– Or: The raging battle for attention
It’s entirely possible you’ve heard of the Loudness War at one point or another. Potentially with some tongue in cheek joke about the trebuchet of bits and bytes assaulting our ear holes like a battering ram. All fighting and vying for our undivided attention. Or at least mostly undivided. How many of us just sit and listen to music without doing something else these days?
“Not I,” said the goose.
There I go, one paragraph in and digression is in full force. WELCOME TO THE SWERVE TRAIN!
Right. Loudness war.
There was a point at which music started getting louder and louder and louder. This trend peaked at a point where productions were so “loud” that they weren’t as pleasant to listen to anymore. And then streaming services – who I am very publicly not a fan of – kinda swooped in and ultimately saved us from ourselves. Or the labels behind the music. Yes, I like that one better. Saved us from people who thought they knew what we wanted and presented it to us in such a fashion.
Before we go into some of the details, let’s dive a bit into how are brains are wired for volumatic presence and amplitudinal aptitude.
(hahaha making up words left and right here. actually lolled out loud.)
The relationship between the brain and the volume boost
We’re back to that keto-compatible fatty computer made of meat residing in our skulls again. Like the blasted thing runs our lives or something. But let’s explore a bit of why that relationship is important.
Our human Earth ears receive sound waves transmitted through the invisible soup we all our atmosphere. Those sound waves cause our ears to transmit data to our brains, which we call hearing. No news there. What studies are finding is that our brains respond to music at louder volumes – as opposed to noise, which is less fun to hear – in a variety of different ways. Pleasure. Exhilaration. ASMR. The feeling of being touched without actually being touched. The club music experience is a case study all its own on the relationship between high volume music and the effects on the body and brain.
There is a whole WEALTH of information related to this phenomenon contained in an article found Here and, while lengthy, is absolutely fascinating to dive into.
I was attempting to find articles that dove way back into the annals of time to see if maybe there is a more primal or historical explanation for why we respond to music in this way and my Google-Fu was not on point. If any of ya’ll happen to find anything on the subject, let me know! I’d love to learn more about the whys of it all.
The shorter answer is: our brains like louder more betterer. So say we all.
So now that we know that our brains like louder sounds better, let’s explore a very specific example.
A number of years ago at an event attended by up-and-coming mixing engineers (me too!), mixing engineer to the stars Jack Joseph Puig (JJP) was giving a clinic on all things mixing. During the course of this example, he (and his hat) pulled out the multitrack stems for the BeeGees “Stayin’ Alive” song and did something most of us had never heard before. He played one of the individual tracks which was this gloriously played super thick ACOUSTIC GUITAR part. I never had any notion that there was an acoustic guitar in the song but there it was for all the world to hear. Or at least those of us in the room.
For his next trick, he played the song fully mixed. Sounds just like we expected to sound. Looked for a CPR dummy to practice on. Then he MUTED the acoustic guitar track and the entire thing fell apart. It felt naked. Empty. Not even remotely the song we were accustomed to. Bringing it back into the mix, suddenly we could hear every finite detail of an instrument that we now knew was there. Trickery!
So after this was the big “GOTCHA” moment.
Pulled up a different track. Said he was going to play about 20 seconds of it and he did. We all listened with as critical an ear as possible. He said he was going to make some changes to the mix and play it back again and ask for opinions on what he did. A couple minutes later, he played the same 20 seconds and solicited feedback.
Universally, the room agreed that the mix was better. The bass was fuller, the top end had a clarity to it that the previous example did not, instrument separation was cleaner, the whole gambit.
He then revealed that the only change he made to the entire mix was increase the volume by one decibel.
That one little tiny change completely altered our entire perception of the song. Case study: louder is “better.”
Practical demonstration of why there is a loudness war in the first place.
Enter: The Beatles and the start of Loudness War Crimes
Remember the jukebox? Pepperidge Farms remembers. Way back when, jukeboxes were stocked with all kinds of records for people to choose from. Put enough earth dollars into the thing and you could request an entire queue of songs. One time at a Godfather’s Pizza I remember someone putting a $20 into the machine and selecting ONLY “We Didn’t Start the Fire” and the part we had there for a few hours got to listen to nothing but that song. I applauded his bold prankish move while wishing to listen to anything else at one point.
Jukebox! Queue up a bunch of songs and listen to what was popular at the time. Great! Realizing that the notion of louder is better was a thing, The Beatles engineering team got their hands on a device being manufactured by Fairchild called a Compressor Limiter. I’ll have another blog post that dives deeply into how a compressor works but here’s the short version: it takes your loud peaks, reduces them so that they aren’t quite as loud as they were, and then increases the overall volume to compensate for it. That way, your louds are just as loud as they were and your SOFTS are LOUDER.
There was only so much that could be done at the time, however, because record players needed those grooves and peaks and valleys to not only conserve space on the vinyl but to make sure the needle has something to dig into so that it doesn’t just slide around.
That engineering team figured out how to do so just enough to keep records from skipping, all the while making their records “better” than anything else that the jukebox picked.
Pretty crafty, huh? It was kind of a precursor to what we eventually experienced as a loudness war but definitely set the stage.
That was only the beginning
The limitations of vinyl didn’t enable a whole lot of this trickery to get too far. Player needles could only be brute forced so much before it was non functional.
Enter the COMPACT DISC.
Lasers don’t skip out of the grooves. Only when you hit a speed bump but they still recover eventually. The compact disc came with some very interesting properties: a maximum volume that you could not cross, otherwise you ended up with digital distortion. “Distortion” will be another topic too but here’s the short version: in the analog world, clipping sounded nice and warm. In the digital world? It sounds like cracks and pops and noise and ouch and pain and send help.
Because it is digital, there is a finite limit of peak volume you can get on a CD. Easy enough.
So let’s go back to that compressor limiter. Remember how we talked about squashing down the peaks to be quieter and then increasing the overall volume so that the softs get louder with the louds back to those peak levels?
The advent of the “CD Changer” where you could dump 3 / 6 / 100 CDs into a cartridge/carousel brought about an interesting notion. Think The Beatles again: their “louder” records sounded better than their contemporaries. Fast forward to now: If you want people to like your album better than the next song or album that the player randomizes to, find a way to make it louder. Piece of cake.
Louder is better. So louderer must be more betterer than louder. And so on and so on.
The war to be louder than your contemporary. The loudness war.
Some of the more infamous examples of the loudness war
This kept going and going with labels and engineers jockeying for position as the loudest of the loud to try and make more sales.
One of the examples that comes up frequently is that of an album by Oasis called “(What’s the Story) Morning Glory.” The thing was loud to the level of absurdity. Enough so that it finally dawned on people that the squashing of music into the shape of a pancake might not actually sound good. This album was an example of an unpleasant listening experience for a couple of reasons. The compression and limiting were just plain unpleasant to listen to. Additionally, it also meant having to listen to an album by Oasis. The jury is out on which of those two things was worse.
Example numero dos: Metallica “Death Magnetic”
Where to begin with this one. It is arguably one of the loudest mixed albums ever. Mixed to an average level of somewhere in the neighborhood of -2db? 0db is the digital clipping level, so you can’t get louder than that. Which means that the album average volume is almost as loud as the medium can exist THE ENTIRE TIME. It’s like being smothered by an exercise ball without the benefit of being able to come up for air. Suffocating levels of high volume. Sure, you could turn the volume knob down. And then turn it back up for some other bands song, and then when Death Magnetic comes back on, your ears blast out because there’s no time to compensate.
The loudness war at its peak. No pun int– yeah, pun intended. Not gonna lie.
Then a video game saved the day.
Er …. what?
Guitar Hero 3 was the actual hero we didn’t know we needed
So yeah. Guitar Hero 3. Remember that thing where there were plastic instruments and buttons and it was effectively a rhythm game using controllers shaped like instruments? That one.
One of the reasons that Guitar Hero was fun for the listening experience was that the individual instruments of the songs that came with it were used. Those are called “Stems”. So rather than a fully mixed stereo song, Guitar Hero came with individual instruments (stems) separated out. Let’s use Death Magnetic as an example again. When playing songs from that album, all separated out were the Drums, the Bass, both Guitars, and the Vocals. The game then mixed everything back together for the whole experience. Pretty slick, right?
There was one weird thing that came about it though. The stems that the game had inside were prior to getting run through the trash compactor. A full mix of songs from Death Magnetic within the game actually sounded REALLY GOOD with the dynamics in place. It might not have been the moment in time when all was solved and there was peace and harmony (and dynamics) but it was a massive eye-opener to the world that had been duped for decades.
Streaming services to the rescue
Words I never thought I would say, that I wish I didn’t just say, and kinda feel filthy for saying it. But yes. streaming services brought things back to some degree of sanity. An “end” to the loudness war, if you will.
While there was no regulation of volume in the old CD players or previous download services for all of the reasons outlined above, streaming services decided that they did not want jarring track-to-track experiences for their listeners because it’s just plain not pleasant. So they took matters into their own hands and established maximum volume levels to be adhered to and developed more accurate methods of determining the overall loudness of a song. Your song is mixed louder than the one next to it? Fine! The streaming service will reduce the average volume to compensate. So! You can mix it as loud as you want to your hearts content and the service is going to take you down a notch. Remind you of your place in the order of things.
Weird to say but streaming services – which now account for somewhere in the neighborhood of 82% of all annual record label revenue – kinda brought things back to normal again. Individual artists aren’t able to stand out as easily from a volumatic perspective; now it’s a matter of the quality of the music in question.
Of course, through it all, it’s the record labels that win in the end. Artists might have had an advantage for a while – when the labels were still winning – and the playing field is more even – and the labels are still winning – so uhh. Good game?
Conclusionary Statement of Closing
The Loudness War in a nutshell. Were you aware that it was going on? Did you notice that the volumes between one song and another were tangibly different? How did that make you feel when it was going on? Was it obnoxious having to keep adjusting the volume from song to song? Now that you’re aware of it, do you think it impacted your love of certain artists over others? So many questions!
Fire me a note and share your experiences if you’d like. I would so love to hear about it!
-= george =-