What is the Loudness War?

The Loudness War.  It’s the title of my blog, but it is also a significant phenomenon of the recording industry.  You can learn more by clicking on “About this Blog”  to the left, but essentially The Loudness War is the music industry’s tendency to record, produce, and broadcast music at progressively increasing levels of loudness to attempt to create a sound that stands out from others.  Does it work?  Maybe.  But I think it’s hurting the art of music more than anything.  We’re missing out on sounds, sounds that play an integral part to the recording and harbour emotional connections to any certain song.

Steven Luscher of the Vancouver band “Lakefield” writes a compelling essay on the effects of The Loudness War and it’s destruction of the dynamic range of a recording.  He makes an interesting anology:

The race to “loud” has resulted in a loss of something called dynamic range in audio recordings. Dynamic range is a hallmark of a quality recording in much the same way that it’s a centrepiece of music composition, arrangement, and performance. To explain why this characteristic is so important to music lovers, let’s go back to your grade school classroom. Imagine that the highest that a student can raise their hand represents the loudest sound on a recording, and that the level of their shoulder represents the quietest sound.

Remember that restrained, mysterious kid in your class? Imagine that he’s the only one around who can bend his arm at the wrist, elbow, and shoulder. The teacher asks the class to comment on the events surrounding the beatification of Joan of Arc in 1909, and he readies an answer consisting of an obtuse reference to the birth of Leo Fender. His hand, at rest on his shoulder, shoots high into the air, folded into the sign of the horns. As his hand shot into the air, it travelled a great distance and achieved great airspeed before snapping to a halt at the end of his reach. Making this powerful and sudden gesture required him to use the full range of motion afforded to his arm by his shoulder, elbow, and wrist. It had impact, and it got him noticed.

Now, let’s consider another one of your other classmates – the teacher’s son. He’s leaning back in his chair trying to play it cool, with his arms behind his head, bent at the elbow. The spectre of favoritism looms large and heavy on his horizon; caught between wanting to impress his parent, and wanting to avoid the ire of his classmates, he sits on his answers for a requisite 5 seconds before shooting his hand into the air. Rotating at the elbow only, he raises his hand with only half the fervor of the first kid.

That annoying keener kid in the front row has had his arm up this entire time, letting his hand flop down at the wrist like a wet noodle between questions, ready to answer the next one as soon as it leaves the teacher’s lips. The problem with his approach is that so little motion happens between the wet noodle position and the five-fingers-spread-like-a-starfish position that it barely commands any attention at all.

As they raise their hands, each one of these kids’ hands reach the same height, but they move through more or less of their available range of motion to get there. The greater the distance that their hands travel, the more emotion, surprise, intent, and impact they convey.

Here is where the analogy circles back to recordings of music; the range of motion of a kid’s arm, from low to high, is like the dynamic range of an audio recording, from quiet to loud. Recordings that feature great distances between quiet and loud have the potential to convey a maximum of emotion, surprise, intent, and impact, as only a mysterious, devil horn pumping young scholar can. Recordings with little or no distance between the quietest sound and the loudest sound end up playing like a wet noodle. Critics call this phenomenon “wimpy loud sound.”

You can read the entire essay on his band’s website at http://lakefieldmusic.com/the-loudness-war-stops-here-high-dynamic-range-audio-recordings as well as listen to their latest album “Sounds from the Treeline” which as you may have guessed, makes excellent use of dynamic range.  It was engineered by Bob Katz, the author of “Mastering Audio: The Art and the Science.”


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