Loudness Wars?

Talk about music, movies, television, books, and other media. No religious or political discussion allowed.
User avatar
Retrology
Posts: 305
Joined: July 17th, 2015, 2:45 am

Loudness Wars?

Postby Retrology » April 17th, 2017, 5:11 pm

For anyone not aware, "Loudness Wars" is a term used in music describing the increased focus on loud volume in music. In other words: Quiet parts sound loud and "loud" parts don't sound any louder than the quiet parts. Cases started showing up in the early 90s and were really widespread in the 2000s to the present. This has been controversial because many artists, fans and critics claim it ruins the listening quality of the music.

As a studio musician, this has affected many of my favorite albums and bands. I had never noticed it before, but the lack of dynamics and space makes everything sound flat and nearly unlistenable. If you want a famous example, "Californiacation" by Red Hot Chili Peppers, "Vapor Trails" by Rush, and "Death Magnetic" and "Justice for All" by Metallica are infamous for their mixing and mastering quality.

Having a flat tone works perfectly for bands like The White Stripes and The Strokes because their music is raw garage rock. The production must be based on the music, not the other way around. Loudness does not equal better music, it's the dynamics and the sudden loud parts that make exciting music.

If you want great examples of albums that are expertly produced, look at any Pink Floyd/Radiohead album, Rage Against the Machine's self titled album (this one is held in HIGH regard by audiophiles for its production and is in fact used to test speakers), "Mezzanine" by Massive Attack, etc.

What sucks is the albums I listed as having bad mixing quality are actually good releases, and this describes many of the bands I feel are affected by the loudness war. The loudness war affects me, obviously, but does it affect you? Would love to hear your thoughts.

OzGamer
Posts: 20
Joined: November 2nd, 2016, 7:41 pm

Re: Loudness Wars?

Postby OzGamer » April 17th, 2017, 7:30 pm

I remember reading about this for the first time more than ten years ago. The article said that Arctic Monkeys' debut album(which I love) was a good example of little range in volume, compared with Nevermind from fifteen years earlier.

User avatar
Retrology
Posts: 305
Joined: July 17th, 2015, 2:45 am

Re: Loudness Wars?

Postby Retrology » April 17th, 2017, 9:12 pm

OzGamer wrote:I remember reading about this for the first time more than ten years ago. The article said that Arctic Monkeys' debut album(which I love) was a good example of little range in volume, compared with Nevermind from fifteen years earlier.


Did that happen to be from Alan Wilder of Depeche Mode fame? He made a remark about how one dimensional "I Bet You Look Good on the Dancefloor" was.

I like the band too, btw.

User avatar
velcrozombie
Posts: 268
Joined: April 12th, 2015, 3:37 pm

Re: Loudness Wars?

Postby velcrozombie » April 17th, 2017, 11:52 pm

Retrology wrote:As a studio musician, this has affected many of my favorite albums and bands. I had never noticed it before, but the lack of dynamics and space makes everything sound flat and nearly unlistenable. If you want a famous example, "Californiacation" by Red Hot Chili Peppers, "Vapor Trails" by Rush, and "Death Magnetic" and "Justice for All" by Metallica are infamous for their mixing and mastering quality.


It's easy to hear the problems with Death Magnetic - you can listen to the superior versions used for the Guitar Hero game or (even better) Demo Magnetic and hear what those songs sound like when there's some dynamic room for the tracks to breathe. I will say that I like the weird production on Justice, though - the album sounds so cold and harsh, almost like industrial music. It may not be a well-produced album in the traditional sense (certainly as a bass player the total lack of low-end is disappointing) but I think of it as a "happy accident" where the severity of the sound matched the darkness of the subject matter and intensity of the songwriting and Hetfield's vocal delivery.

OzGamer
Posts: 20
Joined: November 2nd, 2016, 7:41 pm

Re: Loudness Wars?

Postby OzGamer » April 17th, 2017, 11:56 pm

Retrology wrote:Did that happen to be from Alan Wilder of Depeche Mode fame? He made a remark about how one dimensional "I Bet You Look Good on the Dancefloor" was.


It was an article in the technology section of a newspaper. From memory I don't recall the Alan Wilder quote, but it's more than likely it wasn't mentioned. I'm going to look for the quote now, thanks.

User avatar
Stalvern
Posts: 356
Joined: June 18th, 2016, 7:15 pm

Re: Loudness Wars?

Postby Stalvern » April 18th, 2017, 12:00 am

Things still aren't perfect, but this revolting practice seems to have declined in this decade. The worst thing about it is that it doesn't just affect new music; pretty much any remastered album released after the turn of the century has been through the digital wringer, compressed and over-equalized into brickwalled oblivion. And these are the masterings that get put on iTunes and Spotify! There are a few merciful exceptions - the cardboard-case Pink Floyd and Beatles CDs that you see in every retail store are the best those bands ever sounded - but bad remasters are practically a pandemic (except in jazz and orchestral music, which alone are treated with respect by the companies that sell them).

"Loudness" is a misleading term; music is only as loud as the speaker volume. The quality in question here is dynamics, which doesn't just relate to the relative volume of a song's different parts but to the individual instruments. Look at the waveform of any decently mastered rock song, and you'll see spikes at every drum beat. Dynamic compression squishes everything toward the upper range of the signal; in the worst cases, the whole thing is a block without any spikes. Of course, this sounds like a blaring mess, but it's also strangely muted; because there's no room for the parts that should be loud anyway to stand out, they're crowded and buried by everything else. Drums and cymbals sound HORRIBLE in masterings like this. In the end, there's no enjoyable way to listen to the music - you want to crank it up to hear what's being drowned out, but you can't do that without shredding your eardrums. Most cases, thankfully, are not this bad, but the extreme is useful as an illustration of dynamic range's importance - the more compressed an album is, the closer it sounds to that.

Why does this happen, then? There are two reasons for this trend. First, if there's a lot of ambient noise where the music is playing, subtler parts of the music are harder to hear, and compression raises them above the sound of the environment: compressed music is easier to hear while driving or over the radio in public spaces. Second, whether on the radio, in a shuffled library, or over a stream, compressed music stands out from dynamic music and makes more of a superficial impresssion, which means more sales. Thankfully, this phenomenon seems to have been its own undoing - when everything is compressed like that, the sheer fatigue of listening at all means fewer sales, and it looks like the labels have responded by toning it down (although music is still pretty compressed, unfortunately).

Dynamic compression does have a place. In production, it can stabilize the volume of a track or smooth out the balance of the mix, and a little compression in mastering can be a justifiable concession to real-world listening conditions. But its place is not and will never be the overriding of all other qualities.

Retrology wrote:Having a flat tone works perfectly for bands like The White Stripes and The Strokes because their music is raw garage rock.

Not remotely true. Those bands would sound ten times better if their sound had any shape to it. There is no form of music in the world that is improved by brickwalling.

User avatar
Retrology
Posts: 305
Joined: July 17th, 2015, 2:45 am

Re: Loudness Wars?

Postby Retrology » April 18th, 2017, 1:32 am

From what I've researched, many people agree the "loudness" war peaked in the mid 2000s. I do agree that it's gotten a bit better, though I'm disappointed bands like Arcade Fire haven't expanded dynamically. The Suburbs is brickwalled throughout, which sucks because the music is incredible. The Guitar Hero mix of Death Magnetic is way better than the original, yes, which makes me question why they didn't go for something like that in the first place (the hi-hats sound much more alive in the GH version).

A great modern example of an expertly produced album is Random Access Memories from Daft Punk, and they did that intentionally to give it a richer (and better) sound. Highly recommend headphone music fans to listen to it, it's a great album.

One genre that's intentionally poorly mixed is black metal. I don't listen to it, but I guess it has its place with fans. My take is the production must make sense for the music, whether raw or polished (For a raw example, Spiderland by Slint works perfectly. St. Anger is an obvious example of a god awful one (the snare burns!!!))

There's a lot we've covered, but it's a fascinating topic because while I don't think brickwalling completely ruins songs, it prevents them from reaching their potential.

User avatar
Retrology
Posts: 305
Joined: July 17th, 2015, 2:45 am

Re: Loudness Wars?

Postby Retrology » April 18th, 2017, 1:50 am

Let's try something else. Can anyone give me examples of albums with GREAT mixing, mastering and overall production values?

I'll list some

Rage Against the Machine-self titled

Daft Punk-Random Access Memories

Anything by Vampire Weekend

Most of Radiohead's catalog, especially OK Computer and Kid A

Pink Floyd-The Wall and Dark Side of the Moon

Massive Attack-Mezzanine (the bass drum that comes at the beginning of "Angel" is astounding)

Fleet Foxes-Self Titled LP

Deftones-White Pony

Whatever Smashing Pumpkins made in the 90s (I use "Bodies" and "Quiet" to test dynamic levels)

Nine Inch Nails-The Downward Spiral AND The Fragile (especially The Fragile)

Boston-self titled

Steve
Posts: 63
Joined: May 12th, 2015, 5:34 pm

Re: Loudness Wars?

Postby Steve » April 18th, 2017, 11:23 am

It takes some pretty poor production/mastering to make me notice a problem as I am partially deaf but I've followed some of the discussions on this topic, mostly from Steven Wilson. I found this comment from him amusing "Please note that this record may not be mastered as loudly as some of the other records in your collection. This is in order to retain the dynamic range and subtlety of the music. Please, use your volume knob.". I would suggest checking out some of his videos online discussing remasters, etc. Also, his music and production in various bands is phenomenal.

bluenote
Posts: 69
Joined: August 14th, 2015, 5:16 pm

Re: Loudness Wars?

Postby bluenote » April 18th, 2017, 2:23 pm

It's funny, I consider myself to be an audiophile and while I do hate a lot of the cds mentioned regarding the loudness wars, I do like the AC/DC remasters from 2003 (the ones currently in stores). They are considered to be mastered very loudly, but I do prefer the extra kick this provides compared to the originals.

This is a great topic! Unfortunately, many people don't know about the loudness wars, or they don't care enough, so this may continue to be a problem for the foreseeable future.


Return to “Other Media”