Loudness Wars: the Client Credibility Gap

What are the Loudness Wars?   

The Loudness Wars exist for one very good reason: if you turn the volume up, almost everything sounds better. 

This one, as Nigel Tufnell observed, goes to 11.

Loud sounds big, impressive, clear, full-range, wonderful.  So what's wrong with making music as loud as possible?

That thinking is what lead to the Loudness Wars, and we're all casualties of the war.

It's ironic that the first mass market consumer digital audio medium, Compact Disc, is able to reproduce very quiet and VERY LOUD sound with virtually no distortion or electronic noise. It's ironic because so much popular music produced since CD's invention has used less and less of this available dynamic range.  Many CDs released in the last 25 years use only a very few of the available 96dB, and it's got a lot worse in the last 10 years or so.

Why does it matter? Loud sounds good doesn't it?  And if I'm putting my msuc out there, I want it to sound at least as loud as everything else, right?


There are two main ways to make music sound louder. One is to compress the dynamic range, and the other is to introduce distortion. Whilst both of these techniques in moderation can improve the listening experience, if overdone, they ruin it. Guess what happens when the client/record company wants the music louder? 

Finally, people are waking up to the downsides of the loudness wars. Listeners started to get annoyed when TV adverts became so much louder than the programmes they interrupt, they had to turn the sound down (or off) when the adverts came on. Not what the advertisers really wanted.

And the same thing happened when listeners put their MP3 players on shuffle: some tracks were way louder than others. No one likes this.

Gradually, broadcasters, MP3 player manufacturers and more recently music streaming services started imposing strict loudness levels on the music they play. So suddenly, there's no point in mixing and mastering your music for maximum loudness.  The louder it is, the more it gets turned down. 

Something else happens when you listen to all music at the same loudness: you start to notice that music which has been produced for maximum loudness sounds much worse than music which has been produced with greater dynamics.  It sounds squashed, thin, distorted. 

So now, some of us are mixing and mastering in a way which maintains dynamic range. We believe music sounds much better that way.

Of course, we are still often asked to 'master it a bit louder'  This is the Client Credibility Gap.

People find it hard to believe that quieter, but dynamic, music will sound better to the listener than compressed and distorted, but loud, music.  Sometimes we need to sit people down and play them their music back-to-back compressed, then dynamic, BUT at the exact same loudness, to convince them.

To learn more about the Loudness Wars and the benefits of enhanced dynamics, check out Ian Shepherd's excellent Dynamic Range Day website