To start with, I’d like to point out that I agree with this argument some of the time. Yes, I hear a lot of music that could sound better with more dynamic range preserved. And yes, I do think that the pressure to make very loud mixes is somewhat misguided. I too would prefer if albums were limited less aggressively. But I think that there is some distinctions to be made here.
First, albums that sound crappy due to their loudness tend to sound this way because someone either went overboard in mastering, or someone simply lacked the skill to make a loud record correctly. There are albums out there that are obviously too squashed, and there are albums out there that sound fantastic, and they’re the same loudness. So it seems that some engineers know how to properly make a loud album, and some don’t. Somehow, I doubt that every one of those good sounding loud albums would sound better if it had more dynamic range. Which brings me to my next point:
When properly engineered, not only in the mastering stage, but throughout the tracking and mixing process, the insane loudness can make the album better. Can you imagine a dubstep record without the aural assault? I just don’t think it would be as cool. Another example is the current resurgence of 80′s inspired music (which, unfortunately, just won’t go away). Listen to an old Madonna record, and then listen to a current record that uses the same production techniques as those 80′s songs: Something like La Roux, or Chromeo. Personally, I think that the newer, louder records often sound better. And I’m not talking about quick A/B’ing where the loud stuff will always seem to trump the quiet stuff. I’m talking about listening to an entire album, which I do occasionally, because I love me some Chromeo.
Third, maybe we should stop using the term “Loudness Wars”, and instead talk about the “Loudness Cold War”. It seems to me that we’re in a Soviet-era style standoff. Albums continue to be loud as hell, but they don’t seem to be getting any louder over the last 5 years or so. This is especially true in the pop genre, and I see things leveling off in the rock genre as well. I can’t comment on other genres because jazzers and classical peeps aren’t all that known for trying to push the boundaries of loudness, and I haven’t really been paying attention. These may be exceptions, I don’t know. Either way, it seems that record makers are finally coming to a consensus instead of trying to outdo each other. Musicians, engineers, and A&R’s seem to be rejecting the sound degradation that comes with further limiting.
Lastly, I know what you’re thinking: “But Bart! all those peaks that we’re cutting off carry important auditory information, and it’s just not pure to cut them off. And we’re putting an additional burden on our sound systems! And it makes music more fatiguing!” Well, guess what? When young guitarists started cutting up their amp speakers and later over-driving their pre-amps to oblivion, the resulting distortion was fatiguing, very un-pure, and it imparted a hell of a burden on sound systems. Old school purists frowned. Kids rejoiced. As it turned out, music was not ruined forever. Brick wall limiting is distortion too, and kids seem to dig it. Let’s not frown too much.
My favorite album from an engineering perspective is still “Blood Sugar Sex Magic”. And yes, it’s got a lot more dynamic range than current rock albums. I wish that all rock albums sounded that good. But I think that if we continue the stand-off, and make things loud skillfully, I’ll be OK with that. What are your thoughts on the Loudness Wars? Leave a comment below.