What's the loudness war? (2023)

What's the loudness war? (1)

Take a listen to these two audio excerpts. Which do you prefer?

If you have a preference, it’s probably for the first one. The second recording is the exact same, but it’s just a tiny bit (2dB) quieter.

People prefer loud. When all other variables are kept constant, listeners reliably prefer the sound of a piece of music when it is played back at a higher volume versus a lower volume (until it starts to actually hurt). Over the past several decades this psychoacoustic phenomenon led to the emergence of music production techniques driven by a “louder is better” mentality, and a situation commonly referred to as The Loudness War, or The Loudness Race. Let’s pin back our ears and dig into how we got into this war, the major events, and how it ends…

How did the loudness war start?

In the beginning, when analog recordings were made into vinyl records, the grooves had to be fairly large to provide a good signal level relative to the surface noise. However, physical limitations with the cutting lathe meant the signal couldn’t be too large. Too wide of a groove reduced the maximum duration of the record, and large amplitude swings could bounce the needle, causing other problems. The mastering engineer took the artist’s finished songs, looked for the peak amplitude, and scaled the grooves accordingly.

Tom Grove Jukeboxes allowed records to be played in quick succession automatically.

Cut to the 1960s: Jukeboxes were popular, and louder records stood out from the rest. Audio pioneers The Beatles were apparently aware of this, and ordered a special device into Abbey Road Studios to help them compete with the louder Motown records coming across the Atlantic: a Fairchild compressor limiter. This is a classic example of an analog dynamics compressor—an audio device that behaves like an invisible hand on the volume control, to make the output more uniform.

A compressor first reduces the level of peaks in the audio signal (without affecting the signal below a defined threshold), then applies fixed make-up gain to bring the peaks back to their original amplitude. The result is an increased average level—linked to how we perceive loudness—with an unchanged peak signal amplitude. This type of signal processing reduces dynamic range in favor of overall loudness—basically, the difference between the quietest sounds and the loudest ones is reduced. If it gets extreme enough, this can make music sound a lot less natural (more on that in a bit).

What happened with the switch from vinyl to CDs?

Digital audio has a well-defined amplitude limit. Exceeding it caused the waveform to become “clipped”.

CDs started slowly taking over from vinyl in 1982, as new recordings and back catalog material were transferred from analog masters to the new digital medium. In this context, digital audio differs from analog in two notable ways: it has a much lower noise floor (so low in fact that CD was the first medium to have a larger dynamic range than live music), and it has a well defined maximum peak amplitude that cannot be exceeded. If part of an audio signal exceeds that theoretical limit, the sound just “clips” (the waveform is squared off), and the peak of the waveform above the limit is lost, effectively becoming a tiny burst of noise—not pleasant at all.

See: High bitrate audio is overkill: CD quality is still great

Because of this, engineers were initially extremely cautious with the signal level on CD releases, allowing plenty of headroom. However, it didn’t take long before the “louder is better” mentality crept in once again. It was well understood from the vinyl days that once the signal peaks did hit that maximum allowable amplitude, the average level, and the perceived loudness, could be further increased by applying more compression and gain to recordings. Compression (not to be confused with data compression) meant peaks would more frequently get close to that maximum amplitude ceiling—And it turned out that occasional clipped individual peak samples weren’t really audible to most people.

Kelly Sikkema No one wanted to have the quietest disc in the CD changer

During the 1990s, some engineers leaned into this approach and made their work noticeably louder. Making a loud record isn’t inherently a bad thing—the sound of heavy compression basically defines some musical genres— but there are tradeoffs. However, as CD changers became more commonplace, nobody wanted to release a CD that stood out as “the quiet one”—Your music would sound boring compared to the louder records. So the average loudness of CDs rose over time, samples clipped more frequently, the loudness war intensified, and dynamic range kept shrinking.

How did digital signal processing impact the loudness of music?

Around this point, several technological advancements became widespread in sound production: digital outboard limiters, digital audio workstations, and audio plugins. These allow for more extreme manipulation of dynamics. By employing what is known as “look ahead,” digital limiters can adjust the level while anticipating the incoming signal’s waveform, responding faster and with more precision than analog devices. This enabled “brick-wall” limiting, which effectively clips the signal at a point just before it reaches the theoretical volume limit. This process shaves off signal peaks and makes the top (and bottom) of the waveform look like it’s hit a brick wall. It doesn’t sound as bad as severe digital clipping, but it doesn’t sound good, and it gets easy to recognize. The prime example of this technology is the Waves L1 Ultramaximizer, the napalm of the loudness war.

Godfrey Nyangechi Digital technology allowed producers and engineers to push tracks louder than ever before.

These tools meant that, starting in the mid-’90s, engineers could make their tracks significantly louder than before. As those brickwall limiters were pushed harder, the sound became increasingly harsh. (What’s The Story) Morning Glory by Oasis is considered a landmark example of detrimental amounts of compression, combined with extreme limiting, to create something absurdly loud.

What other records are considered casualties of the loudness war?

Efforts to increase loudness in response to these brickwalled albums resulted in countless casualties of clipping and audible distortion. CDs were pushed more and more to compete with one another, which led to compromised releases.

Open some songs from different eras in your favorite editor and take a look at the waveforms. Most music that predates the 1990s will have very jagged lines and resemble Christmas trees laying on their sides. Music mastered to be loud will look almost like a hamburger. There won’t be many peaks or valleys, just pure, over-compressed sound-patties: Those peaks and valleys represent differences in the peak loudness in the song (the dynamic range). When there are no differences, your brain starts to simply register the stimulus as noise.

Audio files from each decade (1948-2008) showing the waveform getting progressively “squashed”—Digital peak limiters were introduced in 1995, just before the second last example in this illustration.

The most frequently cited victim of the Loudness War is the Metallica record Death Magnetic. This was so dramatically over-compressed and brick-walled on its initial release, that critics universally complained about the poor sound quality. The distortion was so apparent that anyone who listened to it could finally hear and understand the downsides of making CDs super loud. Effectively, Metallica won The Loudness War, and their beleaguered fans were ultimately its biggest victims. 2008 became the tipping point for the Loudness War, when an unlikely Hero showed music fans just how bad the situation had gotten. That’s right: the catalyst for the eventual backlash against loud music wasGuitar Hero.

How did a video game wake people up to the downsides of loud CDs?

Guitar Hero III hit its stride as the prominent rhythm game of the year. To build the different layers of audio in the game, multitrack stems from the album’s recording were transferred from the recording studio. By piecing those stems together themselves, Metallica fans heard what the released record could have sounded like. All of a sudden, Death Magnetic actually sounded… kinda good. Although this moment of clarity didn’t actually end the Loudness War, it garnered enough coverage that many music fans began paying more attention to the issue.

Recordinghacks.com 2 versions of Metallica’s Death Magnetic. Overcompressed original retail release is on top (blue), Guitar Hero version on the bottom (green).

The actual solution had already been developed in the background as a response to growing libraries of MP3 files from different eras, with wildly differing loudness levels. Replay Gain was introduced in 2001–the same year as the iPod–as the first volume leveling algorithm for music files. Soon after, most music library applications, including iTunes, could automatically perform analysis of tracks and write a loudness normalizing value into the file’s metadata.

How file metadata brought an end to the loudness war

Digital audio players and media playback software read metadata loudness values and adjust the playback level for each track accordingly–this has no negative impact on audio fidelity. The simple and ingenious way this works is to take the loud tracks and turn them down compared to the quiet ones.

This type of leveling technology quietly rendered the Loudness War moot: tracks made with cranked up compressors and limiters don’t end up any louder. Instead, you notice the lack of dynamics imposed by over-compression clearly when played alongside songs mastered without the “louder is better” approach, and you’ll likely appreciate the more open, dynamic material.

Ben Szymanski The success of the MP3 led to loudness leveling algorithms.

Today, streaming services all automatically apply normalized volume levels, usually based on “Integrated Loudness,” a measurement of loudness for the entire audio file. Most streaming services normalize to -14 LUFS (the standard unit of loudness measurement for broadcasting). If a song is deemed to be -8 integrated LUFS, it will be turned down 6dB, for example.

Loudness range, a measure of how dynamic a track is, also has a place in the audio file metadata. Application of these measures and leveling techniques are allowing the transition from a “peak normalized” audio world to a “loudness normalized” audio world, where you can switch from Aretha Franklin to Dua Lipa without adjusting your volume knob. Full adoption of this will eventually allow switching across platforms (music, movies, TV) without reaching for the volume control at all. It’s been a long time coming.

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FAQs

What started the loudness war? ›

Godfrey Nyangechi Digital technology allowed producers and engineers to push tracks louder than ever before. These tools meant that, starting in the mid-'90s, engineers could make their tracks significantly louder than before. As those brickwall limiters were pushed harder, the sound became increasingly harsh.

What is an example of the loudness war? ›

2008's Death Magnetic is the most well known example of what the loudness war has done to music. The album was so hopelessly over-compressed and limited that it just sounded terrible. Critics and the average consumer alike recognized how poor the sound quality was. In some sense, Metallica and Rick Rubin won the war.

Does the loudness war still exist? ›

The Death of the Loudness War

The loudness war is basically over. Loudness has finally been defeated. Sure, people are still making very loud tracks - and it's still a very valid goal for many producers out there to mix and master their music as loud as possible.

How is the loudness war damaging the music that we listen to? ›

The Loudness War is a sonic "arms race" where every artist and label feel they need to crush their music onto CD at the highest possible level, for fear of not being “competitive” – and in the process removing all the contrast, all the light, shade and depth – ruining the sound.

Why does old music sound better? ›

There's a psychological reason for it: Familiar music actually feels better to audiences. In numerous scientific experiments, researchers have shown that subjects are much more likely to report positive feelings from a given piece of music if they've heard it before.

Why is music getting louder? ›

According to the study, audio engineering has changed over time, and as a result there are now fewer “quiet spots” within tracks. That means that the overall sound intensity of current music is a bit higher than that of older music. So yes, music has gotten louder over the years.

How loud was the loudest thing in the world? ›

On the morning of 27 August 1883, on the Indonesian island of Krakatoa, a volcanic eruption produced what scientists believe to be the loudest sound produced on the surface of the planet, estimated at 310 decibels (dB).

How loud is the loudest thing? ›

1. The Tunguska Meteor: This was a huge explosion in Russia close the Tunguska River of Podkamennaya. It had the comparable effect of a 300-315 dB 1000-mega-ton bomb. This is often regarded as the loudest one-time event in history.

What is the most compressed album? ›

The honor of the loudest, most compressed album of all time goes to the 1997 remaster of The Stooges' classic Raw Power. The waveform of each song scrapes the top of the audio spectrum with little variation.

Did ww2 soldiers listen to music? ›

American troops had regular access to radio in all but the most difficult combat situations, and not only did soldiers know specific songs, but specific recordings.

Is loudness Penalty real? ›

We deliberately chose the name "Loudness Penalty" to be a little provocative, but it is accurate. The louder your music is, the more it will be turned down by online streaming services, to avoid "blasting" listeners with unexpected changes in loudness.

Did people actually play music during war? ›

Playing in the Field

These musicians marked the activities of daily wartime life, including wake up, lights-out, roll call, and drills. The music also helped organize the movement of the troops (think marching) and even conveyed combat orders to soldiers, who were trained to recognize these commands.

What happens if you listen to loud music all the time? ›

Listening to loud noise for a long time can overwork hair cells in the ear, which can cause these cells to die. The hearing loss progresses as long as the exposure continues. Harmful effects might continue even after noise exposure has stopped. Damage to the inner ear or auditory neural system is generally permanent.

Why should not we play loud music? ›

Excessively loud music is plain noise. When it comes through earphones, it strips the auditory nerves of the myelin sheath — its protective covering — thereby disrupting the electrical signals to the brain. The thudding of the bass, and raised decibel levels can cause palpitations in even the middle aged.

Why do humans love loud music? ›

Loud music relieves stress

There is a direct connection between your inner ear and the pleasure centers in the brain. Shortly explained, when you listen to (loud) music, endorphins are released. This connection is stimulated more by low frequencies above 90 decibels.

Does music slow aging? ›

Studies have found music relieves stress and reduces anxiety, depression, agitation and anger, as well as slowing cognitive decline in older people.

What do you call a person who loves music? ›

melomaniac (plural melomaniacs) One with an abnormal fondness of music; a person who loves music. [ from 19th c.] quotations ▼ synonyms, antonym ▲ Synonyms: melomane, melophile, musicophile Antonym: melophobe.

What age does music sound the best? ›

For men, the most important period for forming musical taste is between the ages of 13 to 16. Men were, on average, aged 14 when their favorite song was released. For women, the most important period is between 11 and 14, with 13 being the most likely age for when their favorite song came out.

Can music be a drug? ›

Music and drugs both create pleasure by acting on the brain's opioid system. Singing can release endorphins, which many drugs do as well. Many drugs, like prescriptions, can dull pain. Music has also been shown to provide a sense of relief in stressful or painful situations like surgeries.

Is it rude to play loud music? ›

Playing loud music that can be heard from outside of the property from where it is being played is considered to be rude by many societies. Among those opposed to the practice, it may result in the loss of respect and legal action under nuisance ordinance.

Why do people blast music at night? ›

1. Loud music relieves stress. Found in the inner ear is the sacculus (pronounced as sack-you-less) that has direct connections to pleasure centers in the brain. It releases endorphins when stimulated by loud music, so listening to loud music is essentially self-medicating.

How loud can a human yell? ›

Human screams can be quite loud, possibly exceeding 100 dB (as of March 2019, the world record is 129 dB!) —but you probably want to avoid that because screams that loud can hurt your ears!

How much dB is a gunshot? ›

How loud is a gunshot? Decibel levels for firearms average between 140 and 165 dB.

How loud is a black hole? ›

That's a note played at a frequency a million, billion times lower than anything the human ear can detect. And the output is a whopping ten-to-the-power-of-thirty-seven watts, or about ten billion times the energy of our Sun.

How loud is an atomic bomb? ›

A nuclear bomb explosion has been reported to be 240 to 280 dB+. A sound level meter set 250 feet away from test sites peaked at 210 decibels. At the source, the level is reported to be from 240 to 280 dB+.

How loud is a gunshot pistol? ›

Firearms Are Loud

Almost all firearms create noise that is over the 140-dB level. A small . 22-caliber rifle can produce noise around 140 dB, while big-bore rifles and pistols can produce sound over 175 dB.

What happens after 194 decibels? ›

Once you get to a certain level (194 decibels, to be precise), there comes a point where the low-pressure regions are completely empty – there are no molecules in there at all. The sound can't get 'louder' than that, technically.

What is the #1 album of all time? ›

Michael Jackson's Thriller, estimated to have sold 70 million copies worldwide, is the best-selling album ever. Jackson also currently has the highest number of albums on the list with five, Celine Dion has four, while the Beatles, Pink Floyd, Madonna and Whitney Houston each have three.

What is the fastest selling album of all time? ›

This is a list of the fastest-selling albums (pure sales) in the United States since Nielsen SoundScan tracking began on March 1, 1991. 25 by Adele is the fastest-selling album of all time in the US with 3,378,000 copies sold in its first seven days.

What did US soldiers listen to in Vietnam? ›

They listened to the radio, or on cassette desks or reel-to-reel tape players. They loved Hendrix and Nancy Sinatra, and especially songs that had anything to do with going home, because that was their main goal.

What was the most popular song during WWII? ›

Without any doubt the most popular song of the Second World War was 'Lili Marlene'. It was based on a poem written during the First World War by German soldier Hans Leip and was addressed to two of Leip's girlfriends, Lili and Marlene.

Did soldiers have fun in ww2? ›

In their spare time, soldiers wrote letters and diaries, drew sketches, read books and magazines, pursued hobbies, played cards or gambled. There were also opportunities for more-organised social activities.

Why is 194 dB the loudest sound possible? ›

At 194 dB, the energy in the sound waves starts distorting and they create a complete vacuum between themselves. The sound is no longer moving through the air, but is in fact pushing the air along with it, forming a pressurized wall of moving air.

What happens if you hear 100 decibels? ›

Sound is measured in decibels (dB). A whisper is about 30 dB, normal conversation is about 60 dB, and a motorcycle engine running is about 95 dB. Noise above 70 dB over a prolonged period of time may start to damage your hearing. Loud noise above 120 dB can cause immediate harm to your ears.

What happened to the loudness of the sound? ›

As distance from the sound source increases, the area covered by the sound waves increases. The same amount of energy is spread over a greater area, so the intensity and loudness of the sound is less. This explains why even loud sounds fade away as you move farther from the source.

Who invented loudness? ›

Bell Telephone Laboratories devised this sound measurement unit and named it “bel”—in honor of the organization's founder, Alexander Graham Bell. The decibel is one-tenth of a bel. The decibel scale helps us understand which noises can damage hearing.

Why do they play music in war? ›

However, music has been employed in battle for centuries, sometimes to intimidate the enemy and other times to encourage combatants, or to assist in organization and timing of actions in warfare.

Which sound wave is the loudest? ›

The more the amplitude, the louder is the sound. Among the given sound waves, wave III has the maximum amplitude. Hence, it represents the loudest sound.

How loud can sound get? ›

How loud can something be? Once you get to a certain level (194 decibels, to be precise), there comes a point where the low-pressure regions are completely empty – there are no molecules in there at all. The sound can't get 'louder' than that, technically.

What is another fact about loudness? ›

When something vibrates and produces a sound, the sound waves coming from it move up and down as they travel. Loud sounds are carried by waves that have a higher amplitude (height between peak and trough) than quiet sounds. The bigger the amplitude of a sound wave, the louder it sounds to our ears.

What is a weird fact about sound? ›

Here are some fun facts about sound to get you started! Sound travels much slower than light, whether in the air or in water. Light travels at 186,000 miles per second, whilst sound travels at 770 miles per hour. You often hear things after you see them - for example, you see the lightning before you hear the thunder!

How loud was the loudest sound ever recorded? ›

On the morning of 27 August 1883, on the Indonesian island of Krakatoa, a volcanic eruption produced what scientists believe to be the loudest sound produced on the surface of the planet, estimated at 310 decibels (dB).

Can music stop a war? ›

Music has amazing inspirational powers, says former Black Flag frontman Henry Rollins – but only collective action can stop a war or change a government.

Do soldiers listen to music in combat? ›

Many soldiers interviewed believe listening to music before going into combat (especially metal or rap) will psychologically prepare them for battle. In fact, even during patrols and missions, soldiers listen to music in tanks and Humvees through self-made sound systems, portable CD players, mp3 players, and the like.

What are the songs that soldiers sing called? ›

In the United States armed services, a military cadence or cadence call is a traditional call-and-response work song sung by military personnel while running or marching.

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