As we start to enter the 2015 season, more and more CDs are dropping with popular artists entering the fray or revitalizing their careers. Along with that is the continued war in the mastering community over the loudness of CDs, namely the quality of the music overall.
What is the Loudness War?
The Loudness War is a term that largely started gaining steam in the early 2000’s. The term relates to music and the fact that there is a maximum level in music: 0.0 dB. Once this level is surpassed, the music starts to clip (think a lawnmower cutting off a blade of grass) and the quality is lost forever. Beyond that, compression started to be used more and in a much heavier manner resulting in every single instrument being pushed to the maximum. Compression can be a great tool when used in small doses as it raises the volume level of an instrument but if you raise every instrument, you gradually lose the separation between instruments as well as the highs and lows of the music itself.
Below is a great, albeit quite commonly used video explaining the loudness war well.
Bands aiming for loud sounds had been going on since the 1940’s when MoTown musicians and mastering engineers would tweak the drum sound to get it as loud as possible for their Vinyl releases. With Vinyl, dynamic range mostly remained in-tact as pushing the sound to certain levels or beyond would cause the needle to physically skip on the album or outright jump off it when being played back. Also as a result of the times, mastering engineers didn’t feel a need to raise the levels of music to extreme proportions. The 1960’s and 1970’s are considered not only a golden age in regards to musicianship and the bands of the era but one could argue that they were also a golden age in terms of the dynamic range being offered.
As CDs started to enter the forefront in the 1980’s, the dynamic range continued to stay in place offering up a lot of range on the new medium despite the abrasiveness of various bands that could have led to mastering trying to push things to more of an extreme to get the abrasiveness of the sound out there as it’s own thing rather than letting the music tell it. One perfect example would be Skinny Puppy, known for their harsh proto-Industrial music and pushing the limits of what it meant to have a dance-able upbeat track by going to the extreme opposite. Despite coming out in 1987, the CD release offered dynamic ranges varying from 11 to 14 and RMS values of 16-18 dB. Worth noting is that the loudest ‘peak’ on the CD was almost a full dB under the maximum.
When Did the Loudness War Start?
A lot of people tend to point to two albums as being the culprits or at least the best examples of the changing of the guard in terms of mastering and creating the Loudness War: Oasis’ (What’s the Story) Morning Glory released in 1995. The CD was an absolutely massive hit worldwide and in an interesting example, didn’t clip by going over 0.0 dB but rather was compressed so that every instrument was nearly the same level. It’s a decent sounding album but the instruments tend to battle one another in places on multiple songs and after half the album, ear fatigue tends to settle in.
The other main culprit was the re-released and re-mastered in 1997 version of the 1973 album Raw Power with Iggy Pop handling the remastering process. This album constantly clipped and was maxed to the absolute headroom available and beyond.
The third ‘face’ of the Loudness War would be the Red Hot Chili Pepper’s release, Californication delivered in 1999. The album, much like the Oasis release in 1995, was a great sounding album muddled with clipping and maxed out levels that proceeded to give ear fatigue halfway through and buried the quality of the songs themselves.
Worth noting is that the Vinyl LP version of the CD was remastered in 2012 by Bernie Grundman and the quality of the songs stand out much more as a result in comparison to the CD.
The mainstream media finally began to jump on the wagon in 2008 with the explosion of criticism and the revelation over Metallica’s release of Death Magnetic which got ripped for sounding muddled and busy especially when it came to light that the video game, Guitar Hero III, had a much better and more balanced rip that was not nearly as compressed.
One can see, however, that the Loudness War was starting around 1989 and 1990. While not noticeably bad by modern day standards, re-releases such as Boston’s Boston in 1989 were lacking the same dynamic range as previous releases from the 1970’s. Some releases were pushing the boundaries in those two years but it was starting to become a much more common occurrence by the mid-90’s starting in 1993 and 1994 and gaining steam after Oasis’ release in 1995.
Nirvana’s In Utero released in 1993 was already skating the cusp of having good dynamic range and being over compressed to the point of nearly being unlistenable. Pearl Jam’s Vs. also released in 1993 pushed against that same straddling line. Their RMS (root mean square or the average sound between a high and a low) was huddling around 9-12 dB. For comparison, the RMS of Michael Jackson’s Thriller in 1982 had an RMS hovering between 13 and 15.
Loudness War Strangles the Industry
By 1999, the Loudness War had completely taken over the industry and the early 2000’s was a veritable who’s who of compressed CDs released to cater to the loudest sound possible regardless of genre in an effort to show off to fans that louder was better. Albums as varied as the Backstreet Boys’ Millennium in 1999, Ice Cube’s War & Peace Volume 2 in 2000, and Korn’s Issues in 1999 couldn’t escape and were compressed to near maximum and outright clipping on multiple tracks.
By the 2000’s, it was not uncommon to see new releases registering dynamic range values from as low as 4 to as high as 6 over an entire album. The long awaited release of Guns N’ Roses Chinese Democracy released in 2008 was as lauded for the fact that it retained much of its dynamic range as summed up by the mastering engineer Bob Ludwig, “I was floored when I heard they decided to go with my full dynamics version and the loudness-for-loudness-sake versions be damned.”
Loudness War in the Modern Day/Future
Unfortunately, for every step forward there are three steps back being taken as the dynamic range of songs remains crunched to the max for notable releases. Sleater-Kinney’s self-titled release in 2014 remains clipped and the RMS is slammed to 7 on nearly every single track. Remember that hard hitting bands like Nirvana were hovering around 10-11 just 20 years ago. Taylor Swift’s 1989 released in 2014 also remains compressed and clips, hovering around 8 RMS.
With that said, if you hunt around, there are bands releasing non-compressed and even quite dynamic albums. One such band are The Waterboys’ and their release: Modern Blues. As the years carry on, it will be interesting to see if the trend in the Loudness War starts to deviate back towards the decent levels of the early 1990’s or late 1980’s after the notable mainstream examples of Metallica and Guns N’ Roses in recent years.
Credit to Robots For Robots for feature image.