We can’t deny that the music and the audio industry has evolved rapidly over the last several generations. From the earliest music recording known to exist back in 1860, to modern music of the 21st Century, there has been a tremendous change in how we listen to and perceive music. Many would arguably say that music has changed for the better or for the worse in terms of quality and composition. You may have noticed within the last few decades, music has drastically increased in volume. This is due to the idea that the louder the song, the better it sounds. In theory this may sound like a great idea but this also may not be the case. This idea resulted in civil arguments which lead to the dawn of what is now known as “The Loudness War”
When did the Loudness War begin
To understand how we got here in the first place, let’s take a look back in time at the vinyl record. Under a magnifying glass, the grooves on a vinyl record mimic the audio waveform of the song. A dilemma at this time was in order to achieve a good signal, the grooves needed to be cut larger. This would cause physical limitations due to minimal space on the vinyl. Therefore, it became common practice that record labels would produce 7-inch singles with the purpose of only adding one song from the artist instead of the entire album. This allowed more space to cut large grooves which would result in a louder volume. When jukeboxes became popular during the 50’s and 60’, it was obvious that the louder records caught attention from consumers over the quieter records. So a competition began between labels to produce louder records.
The Loudness War Continues
Transitioning to the early 1980’s, CD’s debuted as the new paradigm of listening to music for most consumers. Entering a new digital era, the CD introduced several new aspects to audio engineers. CDs allowed a new form of maximum peak amplitude and an extremely low noise floor. In other words, a wider dynamic range and head room had been introduced. This also introduced the term “clipping” meaning any waveform that goes above the maximum amplitude will get cut off. Initially, the idea of clipping the audio waveform frightened engineers. Because of this, it was common to leave plenty of headroom keeping the overall loudness within a standard range. It wasn’t long before mastering engineers began utilizing compressors and limiters to experiment with the idea that “louder is better”.
Check out this image of three different waveforms from different decades. The first waveform represents the average dynamic range mastered for CD in the early 80s. Less than a decade later came the idea of compression, or bringing the quieter peaks up to the loudest peaks. Which would result in the audio sounding louder without breaking the maximum peak point. The final waveform represents the loudness war in its final form. In the audio industry, we call these sausage waveforms due to their thickness and size of the overall waveform. This is still used today due to the wide variety of sources the consumer can choose to listen to their music. But what is really happening to the sound when you push every single peak to its limits?
Louder is better, right?
To be put into simpler terms, yes and no. There are distinctive differences between classical music and dance music. In classical music, the key to a well composed song is solely focused on the benefits of the dynamic range. With an entire orchestra, it is important to capture the qualities and role each band member plays in performing a song. The dynamic changes in volume adds characteristics and emotion to a classical song. Therefore, squashing the dynamic range with a compressor will destroy the quality of what classical music is trying to portray.
How is loudness a key factor in dance and EDM music? Much like classical music relies on dynamic feelings of emotion. Dance music takes the same principle but uses loudness as a form of an emotional feel to the music. The genre is built upon the listener feeling like they are in the front row of a rave with line array speakers blasting in their face. That form of adrenaline is what drives the flow of dance music. Loudness helps immerse the listener into feeling the music while hearing the music.
The end of the Loudness War
The audio industry adapted to the new era of streaming with the rise of social media. Today, most streaming platforms automatically adjust each song’s volume in a term known as “normalizing”. By the late 2010’s, major platforms such as Spotify and Youtube began implementing standard volumes based on LUFS, (loudness unit relative to full scale). LUFS is a more relative unit to measure loudness in audio. Though the loudness war may not have ended entirely, applying these new LUFS standards regulated the balance between loudness and quality.
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