Put two people in the same room. Musicians, engineers, or even your regular Joes. Pick a song. Play the same song twice. The second time, turn it up by just 1dB. Now, tell everyone you made some changes, and ask them which track sounded better. Almost always, the response will be that the louder track sounded better. Why? Without getting into the science, our ears are tuned to recognize sound more evenly across the frequency spectrum at higher volumes (up until the point of causing damage and hearing loss). Record execs realized this a long time ago. Ever listen to a song from the 70’s and notice it’s a fair bit quieter than modern music? We’ve been making music louder and louder over the past few decades, but we might have plateaued – for better or for worse. Hopefully for the better.
The Loudness War is a phrase that came about in the early 2000s. The mentality behind it was somewhat logical: if my song is louder than yours, even if your song is “better” (I’m going to come back to that), my song is going to sound better to more people. You can already start to poke flaws in that reasoning. The process is almost always a mastering issue. Mastering is the final phase in music production where the entire album is finalized, tagged properly, balanced in terms of levels and frequencies, and prepared for distribution. Think of it as an extended proof-reading. Once the industry realized that louder music sold more, the output knobs slowly began to creep up towards 11. So let’s start with the bad. This is the version of Californication by the Red Hot Chili Peppers that we’ve come to know and love:
Here’s how the song is supposed to sound. (It should jump to 19:38)
What happened here? The “remastered” version is a leaked version of the album that sneaked out of the studio right before the mastering stage, giving someone else a crack at doing a better job. You can hear a wealth of clarity in the individual instruments, and the track as a whole in the newer version. Californication was criticized heavily for its terrible mastering. You can ever hear audio clipping and distortion at around :34 in the original track. To me, it’s as drastic as a new song, and amplifies the song’s impact.
I talked about this in my review of Juturna by Circa Survive: loud is good, but loud all the time is bad. With most music, I don’t want a constant onslaught of noise drilling into my ears. When the singer goes to a whisper, I want them to actually get quieter. When the bassist and drummer decide to take the track down, I want things to get quiet. Sure, the dynamics of their playing might soften, but volume wise, there needs to be a perceptible change. Most people only listen to music linearly, but recognizing depth within songs opens entirely new realms to explore.
Okay. Let’s turn this on its head. You might say, “What if I want a track to be loud and mean and in my face?” You might be talking about a track like Green Day’s American Idiot.
Did you know it was also remastered in 2012? Here’s what the new version sounds like.
You shouldn’t need a great set of speakers to hear the difference. There’s an easily discernible improvement in clarity with the remastered version. All of the tracks are more separated. There’s almost a “3D” sense to the remastered version. It sounds more “real” and true to life, but as subjective as music is, feel free to use your own metaphors. But see, I don’t like the remastered version as much as the original. Part of the sound of the original mix (and Green Day [and Chris Lord-Alge, who mixed this album]) is the blatant overuse of compression. But that’s what makes this song exciting. It’s (pop)punk music. Compression and limiting, like Auto-Tune, can be used for stylistic interpretation as opposed to crutches which make you sound better.
That ties us into the whole “better” argument. Music is incredibly subjective. Listening to music is a subjective experience. We all have our individual tastes and likes and dislikes, and one man’s trash is another man’s treasure. It’s the reason a band’s garage demo might have more power and impact than the recorded studio version. I can’t tell you what’s (objectively) good, but I can tell you what’s bad: clipping. We’ve started to master music so loud that we’re intentionally exceeding the limits of what our electronic components are meant to reproduce. Granted, we’re doing this by very minute amounts, but that extra 0.5dB makes my song louder than yours, and therefore, “better.” Regardless, this will inevitably create unwanted digital distortions in the audio.
But I see hope for the future. The Loudness War is a popular concept. Those in the music industry have done a fantastic job of recognizing this as a problem and raising awareness. Fortunately, we’re not too late. Okay, we’ve lost a handful of very good albums (including some of my favourites) to distortion and a lack of clarity, but we’ve used it to push the frontiers of music. Skrillex’s music would not have been able to exist had we not been optimizing our songs and systems for the types of “soft clipping” we use to get around the issues of distortion. It’s created its own sound. You can argue for better or worse, but just as 80’s rock will be remembered for its reverb and treble (and hair), this generation’s sound will be smeared – a dynamic pancake.
We get the choice to change that. Vinyl’s making a comeback. Maybe vinyl doesn’t have all the dynamic range (the difference between the loudest and quietest sounds a system can accurately reproduce) that digital formats afford, but we’ve been mastering songs for vinyl recently in ways that are much more dynamic. A mix that’s slammed into a limiter won’t create grooves deep enough for record players to accurately read. Add that to the advent of the home studio, mix in a little know-how, and as we stand, we possess the technology to make the most moving, interesting, and dynamic music to have ever existed. I hope to find more of it. Maybe pop music will take a little longer to catch on (YOU try convincing the suits that your quieter song will make them just as much money), but it’s something to be aware of in everything you listen to.
Let me put it this way. A .wav file recorded at 96kHz with a bit depth of 24 (the standard medium in today’s studios) has a dynamic range of about 124dB. That is the difference between the quietest whisper, and a full volume concert. We have the capacity for everything in-between. I say let’s start using it to make our music that much more immersive and interesting!