Jan 152014

(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.

  20 Responses to “LIFE IS ALL DYNAMICS”

  1. One has had difficulty understanding what was meant by such arguments before. The Emmanuel Deruty quote does clear it up a bit, though.
    Old Man Windbreaker thanks you for this reminder that One does have amplifier-loudspeaker’s with volume-control that One should use more.

  2. Finally, I grasp why the new FA album didn’t blow me away as much as their earlier work. The volume is up so high that the introduction of extra (symphonic) instruments causes others to be more or less muffled — which is quite annoying.

    It might also be due to the quality of the audio format one uses to listen to the song, and one’s speakers. But I’m no expert in that field, so I don’t know.

    Just a pity, when one considers how much better the record becomes when imagining a “better” mix (i.e. more appealing to my ears). I’m sure many others do too; I’ll be keeping an eye out.

    • If a song is mastered and mixed properly, it will sound good across all platforms. Even at least decent on say, a shitty MP3 player and some generic in-ear headphones. The first album that comes to mind is Opeth’s “Ghost Reveries”. Whether you like it or not, the album has great dynamics, mastered well so the clean flow into the heavy parts perfectly. Not a massive jump in volume to where it’s unpleasing, but powerful enough to get the point across. It also sounds good on my actual audio monitors and my shit MP3 player.

      And, on a side-note – Fleshgod Apocalypse is an example of great production (as in, an overall really good sound) suffering from muffled dynamics. I still very much enjoy the mix of guitars, bass, drums, and thick symphonic material, but without healthy dynamics it doesn’t breathe like it should,

      • I was trying to think of a good way to say what you did about dynamics. While a lack of them can bore you to pieces, as Andy said, to far of a jump can indeed be unpleasant, as you’ve said.

      • Thanks for your remarks, they’re spot-on with what I wanted to convey, and with great clarity.

  3. A link to a Nature paper in NCS? Damn, now I’m getting confused between my work time and perusing metal blog off time.

  4. I have a hard time discerning these sorts of loudness issues from other production elements that can make bands sound sterile. I know that I’m not crazy about a lot of modern metal production, but it’s hard to articulate specifically what’s wrong when the whole thing is very artificial sounding. I feel like Ludo expressing his displeasure with the Bog of Eternal Stench, inelegantly lamenting this thing I don’t entirely understand.

  5. a really interesting post, i’ve never quite understood the whole “loudness war” thing but this clears it up for me. it’s safe to say that my hearing passed the point of being too damaged to differentiate fine details in sonic quality many years ago. i’ve always preferred the basic 2 guitar tracks, 1 bass, 1 vocal & drums over the “wall of sound”. i’m not really into strings and keys, and if a 4-5 piece band can’t accurately reproduce the songs from their album in a live setting without the use of pre-programmed sounds/instrumentation, what’s the point?

    • Yeah, I really prefer it when bands can recreate their material live without having a bunch of it piped in from a laptop. For metal, anyway. Obviously seeing a pop or hip hop act live is a little different.

  6. Pretty sure I’ve said this before… might have even been on my own blog.

    The early Pantera albums (up to and including FBD) are a great example of quietly mixed albums with a sense of spaciousness and clarity. I remember the first time I heard “Vulgar…”. I thought there was something wrong with the cassette because the playback was so quiet. Years later when played (incidentally yet not necessarily relevant) on vinyl on a high quality hifi system, I noticed that as I cranked the volume the album started to sound better.

    The higher the volume level, the higher the level of clarity. All the instruments were distinguishable and low through to high frequencies were audible with little to no perceptible (unpleasant, unintended) distortion.

    The same held true for FBD. What had sounded like wimpy mouse clicks through my paper route head phones sounded like absolutely crushing, swinging, galloping double kicks.

    DAWs have come a long way in the last decade yet there remains one area of music creation that has yet to be properly emulated (though I’m sure an algorithm at the hands of a good programmer is likely on the way…): the years of experience and familiarity with acoustics and playback technology of dedicated, qualified mixers and audio engineers.

    But then again, since most people seem to be streaming audio and playing it back through phone speakers and entry level earbuds/headphones it would seem there is little demand for music mixed and mastered for playback on dedicated hifi systems. We get what we deserve/ask for, I guess.

    • There was a paper… I can’t find it now (or it may be somewhere in one of the ones linked) that suggested some possible positives of the fact that more people are listening via streaming, etc, meaning that more songs will have to be mastered more carefully, because you can’t ever be sure exactly WHAT the audience will be listening on, so you’ll have to pay more attention to preserving the dynamic across a lot of potential sound systems.

      Possibly a positive. But just conjecture.

  7. Well nice that this seems to have put it into perspective for some. Now if only this would mean something for us who already had it/wishing hoping and trying to get this issue to come to terms.

    And as a side note, still hoping for a remaster of Labyrinth (though unlikely, I feel in my bones 🙁

    • The Deruty piece I actually only found whilst doing some further research into the issue (I had already written a fair bit of my own stuff about it) and his views certainly changed the tone of the whole piece. It’s very helpful in clarifying a lot of the issues, whilst also putting it in a scientific perspective (but not overly so).

  8. I’ve been liking FA’s Labyrinth quite a lot despite the lack of dynamics (something I immediately noticed and annoyed me greatly the first few times I listened to the record); but here’s me hoping they’ll work with another mixer/producer/whoever was responsible for the pretty horrible sound dynamics for their next album.

    Overall I think these guys have a tremendous amount of talent and potential, which unfortunately only comes to full fruition in a handful of songs (such as the Forsaking, Minotaur and a few others). But I’m sure they’ll be back in 1,5 year with another release that perhaps deals with this loudness thing!

    Besides, I actually do not know of other releases that heavily suffered from this problem last year. I’ve read about on several occasions, but the only example that is given each time is FAs newest album. Are there even any other albums that suffer from this phenomenon from last year? If not, then I really don’t think it’s such a big deal.

    • Hypocrisy often has issues with brickwalling/clipping (there’s a bit of it on End of Disclosure to my ears).

      And, not from last year, but there’s a really good breakdown of Death Magnetic in the Deruty piece:

      “Diagram 2, from the same group, shows Death Magnetic’s RMS variability in comparison to that of Master Of Puppets, as well as two other albums with low crest-factor values: My Beautiful Dark Twisted Fantasy and Congratulations. This is where the real trouble begins. Not only does Death Magnetic sound very ‘compact’ because of its low crest-factor values, but it’s also very stable (low RMS variability). Which means it’s exaggerately compact… all the time. Diagram 3, from the same group, sums that up, by showing how unusual such a combination of low crest-factor values and reduced EBU 3442 loudness range is. It’s comparable to no more than three songs from MGMT. Even the sometimes incredibly compressed My Beautiful Dark Twisted Fantasy can’t compete: it retains much more contrast than Death Magnetic. And though it’s roughly as stable as the music of Dagoba, an industrial metal band with death metal vocals who specialise in spectacularly loud, compact and thick productions, Death Magnetic is way more compressed. In my opinion, that does it: you don’t want traditional, mainstream metal to sound more compact than purposely extreme industrial/death metal. Or if you do, then you’ve got to change the music itself, to build in more contrast, so it can afford or even benefit from so much compression.”

  9. The original master of the Fleshgod Apocalypse album has trumpets and cellos and a whole other raft of instruments on it. The label mixed them out in order to compress the hell out of the album to make it “loud”. Band where basically told to like it or f*uck off.

  10. The loudness war hit home for me when I listened to Evoken’s Atra Mors for the first time – it’s so loud and compressed it’s annoying.

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