‘The Loudness War’ is a hot topic in production music circles. For those who aren’t familiar, loudness involves the way that music is compressed and limited at the mixing and mastering stages. This allows the music to sound LOUD!
Apart from being weary of giving the listener ear fatigue, regulatory standards (such as R128) impact the way loudness relates to music production. New measuring metrics, including LUFS, compete with older RMS measurements. All of these factors make loudness a potential 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. Making sure that your album out enough volume was essential back when records competed with each other on jukeboxes in bars. The actual mechanics of mastering records required various tricks to make things sound louder and more bassy. Meanwhile, physical limitations of making sure the stylus stayed in the groove meant that loudness could only go so far.
These limitations no longer applied after the introduction of CDs and DAT in the 80s. Mastering engineers realized that boundaries could be pushed to make releases sound louder than ever before.
Mix and master
Essentially, loudness comes down to the way the ear differentiates between loud and quiet passages. (Dynamic range is the difference between loud and soft.) A listener percieves an overall boost in volume by squashing peaks and boosting quieter sections.
Compression and limiting tools in mixing and mastering often achieve this effect. However, dynamics can be lost (essentially the difference in volume peak levels), and an ear-fatiguing, ‘brick-walling’ is the end result.
Loudness and Production Music
It is important for production music to stand out from the crowd. Yet, making it too loud can mean end-users suffer in the long run. Most broadcast platforms, including online services like Youtube, apply their own normalization processes. This makes sure everything sounds similar in terms of volume. So, highly compressed pieces of music end up sounding thinner and less effective than those that maintain dynamic range. This is especially true when extra layers of modifications are used.
Moderation and balance are key when it comes to deciding how loud to make production music tracks. Composers and producers should learn this lesson if in order to stand up against the competition.