(We welcome guest writer Alex, the co-founder and chief editor of Metal-Fi and an audiophile who has been listening to metal for more than 20 years. The following piece provides a detailed introduction to “The Loudness War” for metal lovers who don’t know about it, but should prove to be an eye-opener even for people who do.)
Metal is supposed to be loud. Extreme metal is supposed to be even louder.
Suffice it to say, for many years I was a religious zealot when it came to the above doctrine, especially when I was in the company of people who I knew despised the genre. Many of these “civilians” treated it as simply noise, and my volume habits would only help underscore that belief. But it was through my volume fervor that over the years I started to notice something, namely, it seemed that my metal collection was gradually sounding worse, i.e., each successive new release I bought would sound worse than the prior one. What the hell was going on?
The fact is most headbangers never heard of the Loudness War until the release of Death Magnetic.
I had friends who were literally counting down the hours ’til it was released. And despite the fact that I had jumped the Metallica ship years ago, they insisted that as soon as they got their grubby little hands on it, they were going to soil my stereo system with it (my presence was entirely optional). As the only audiophile in the group, I was the only one who had a system that would actually do it some aural justice. Well, like clockwork, day of, they came over with the CD and immediately had me play it. The record of course sounded like shit. “Dog shit” I believe was the term bounced around the most. It wasn’t the music per se, it was how Death Magnetic actually sounded on my system. They thought my setup was broken. I assured them it wasn’t. My friends looked very confused.
So I made the most of it, and proceeded to hold my own little audiophile group therapy session. I explained the reason why this record sounds so awful is because of the copious amount of dynamic range compression applied during the mastering process, and that this is a direct result of the Loudness War. Most of my friends were very skeptical to say the least. To better illustrate the point, I quickly played my original Master of Puppets CD. Sounded good. I then re-spun Death Magnetic. Dog shit. I then applied this un-so-scientific method to other popular metal artists, switching back and forth between older, less compressed releases and newer, more compressed ones. Same exact results.
NCS’ own Andy Synn wrote a piece a few months ago about the Loudness War, mainly treating it as an issue of aesthetics. At the end of the piece, he eventually comes to the conclusion “that it’s not necessarily the fault of the production techniques, it’s the misuse and misapplication of them that’s the problem.” I couldn’t agree more. However, the article skirts around some of the more fundamental aspects of the Loudness War, i.e., it’s not just about the loss of crescendos and volume homogeneity. The Loudness War also breeds a certain ideology that has been single-handedly destroying popular music, including metal, for the past few decades. But before I get into that, as the great French philosopher Voltaire would say, “If you want to converse with me, you must define your terms.”
Since Andy references Wikipedia, so will I: The Loudness War is “a pejorative term that describes the reduction of dynamic range of music in an effort to make it louder.” But what exactly is dynamic range anyway and how do you reduce dynamic range in order to increase volume?
Dynamic range (DR) is defined as the ratio of the softest sound to the loudest. To get even more technical, it is the ratio of the peak to the average level, commonly known as the crest factor (my friends, like you, are rolling their eyes right about now). In order to maximize loudness, an engineer will use a technique called dynamic range compression that applies gain to the softer, quieter signals within a track, while keeping the louder ones slightly reduced or intact. The idea is to create an artificial sense of sustained volume across a whole song or album.
But if an engineer pushes these levels too hard, odd-order harmonic distortion is produced (read: unpleasant noise, trust me). So in order to maximize loudness but prevent unwanted distortion from occurring, a technique called brickwall limiting is used in conjunction with dynamic range compression. Brickwall limiting provides a stop-gap measure to prevent the signal from being pushed past the point of no return, or a level in which digital audio can no longer represent it (past 0dbFS for all you nerds out there). The net result is a track or album that is loud all the time, non-stop, whether the material warrants it or not.
But the process I just described has some grave side effects. In essence, as all the levels are pushed higher and higher, the music’s fidelity starts to degrade. Bass guitars become barely audible, if at all. Cymbals don’t reverb naturally. Kick drums lack slam. Imaging and transients are thrown right out the window. The “wall of sound” is more of an artifact of piss-poor mastering than it is a product of brilliant composition.
So given all of the above, who in their right mind would ever master a record that results in a terrible sounding product? Enter the Loudness War.
In 1933, researchers Harvey Fletcher and Wilden A. Mudson decided to try to model how our ears perceive the audible spectrum (20hz – 20kHz) at different loudness levels. By 1937 they had come up with the first Equal-Loudness Curves. Then in 1956, it was slightly revised and became the basis for a formal industry wide standard. It turns out that the frequency response of our hearing changes with loudness. In other words, depending on how loud I play your favorite Bolt Thrower track, you will perceive its spectral content differently as I turn the volume knob up and down.
So where is the sweet spot on these curves? Generally speaking, around 85-90db is considered the range in which your ears demonstrate the most linear frequency response, i.e., you are able to perceive a wider range of frequencies more evenly with respect to volume. That’s why mix engineers, whose primary purpose in life is to wrangle an assortment of frequency data into one cohesive unit, will tend to hover around 85dB when they perform their magic.
But high volumes also serve another purpose — it gets you noticed. At some point, record companies and artists started to use volume as a way to promote the artists. The idea was that given a random assortment of artists in a playlist, you, the listener, were more likely to notice the loud tracks over the softer ones, regardless of fidelity (or more tragically, in spite of). Thus, the volume arms race known as the Loudness War was born, and records have been getting louder ever since.
Now, the primary currency in which producers and engineers deal is volume, not fidelity, and as result, newer releases sound worse than older ones. Bear in mind that there is no statistical evidence whatsoever that louder records actually sell more. None. But due to ignorance and inertia the metal industry has “unofficially” standardized on a particularly low level of dynamics, specifically DR6. DR what?
Ian Shepherd, a well-respected mastering engineer and outspoken critic of the Loudness War, started to campaign against the heavy-handed use of compression and brickwall limiting back in 2010 when he founded Dynamic Range Day. But he also marketed a free tool that enables you to measure your own record collection and actually get a sense of the Loudness War’s impact. The tool is call the TT Meter, and it is a freely available, stand-alone client application that measures the crest factor, or dynamic range, of most digital formats.
The recommended level for music by most industry experts is DR8 or higher. As I said above, metal these days averages about DR6, but many records easily dip down into the DR4 or lower territory. Abigail William’s Becoming: DR6 (two tracks actually measure DR5, so the liner note comment that “This album has been purposefully mastered quietly. You have a volume knob. Use it.” is comical at best). Death Magnetic: DR3. Fleshgod Apocalypse’s Labyrinth: DR4. Again, more dog shit.
Bare in mind, the DR score is by no means the be-all, end-all authority on whether a record sounds good. But it is a valuable indicator none the less, and when an album measures in sub-DR6 territory, you can be sure, other than in the most extreme circumstances, fidelity took a back seat to volume. As Andy smartly concluded, dynamic range compression in itself is not evil, but the over-zealous use of it is, and the DR score allows you to quantify that fact. If you ever wondered why a remaster of your favorite record doesn’t quite rip your face off like it used too, it’s almost always due to the fact that the DR score was cut in half in an attempt to “modernize” the recording. See for yourself using the unofficial DR database, the Metal-Archives of DR scores. As you dig deeper and deeper, the numbers, especially for metal, don’t paint a pretty picture. Caveat emptor.
Most of the artists I talk to privately tell me the real reason why they want their record to be at these insane volume levels is not because of some aesthetic choice, but rather out of necessity. There is still this pervasive attitude among most artists that listeners will condemn them if they release a record that sounds glorious but isn’t loud enough. So not only has the Loudness War, and more specifically, the production practices that support it, ruined countless numbers of albums, but it has also fostered a culture of fear. Fear that a record won’t be successful or even commercially viable if it’s not loud. Apparently the popular music industry as a whole believes that we are too stupid to use our volume knobs judiciously. Believe it.
The Loudness War ruins music, hurts artists, and prevents engineers from doing their job properly. I wholeheartedly encourage you to measure DR of your own records and talk about the Loudness War within the NCS community at large. But even more importantly, if what I said above resonates with you, be vocal, and use the various social media outlets to express your displeasure over Loudness-War-produced products to the labels and artists that release them. It is the first step in taking back our volume knobs so we can really enjoy our metal loud. Don’t take my word for it, hearing is believing.