THE LOUDNESS WAR
By Jeremy Chua
Is louder really better?
“Can you make my song louder?” – This might be about the most asked request I have received from artists and clients over the last couple of years. The Loudness War refers to this very race for recorded music to be as loud as possible.
But is louder really better? If you’ve ever asked yourself this, you’re not alone. Engineers and critics have been debating the ideal loudness and maximum peak levels for music since early analogue formats. In the age of digital music consumption, this question is more relevant than ever. More on that later.
Many engineers argue that increasing loudness causes a decline in listener enjoyment because of loss in audio fidelity and dynamics from compression. Still, many artists are afraid of their music not sounding just as, or louder than the next song. Why is this?
How the war for loudness began
A good place to begin in answering that is by understanding how we got here. The earliest report of a loudness war is with mastering for 7-inch* in the 1940s. People gravitated toward playing louder records on jukeboxes, hence artists wanted their songs to be as loud as possible. While there was a physical limit to how loud a vinyl record could be cut, then came the Compact Disc (CD) in the 1980s. Really, this was when we saw the war for loudness begin – as digital recording eliminated any constraints of an amplitude ceiling, engineers for popular music made their masters louder and louder in a bid to stand out from the crowd.
*Referring to the “45” or “7-inch” vinyl record, named after its play speed (45rpm) and standard diameter (7 inches).
How we hear sound and music
Do things actually sound better louder? To understand this, we must consider how we perceive sound and music as humans.
As illustrated by the Fletcher Munson Curve, our perception of audio and music is non-linear – different frequencies have different thresholds of audibility and are perceived differently at various levels; this causes us to hear a song differently when played at different volumes.
However, this does not mean a louder song would sound better. It raises several points at least – firstly, mid-range frequencies will be heard more clearly at low volumes. Secondly, low or sub frequencies will be heard more clearly at higher volumes. Therefore, a song with more low frequency elements might be perceived as louder than a song with less low frequencies played at the same volume.
Has streaming ended the Loudness War?
Perhaps the most important thing to take from this article, if nothing at all, is that the Loudness War is potentially over in the age of digital music streaming. In a sense, we have gone back to the days of having an amplitude ceiling like with the 7-inch; this time, in the form of Loudness Normalisation standards imposed by streaming platforms.
In short, these standards apply positive or negative gain to ensure listeners aren’t constantly reaching for the volume control between songs. While generally a good thing, this means that a track that is over the prescribed standard of loudness for the platform will lose transient information and dynamics. This is illustrated by the following diagrams.
How do these platforms measure loudness? While there are many ways to measure loudness, arguably the most effective metric is Loudness Units Full Scale (LUFS); the integrated LUFS unit considers loudness over time and is said to most accurately relate to how we hear music as earlier discussed.
Why do we fear a lesser experience from our music sounding softer than the previous song? I’m not sure. However, in the age of digital music streaming, louder certainly does not mean better.