, which was almost a joke (recording it, they had to force the engineer to obey them). (And a single which I also loved, actually, although the first time I heard it on the radio, I thought the radio had had a seizure, and I tried to retune it.)
September 19, 2008 | Registered CommenterJulian Gough

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