I was reminded of the insanity of the Loudness Wars the other day when I put on an Elvis Costello CD I bought in the 80s. The level at which the music was mastered required me to turn up my amp substantially. Had I turned up the volume up the same amount with a contemporary CD, I would have blown the windows out of my office.
Here’s an example of what I’m talking about.
The BBC takes another look at how a tiny portion of the music industry has been consistently ruining our music listening experience since the early 90s.
Why is modern music so loud?
You might think the answer is simple: People have turned the volume up to eleven. But it isn’t just that, since the late 1980s, the music industry has been using a production trick to make songs appear louder. It created a “loudness war”, as the industry pushed to make each track more impactful than the next.
“It’s kind of a sonic arms race, where everyone is trying to be louder than everyone else,” says Ian Shepherd, a mastering engineer, who has worked with the likes of Deep Purple, Tricky, New Order and King Crimson.
Here is an example using Michael Jackson’s Thriller (first released in 1982). The music will fade through three versions; the middle and end are re-releases from the 1990s and 2000s. When the music was re-mastered for the later compilation albums, the music was made louder.
The trick being used is called dynamic range compression. It boosts quieter passages of music so that, overall, the music sounds louder.
The waveform shown in the video contains all the tell-tell signs of compression. At the beginning, you can see has peaks and troughs. By the end, everything is at an almost constant level.
Although louder music is generally more exciting, the problem with over-compression is that the sound has no light and shade. For music to work, it needs to have dynamics; loud music is more impressive when contrasted with something quieter.
The compression also adds artefacts to the music that can sound nasty. The following audio is from a piece of research by a colleague of mine at Salford University, Dr Bruno Fazenda. It gradually adds more compression onto a guitar. Initially the instrument sounds quite natural but, as more and more compression is added, a nasty buzzing sound is heard.
Keep reading. If you love music, you need to know about this.