(In this post, our man Andy Synn provides observations about the so-called Loudness War.)
The so-called “Loudness War” is an interesting – if ill-defined – phenomenon. Granted, it’s not a real war (as far as I know, no-one has died, nor have any regimes been overthrown or countries subjugated purely because of differences in mixing/mastering preferences), but it’s still a source of conflict among listeners, bands, and engineers.
To those of you unaware of the term (possibly due to being prematurely deafened), it is:
“a pejorative term for the apparent competition to master and release recordings with increasing loudness.” (Wikipedia)
And the main complaint about it is that it reduces/compresses the dynamic range of music, so you’re left with something aggressively homogeneous – with neither ups nor downs, neither highs nor lows… something actually less than the sum of its parts.
I suppose the simplest form of dynamic in music has always been the “Quiet-Loud” form, which you can see informs a large proportion of Kurt Cobain’s song-writing in latter-day Nirvana. It’s both simple and effective, yet can also be used very cleverly. Everyone from Communic to Gorguts knows the value of the calm before the storm. It’s long been a working-truth in metal that the softer parts often serve mainly to make your heavier parts sound even heavier.
The fact is, the quiet-loud dynamic can work even in relative terms – the Talanas mini-album I reviewed yesterday is, essentially, an experimental piece of semi-acoustic minimalism, but still has its moments of calm and intensity even within that quieter range.
I found it interesting that when Abigail Williams released the fantastic Becoming it came with a tiny disclaimer in the liner notes which read:
“This album has been purposefully mastered quietly. You have a volume knob. Use it.”
In a direct reaction to the “bigger, louder, faster, stronger” paradigm which seems (note the word “seems” there) to govern a large swathe of music production these days. The album may not quite have the same enforced decibelligerence as some of today’s crowd, but the range of sound, and the depth of sound, it displays, allows for far greater contrast and much bigger swells in dynamic. When it gets big it certainly gets BIG!
Even the main man Devin Townsend, famous for his bombastic, wall-of-sound production style, is more than aware of the simple fact that sometimes less IS more, and that the relentless pursuit of volume over variety, the endless pressure for more, more, more, eventually leads to sonic fatigue.
It’s not just confined to Metal either. It seems to be an affliction common to all (or almost all) forms of “popular” music.
A rather nice study in 2012 entitled “Measuring the Evolution of Contemporary Western Popular Music” focussed on three aspects – timbre, pitch, and loudness – of songs from the 1960s right up until the present day.
Interestingly, their results indicated, quite strongly, that alongside the growing loudness of popular music, there was a concurrent decrease in the range and variety of timbres and pitches found in music over the years.
If you want to look in more detail you can find the original paper here –
– but it definitely provides some compelling evidence that music, at least in the popular sphere, has been steadily reducing itself towards uniformity…
But we’re talking “extreme” music here, aren’t we? Shouldn’t every aspect of it be as “extreme” as possible?
Well it’s precisely this sort of mentality that gave rise to the over-use of generic 808 bass drops in 90% of all deathcore bands looking for some way to signal the “kick” of the supposedly-heavy-part. Without any grasp of dynamic variety, with everything at the same constant level of “heavy”, they had no way of indicating change (and, as you’ll see below, change is a key feature in capturing our attention).
This problem led to the increasing use of “artificial” means to promote supposedly heavier and heavier parts. It’s the same thing with the recent debacle over programmed tech-death bands. Once the only purpose of your music is to be Louder/Heavier/Faster, then you’re reducing the possibilities available to you. And once you’re all targeting the same sonic threshold… everything really does start to sound the same!
The thing is, there are a few very real, and well-documented, psychological reasons which suggest that stubbornly refusing to deviate from this “everything turned up to 11” stance isn’t good for you as a listener, or for the music that you’re listening to.
Firstly there’s a perceptual basis for turning the volume knob down every now and again.
As it stands, we’re hard-wired as seeing, hearing, feeling creatures, to be aware of changes in our environment. Deviations in colour, depth, pitch and volume are just some of the primary factors we’re predisposed to pay attention to.
When everything’s at the same, consistent level of extremity, then we’re far more likely to tune-out. Relentlessly blasting away at 10 million decibels is fun for a while, but you’d be surprised by how little of the experience you’ll actually remember afterwards if there’s no dynamic shifts to capture (and re-capture) your attention.
Secondly, there’s the issue of tolerance, something which you’ll primarily see written about in reference to drug exposure, but which has some bearing on what we’re talking about here.
In simple terms, one of the primary domains of drug tolerance involves dopamine receptors in the brain gradually becoming less sensitive, and therefore more tolerant, to increasingly higher doses of certain substances, reducing their effect and necessitating a bigger and bigger “hit” each time. It may sound like a funny stretch, but the parallels are there. Heck, there’s a well-known refraction period involved, where your hearing becomes desensitised due to over-stimulation (and which links in with tinnitus).
The main issues I have, however, have less to do with the actual “loudness” of things and more to do with the deadening of relative impact that it causes.
One particular song from last year immediately stands out in my mind as an obvious example: “Kingborn” by Fleshgod Apocalypse.
Now FA are often the go-to whipping boys for people looking for someone to flagellate for bad production, and as such are one of the most frequently cited culprits involved in the “Loudness War”. And it’s true that the sheer sonic overload in which they indulge (with overpowering/overpowered production to match) can be overwhelming and intensely off-putting. They’re a band who revel in excess, in bombast and pomposity, and the decadence of their sound seems to reflect that.
The crux of my complaint/concern here, though, is that this song (while really good) pretty obviously doesn’t “kick” into gear in the way that the band intended it to. At 1:38 the song really kicks into high gear with what should be a major explosion of sound and power… but in reality everything’s already so loud and maxed out that there’s little difference or contrast between the seconds of relative quiet that precede the “kick” and the kick itself. The result is less like being hit by an iron boot to the gut, and more like being struck by a high-speed pillow case… extreme, yet somehow soft.
What really cleared it up for me was a piece by Emmanuel Deruty over at SoundOnSound:
In it he goes very carefully into all the aspects of the so-called “Loudness War”, and one of his key conclusions is that (as is so often the case) language is causing many of the problems in talking about, and fixing, the problems of “dynamic range” – a term which he identifies as being both misleading and inaccurate:
“So what’s the problem with the loudness war? Obviously, limiting does something ‘wrong’ with the signal, otherwise people wouldn’t be complaining so much — even though they apparently point at the wrong signal descriptor.”
He makes a fantastic comparison with visual imagery to help illuminate what the REAL problem with the “Loudness War” is:
“…it’s as if, for the last 20 years, all pictures in books and magazines have been getting brighter and brighter. There are still deep blacks, the contrast remains intact, but all images look brighter… It’s as if everything these days is supposed to look ‘flashy’, even though common sense suggests there are some images that shouldn’t look flashy at all, in any situation. This is all the more true in the case of audio content, for which ‘brighter’ doesn’t simply mean a higher density of clearer pixels. It also means reduced crest factor, envelope modifications, use of the second loudness paradigm and, in the worst cases, distortion. Common sense suggests that although there is nothing wrong with these characteristics as such, they shouldn’t be on virtually all records.”
It’s a simple statement, but one all the more effective due to the careful analysis he’s done to reach that point. Sometimes the simplest, seemingly obvious, answers can only be validated through painstaking analysis.
His conclusion, one which resonates well with me, is that it’s not necessarily the fault of the production techniques, it’s the misuse and misapplication of them that’s the problem. Being “louder” doesn’t necessarily have to limit the dynamic range of your sound, and compression can certainly be a very helpful tool in a lot of circumstances, but you’ve got to know what’s right for you, and ignore the peer pressure which dictates that everything needs to be brickwalled and compacted into the same tightly confined box.
Just give it room to breathe.