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What Is the Loudness War?

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  • Written By: A. Leverkuhn
  • Edited By: Andrew Jones
  • Last Modified Date: 17 September 2014
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The loudness war is a term for progressively louder levels used in producing or mastering tracks. Music experts point out that over time, many music producers have participated in a trend of turning up the volume on more parts of a track, so that today’s music usually has a different dynamic than songs recorded in prior decades. The result of the loudness war, according to many experts and specialists, is that music suffers from a lack of clarity.

Sound engineers typically explain the loudness war by playing a recorded track along with its digital representation on a screen. As experts point out, older music typically has a very diverse dynamic, that is, there are quiet parts of the track and much louder parts. For example, acoustic interludes leading up to the body of a song might be produced at a very quiet level, with some of the loudest sounds being snare drums and other kinds of percussion.

While the rationale for the loudness war is often described as an attempt to make the quieter parts of music more accessible to a listener, the overall effect is that that dynamic between sounds becomes leveled out, with no sound standing out from the track as a much louder sound. This is what many experts refer to as a loss of clarity, where it’s no longer possible to experience music as a distinct interplay of louder and quieter parts.

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It’s not insignificant that the loudness war took place in conjunction with the rise of digital sound media. Experts who talk about the loudness war, and other aspects of modern production, often mention the need to change production in order to hide defects in digital tracks. The loudness war may have been one inevitable outcome of the change to digital music, although it began long before digital tracks, with the recording of vinyl 45s.

While the term “loudness war” was applied to the competition between producers to make music louder, there is really a debate or “war” over whether producers should go back to providing a more distinct dynamic by lowering the overall volume of tracks. Various listeners continue to have different opinions on whether or not excessive loudness enhances or detracts from music. The best way to evaluate this effect is by using a digital platform where it’s possible to experiment with loudness levels.

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Reminiscence
Post 2

@Phaedrus- I'm also from that same age of vinyl, and most CD recordings drive me crazy. If you know how to take care of a vinyl record and you have decent playback equipment, the experience is better than listening to a CD. Try listening to a vinyl recording of a symphony orchestra and you'll see what I mean. Digital recordings have a lot less warmth, and some instruments sound like synthesizers instead of the real thing.

I try to explain to my younger co-workers that analog sound is the way to go. Digital sound only goes from one point on the scale to another. Analog sound is like a wave, flowing organically between the pitches. We didn't listen to guitarists like Eric Clapton just for their precision. We listened to them on analog recordings because of all the subtle bends in the notes.

Phaedrus
Post 1

I'm from the age of vinyl records, and I'm always arguing with my son's friends about analog versus digital recordings. They always complain about the scratches and pops on vinyl records, and I'm always complaining about how sterile a CD sounds. It might sound cleaner than a vinyl record, but there aren't any nuances in the dynamics. When a group like Led Zeppelin got louder on a song recorded on vinyl, you could tell it was getting louder. The same song on a CD starts out loud and has nowhere to go from there.

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