Updated: Aug 15
Do you ever find yourself turning down the volume on your favourite songs because they’re just too damn loud? Well, you’re not alone. The music industry has been in a loudness war with commercial radio for decades, and it’s time to understand why.
At first, the goal was simple: make your music sound as loud as possible on the radio. With so many songs competing for airtime, producers wanted their tracks to stand out. But as technology advanced, so did the techniques for making music louder. Suddenly, it wasn’t just about standing out on the radio, it was about being the loudest track on the album. And that’s where things got out of hand. The result? Music that’s so compressed and distorted that it loses its dynamics and becomes fatiguing to listen to. But why did the music industry want to sound like radio in the first place? Let’s dive in.
What is Loudness?
Acoustics, or loudness, determines how loud sounds are perceived by humans. When the intensity is relatively small, the noise is muted, and when it is too high, it is painful and dangerous to the ears. The sound intensity that the ear can tolerate is approximately 1012 times greater than the amount just discernible. The frequency range of sound people can hear differs greatly from person to person.
Radio engineers have been in a never-ending pursuit of loudness, driven by the competition to be number one on the airwaves. They use various equipment to make audio recordings as loud as possible, from compressors to limiters to equalizers. The goal is to make their music stand out among the sea of songs vying for airtime. However, this pursuit of loudness has led to a problem. Music has become so compressed and distorted that it loses its dynamics, resulting in a fatiguing listening experience. Despite this, the music industry continues to push for loudness, emulating the sound of radio. This pursuit is centred around technological advancement and competition, with engineers always striving to make their music the loudest and most attention-grabbing.
The Impact of Loudness in Music
This pursuit of loudness has resulted in a backlash from fans who value clarity and dynamics over absolute volume. The Loudness War has also reduced the quality of recordings in favour of a competition to be the loudest.
The way sound engineers and producers master tracks has come under scrutiny due to the way music is being released. The pursuit to establish a competitive edge has inspired labels to focus on greater loudness at any cost, reducing value and clarity along the way. This has led music producers to create tracks that lack emotion and are static. Their music is being over-compressed to stand out among other songs, but this is leading to a decrease in audio quality. Artists can solve this problem by making their music stand out with its sound quality and dynamic range.
It's difficult to deny that the Loudness War has had a negative impact on the music industry. There is now a growing movement advocating for a return to solid, stable mastering practices that favour clarity and quality over sheer volume. As well as being better for listeners' ears, this approach would allow for increased creativity and control over the final product.
Measuring Loudness - VU Meters
Magnetic tape and digital media are limited in the range of signal levels they can handle before introducing distortion. In the analog world, radio engineers use a Volume Unit meter (VU) to measure the voltage of audio levels which are displayed in dBm. The zero that appears on the right side of the meter references 0dBm, the point where the audio signal measures 1 milliwatt. This is the point that audio starts to distort when using analog gear, and the distortion appears gradually above 0dBm, intensifying until clipping occurs. Going above 0dBm is a common practice in analog studios where distortion is created by overdriving the equipment and tape. This can add pleasing harmonic tones during recording and is emulated today with many saturation plugins.
The VU meter can’t display peak levels like modern digital meters. This means that while the meter reads 0dBm, the audio signal could be peaking much higher, resulting in clipping, distortion, and saturation. Despite these limitations, the VU meter is still very useful for measuring average levels and preventing signal overloading during mixing.
One commonly used criterion to describe the dynamic behaviour of a recorded music piece is the 'crest' factor, for instance. The crest factor can be defined as the difference between the RMS level and the peak level throughout a song. It measures the amplitude of the emerging 'peaks' in the audio stream, intuitively. More compression generally results in a lower crest factor, making it a good marker of the amount of dynamic compression applied to the music. Good handling of the crest factor is considered by some professionals as the cornerstone of successful mastering. The music tends to be louder when the crest factor is lower, generally speaking.
Loudness in the Digital Age - RMS and LUFS Meters
An audio signal is perfect in digital recording until you reach 0dBfs, where unwanted clipping occurs that can ruin the audio signal completely. For this reason, a peak-indicating meter is still necessary to measure the maximum fluctuations of a waveform during recording and mixing to avoid clipping. Set the level on the armed track so the incoming audio peaks at -12dB, leaving lots of headroom for effects processing and balancing. Later, an RMS meter can be added to the master bus to monitor average levels during mixing and mastering. Remember: these meters are a visual guide and any mix decisions should be made with your ears first!
The tools we use evolve as the music we create continues to evolve. A new meter called the LUFS meter has gained popularity in recent years, especially in the realm of radio broadcasting. The music industry has adopted the LUFS meter for mastering, while some engineers have made the switch to it exclusively. Others have continued to use an RMS style meter. Either meter is acceptable because it’s not the tools we use that makes great music, it’s how we use them. While it’s tempting to focus solely on loudness, it’s important to remember that a balanced and enjoyable listening experience should be the ultimate goal.
How To Use Meters
There is A TON of varied discussion on what level to master, and everyone from professionals to social media commenters offer different opinions. Streaming services will normalize your track to -14 LUFS, so there is nothing to gain by releasing a song or album above this benchmark. A balance between maintaining dynamics and transients versus loudness should be carefully considered.
During my final mix I aim for the RMS meter on my Master Bus to display at -20 to -16 RMS at -6dB. This allows for enough headroom to balance the tracks evenly, providing clarity and energy and also leaves enough room for mastering.
When mastering for streaming releases, aim for -14 LUFS and get as close to -0 dBfs on the peak meter.
Mastering for non-streaming songs can be louder. The meter reading can be in the range of -8 to -6 RMS with the master bus peak meter showing -.3dB. The equivalent is -9 LUFS if you prefer to use this type of meter. This technique is used for DJ friendly releases designed to be heard in loud environments and should not be used as a streaming master.
Keep in mind the level that you decide to mix and master a is song dependent and is not a one-size fits all approach. This approach allows you to give each song it's own feel and tailor the mix to the context and material of the song.
The Effect of Loudness
As a lover of recorded music, it saddens me to see the effects that the loudness war has had on our listening experiences. I’m sure some of my favourite songs may have been stripped of their emotional impact and beauty in pursuit of being the loudest. As the music industry continues to push for loudness it damages the subtleties and nuances of music that make music truly great.
There is also a risk of people’s health being affected by sounds. Loud and prolonged sounds have been shown to cause the following conditions:
ischemic heart disease, orcardiopathies associated with decreased blood flow to the heart
Birth defects and possible immune deficiencies are also contagious complications. There is evidence that road noise constricts arteries and increases blood pressure. There is also the possibility of heart attacks. A noise level of 50 dB at night increases cortisol production which causes arteries to constrict and increases blood pressure. Studies have shown the affect of high levels of noise on our wellbeing and should be taken seriously.
What's the Solution for unwanted Loudness?
So let’s ask ourselves - what effect has the loudness war had on our music production? Are we sacrificing quality and emotion for the sake of being the loudest? It’s important to mix our music to the level that feels appropriate for the production, rather than chasing the illusion of loudness. It’s time for us to take a step back and reconsider our approach to music production. Instead of striving for loudness at all costs, let’s focus on creating balanced and dynamic mixes that truly showcase the beauty of each element. By using the right tools and techniques, we can achieve a professional-sounding production that shines without sacrificing quality or emotion.
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