This article is intended to create discussion on the loudness war. It’s by no means in in-depth technical explanation but is instead a brief summary and where we stand on it with our audio mixing and mastering services.
What is the Loudness War?
The loudness war refers to the need to create loud music, to stand out against other music on CDs and websites selling music. Many people believe their tracks need to match the loudness of other tracks on sites such as Itunes or Beatport to have chance of decent sales. The opposing view is that creating louder and louder music is actually damaging it and therefore damaging the industry at the same time.
How is Loudness Measured?
Dynamic range is a measurement used to calculate the loudness of an audio signal. It’s the difference between the lowest and highest audio peaks. It’s an essential measurement we use whilst mastering but it’s also useful when mixing to ensure your music is open and dynamic. Dynamic range can be visual too. Thicker looking waveforms usually represent a lower dynamic range.
How is Music Made Louder?
Once music hits the maximum amplitude, techniques such as compression, limiting and EQ can be used to bring up the lower peaks of the audio. This effectively reduces the difference (dynamic range) between the lowest and highest peaks of the audio. Usually a limiter is applied at the end of the chain to push down the high peaks, further reducing the dynamic range. This makes the waveform look thicker, sound louder and when over applied, distorts the audio. This squashed audio is referred to as having less dynamics.
As tracks are pushed louder and louder, the weight and impact of a kick that should be driving the track is lost. The strained audio starts to become tiring on the ears, can sound unpleasant and in the end all the tracks subjected to this kind of heavy processing start to sound the same.
What Has Changed?
Back in the early nineties, a well mastered album set at a good level could be averaging -12 to -14 db RMS, and still peaking at 0db. This effectively meant the main body of the music (the RMS level, and our perceived loudness of the track ) would be sitting at -12db, with 12db of headroom available for kicks and snares, drops and builds to provide the dynamic impact, colour and interest. Limiters would be used only to catch the occasional peaks in the music, not acting constantly across the mixes.
Slowly the RMS levels have been raised after the first software limiters were introduced, (regularly to -5db rms, which is now recognised as the loudest a track can realistically go) meaning there is now nowhere for the kick drum to go, except head first into a brickwall limiter, barely louder than the body of the track.
Check out this great video, which gives a loud vs dynamic comparison of a Michael Jackson’s Thriller.
Where Does Product London Stand on Loudness?
First and foremost, we’ll always aim for a loud and dynamic master. That being said, our personal preference is towards more dynamic music. There is a crossover point where the loudness starts to reduce the sound quality and this is a sweet spot we aim for. However, it’s ultimately up to the client to decide how loud they want their music. Although we can advise, an artist or label usually have a sound in mind and that is what we’ll work towards.
What You Can Do to Ensure Your Master Sounds Better
Every track has ‘loudness potential’. This is defined by many things but starting with a great sounding mixdown is the most important. Some tracks are naturally loud, some are not. Some can be brought up to a good and competitive level in mastering without destroying them, others just sound awful when asked to go beyond their natural limits. This is often down to the mixdown and ensuring there are good dynamics before exporting and sending to your mastering engineer.
This is why we ask mix engineers and producers to remove any limiters on their master bus. Just putting a limiter across a mix so it’s showing several decibels of limiting constantly reduces the dynamics and doesn’t help you mastering engineer. It’s well worth checking the RMS levels on your mix at all times to ensure your mixdown is dynamic. This is something we believe producers should try and learn more about before reaching for the limiter. One of our forthcoming posts will focus on improving your mixdowns for mastering.
After decades of music getting louder and louder, there’s now been a shift in the other direction. There is a movement towards more dynamic music which isn’t going to go away. With most devices having a gain knob, there isn’t the need for consumers to have constantly loud, less dynamic music. However, with music sales at a competitive high, the labels and artists will do everything possible to enhance their sales. One thing’s for sure, the loudness war is far from finished and will carry on across many musical battlefields for some time to come.