Busta Rhymes. Jay Z. Rihanna. They all spend their songs imploring the DJ to turn it up. But it’s not actually volume controls that are making music get louder.
It’s actually the result of the loudness wars, where producers and engineers turn up music to the highest levels believing that it makes it sound better. Unfortunately, most of the time it doesn’t, because the music becomes squashed and loses its range. The most famous example of this is Metallica’s Death Magnetic, an album so distorted that half the instruments are indistinguishable.
But Bob Katz, a respected audio engineer, reckons the Loudness War will soon be over because of the launch of iTunes new streaming service iTunes Radio. Unlike an MP3 player, the default setting on iTunes Radio is for every song will be normalised to the same volume settings, meaning that whatever level a song was mastered at, it will play at the same volume as the song before it.
I wanted to learn why some songs are produced to be louder than others, so I talked to audio engineer Ian Shepherd. He’s the guy behind Dynamic Range Day, a project that encourages producers to mix with a better sense of control over volume. We spoke about the industry’s dirty little secret and revealed a few producers who are guilty of it.
Noisey: Hiya Ian! So what exactly are the loudness wars?
Ian: They’re based on a myth that louder always sounds better. It is true that if I played the same song twice but one was slightly louder, you’d think the louder one sounds better. It may be based on an evolutionary thing whereby the louder one sounds more dangerous. But on digital formats there’s a maximum level, and when you go past that point, it starts to sound very squashed. At that point louder isn’t better, it sounds worse. It’s happened on all formats, there was a loudness war on vinyl in the days of Motown. People are wrongly convinced they need to sound louder than anyone else to sound better, this is unfortunately damaging the music.
Who’s opposing it and where does it happen most?
Online with Spotify, Pandora and now ITunes Radio, the replay volume is evened out. This comes from the number one complaint of consumers who say the that the level of sound leaping up and down is annoying. I went to Mexico recently and they said there’s no volume levelling on Mexican TV. One guy told me he couldn’t watch TV in bed for fear of waking his wife when he switched channels. People like Apple and Spotify wanted the volume to be standardised in a way that would control the levels. TV has been doing this with the level of adverts. Trying to make music louder makes no sense - even when you play a CD or MP3 the first thing you do is adjust the volume to your surroundings.
What albums, apart from Death Magnetic, are guilty of being too loud?
Most major label records sound really squashed, not distorted or wrong per se but just lacking the proper dynamics. The latest David Bowie album is a prime example, great songs but really stodgy production. Gaga’s album as well. The challenge is finding stuff that isn’t squashed. As part of Dynamic Range Day, we try to reward albums that aren’t squashed; we spend a lot of time actually trying to find albums that aren’t!
And are there specific producers that are repeat offenders?
Rick Rubin, he’s done Death Magnetic and The Red Hot Chili Peppers. He’s claimed that the more you turn it up the more people like it. Another producer known for a loud sound is Chris Lord Alge, but there were some recent remasters of Green Day’s work that sound better than the original CD masters, showing that his original mixes were more dynamic. Kanye’s last two albums are so distorted, some people might say it’s deliberate but a friend of mine said “if that’s a production decision it’s one based on ignorance”.
Who was responsible for starting the loudness wars, record labels or musicians?
Both! In fact, mastering engineers like myself were part of it, too. Way back when I started, there was no way an artist could compare the results from an studio session to the final master. Hypothetically, you could have someone whose sound was perfect and you as an engineer didn’t really have anything to add to it, except if you turned it up slightly. They’d get home and compare it to their original and think “wow, this sounds better”, they wouldn’t have realised it was a trick. Not everyone did that of course, but it happened. So everyone did their bit.
So what’s your case for dynamic range?
In the real world, a song with more dynamic range is always going to leap out at you more. I was in my car and heard two songs on the radio a few years ago - Simon & Garfunkel’s “Fifty ways To Leave Your Lover” and then a Lady Gaga song. Fifty ways sounded great but Lady Gaga sounded like mush. Great songs will stand out when they’ve been mixed and mastered right. I even like the latest Lily Allen song because that actually has good dynamics!
Is it major label specific?
If you go to somewhere like Bandcamp, most artists on there don’t even bother with it. The big secret is that it’s fear that drives this obsession to sound louder because everyone wants to be heard amongst everything else that’s out there.
So iTunes Radio is going to fix all of this?
The people who’ve helped to make these changes happen are talking to Apple and making this a priority for them. My reservation is iTunes radio won’t stop the whole idea that volume sells - radio has controlled replay volume for years - but people still think it’s important to be loud. I’m not sure online will be any different.
Follow Dan on Twitter: @KeenDang
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