‘The Loudness War’ has been a hot topic in music production circles in recent years. For those who aren’t familiar with the term it involves the way that music is compressed and limited at both the mixing and mastering stages in order for the results to sound LOUD!
Apart from bearing in mind the potential of giving the listener ‘ear fatigue’ there have also been regulatory changes such as R128 that are impacting on the way loudness relates to music production. Alongside new measuring metrics, including LUFS which are competing with older RMS measurements, the whole area is something of a minefield for anyone looking to produce professional high quality audio.
The history of LOUD
The idea of making your music sound loud is nothing new. Back in the days when records had to compete with each other on jukeboxes in bars, making sure that your 45 rpm disc kicked out enough volume was essential for it to compete. The actual mechanics of mastering to vinyl meant that there were various tricks to make things sound louder and more bassy, but the physical limitations of making sure the stylus stayed in the groove meant loudness could only go so far.
When digitization came in with CDs and DAT in the 80s these limitations no longer applied, and certain mastering engineers realized that the boundaries could be pushed to make releases sound louder than ever before.
Mix and master
Essentially the whole premise of ‘loudness’ in music comes down to the way the ear differentiates between quiet and not so quiet passages within a piece. By squashing the peaks or boosting the quieter sections, an overall boost in perceived volume occurs for the listener.
Using compression and limiting tools at both mixing and mastering stages can achieve this effect, but the danger is that dynamics can be lost (essentially the difference in ‘volume’ peak levels), and an ear-fatiguing ‘brickwalling’ can be the end result.
Loudness and Production Music
Whilst it is important for production music works to stand out from the crowd, making them too loud can mean end-users suffer in the long run. This is because most broadcast platforms, including online services such as Youtube, apply their own normalization processes to make sure everything sounds similar in terms of volume. When these extra layers of modifications are used a ‘crushed’ highly compressed piece of music can end up sounding thinner and far less effective than one that has maintained a certain level of dynamic range.
As with most things in life, moderation and a good balance are key when it comes to deciding how loud to make production music tracks, but it is a lesson that needs to be learnt if you own work is to stand up against the competition.