Singer Songwriter & Vocal Coach, Lizanne Hennessey - Voice Coach

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Who can put a stop to The Loudness War?

If you are familiar with the term, you are most likely fighting this war yourself.

I am a musician, married to another musician/recording engineer. I am also a listener, a person with respect, appreciation and love for music. The Loudness war has been going on ever since the 1980's and since the introduction of the CD, dynamics are slowly but surely disappearing from music altogether. I, for one, want them back.

Mastering engineers are getting a bad rep for "making music louder". Listeners are suffering from "fatiguing", instruments are so drowned in limiters, compressors, we can barely recognize them, and due to "clipping", music sounds distorted, mutated and just plain awful.

Mastering engineers like Greg Calbi:
www.youtube.com/watch?v=Do1FJ5BcqSY
And Bob Katz:
www.youtube.com/watch?v=u9Fb3rWNWDA
are speaking up, and taking the pledge to not participate. There is evidence all over the place that the loudness of a song has no effect on whether that song sells or not. Producers, product managers and, sadly, even some artists are suffering from"loudness envy", and music is the victim.

Digital music doesn't have to be louder than loud. Someone can put an end to this war, but who?

  • Apr 22 2013: Hi Dear Lizanne Hennessey,what a coincidence,these days I felt puzzled when I click the top list music to listen:I felt annoyed why music and singing all so loud,all are kinda of desperating narration.I just told myself:oh,I don't want these empty soul lousy voice.
    I have to admit I don't know any about music,but I know music is one very important part of my life:I listen music with my heart,my heart can tell me what are good music which can soothe me calm and peaceful...
    • Apr 24 2013: That is such an important point, edulover! Music is part of all our lives, because it is part of us as human beings. We were designed to make, feel and appreciate music! To be honest, I wouldn't even consider the 'stuff' we hear today as music - yes, it's an organized collection of sounds, but the integrity and respect for music itself has been thrown out the window by blowing it up out of proportion.
      • Apr 25 2013: Lol,dear Lizanne hennessey,be optimistic...some of minority music in my country are really great.I listen them once a while when need to relax.Maybe we can share more in Skype?Did you use Skype?
        • Apr 25 2013: Oh, edulover, of course there is still good music out there, thank goodness! I am very optimistic, absolutely! If I were pessimistic about music, I would probably stop singing and making music myself, which is not about to happen! :-)

          Where my concern lies is with children and teens who grow up with this artificial-sounding music, performed by artificial-sounding people.
          It's been shown that people who listen to music that is this loud have to stop eventually, not only due to 'fatiguing', but because they can't process the sounds anymore. Why? Because the sounds don't sound like they're supposed to sound. Due to the extreme limiting and compression to get the volume up, the natural acoustics of an instrument disappear, which is called 'transients'.
          http://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Transient_%28acoustics%29
          When we hear an instrument, but not the transients, it doesn't 'compute', it goes against our grain.
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    May 1 2013: I agree. Luckily there are people like Maxi Jazz who make or used to make popular music about this phenomenon, saying loud and crystally clear that "greed is a weapon of mass destruction" in this vicious circle of commercialism that you're mentioning. That's what he says (not raps, just says) in one of his songs. In a different song he says loud and clear that "I ain't no joke" It's positive that he and many other authentic artists like you, popular or not, mainstream or not, see that problem, can identify it, and have the courage to express their worry.
    "I wish this was some sort of artistic movement, a new method of expression! "
    I actually think there is one already, more than one, but fragmented, chaotic and not so well-known which makes it low-impact. And Maxi Jazz said it best, I see him as one of contemporary prophets, not only a musician. He did not appeal to everybody as John Lennon did, but this doesn't make his message less valuable for the music industry.
    Best wishes.
    • May 3 2013: Thankfully, you're right, there are wonderful 'underground' scenes where music is appreciated as a form of expression, as an form of art! And indeed, the beauty of music is that it is linked to our 'soul', it can trigger memories and spark flames of emotion, when it appeals to us as individuals.

      I am convinced, just like many music-lovers, musicians and engineers, that musical integrity will win this war. A movement creates an anti-movement.

      Best wishes to you too!
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    Apr 26 2013: Hi again, Lizanne

    I can't say I'm familiar with the term, thanks for sharing.
    If anybody subjected me to fortissimo when I felt for crescendo I would not feel content. On the other hand, fortissimo cannot be excluded because of this as long as it is not directly hurtful. People have different needs, different demeanor and thus different take on music or art in general.

    Beauty is not only in the eye of the beholder but also in the ear of the listener. It's a question of taste. De gustibus non est disputandum.
    Distorted, mutated, clipped, loud or lousy voices have something to say too and should be given the possibility. Music is art, it will not suffer or feel victimised. It will mutate and new genres will be born. They will not be for everybody, but do they have to be?
    • Apr 30 2013: Hi Anna,
      I completely agree. Music is a form of art and expression and should in no way be hindered.

      The problem with this phenomenon is that the negative effects of the Loudness War are not the intent of the artist, they are a result of the producer. Mastering engineers around the globe are frustrated and speaking out about this because they are more or less forced by the labels to max these recordings over the top simply to get them louder, which is by definition destroying the integrity of music in general.
      Why?

      There is a sickness in this war known as "loudness envy", of which producers and product managers are scared to death. They are convinced that if their client's song isn't as loud as the competition's, sales will go down. The sad truth is that studies have shown that there is no correlation between the volume of a song and its sales.
      http://productionadvice.co.uk/research-loudness-sales/

      I wish this was some sort of artistic movement, a new method of expression! Unfortunately, it has nothing to do with musical or artistic expression and everything to do with commercialism and money.
  • Apr 25 2013: Just wanted you to know, I emailed that department store.

    As it turns out, when you google the store and attach "loud music" next to it's name, a whole lot of blog pages come up of customers complaining about the same thing.

    So, let's see what happens!
    • Apr 30 2013: Aren't you fantastic, Mary!
      My grandmother always said, "Write a letter!" When you are unsatisfied, chances are you aren't the only one.

      Thanks so much for letting us know and keep us posted!
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    Apr 25 2013: I love the convenience of mp3's, but some are terrible quality. 320 are not too bad, better than many old cassettes. But i miss the richness of lps. Actually thinking of getting a decent record player again.

    However, i dont mind electronic music, i love some of it. I dont need to play it loud to enjoy what like.

    Suggest volume even for live music makes you feel it on a more primal level. Its a different experience to just listening at reasonable volumes.

    I love driving home from work on friday, pumping up the radio a bit louder than i normally do.

    I guess it about balance and freedom.
    • Apr 30 2013: I agree, Obey 1, it is about balance and freedom!

      Like you, I like to be in control of how loudly or how softly I set my volume. It's a freedom that is being taken away from us. Sometimes a good deep bass can thump inside your ribcage, or a really solid high note can send shivers down your spine... But this is dynamics, not volume.
      And the Loudness Wars takes dynamics away.
  • Apr 19 2013: How interesting that you should be posting this conversation.
    Just today, while I walked through a department store, I was tormented with the loudnes of the music.

    And I am not talking about a radio being too high...I am talking about all the instruments in the actual piece sounding in a way that hurt my ears and tormented by mind......I had to quickly rush through.....

    What was worse is that part of the store was playing one album, and another adjacent part was playing a different album altogether. I happened to walk through the section where you could hear both at the same time....It was an awful awful experience.

    Let me just say that the music sounded just like what you are talking about.
    I did not recognize the song or the singers.......

    As I left I thought, "I should write a letter and tell them just how awful and loud and hurtful to ones ears all that music was."
    Now here you are with this topic.

    So, what do you think? Should I write the letter and use the names and youtube videos you provided?
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      Apr 20 2013: This discussion raises the basic question of our right to reject cacophony brought to us in the label of music. A person can be subject to auditory abuse just like indecent sight, inappropriate touch or pure violence. Our laws only limit decibels and that is not enough.
      Imagine a CD with statutory warning like: Mastered with acute/shrill/loud sounds that may seem inappropriate to listeners. Listening discretion requested. Only for personal hearing and strictly prohibited for public address.
      • Apr 20 2013: Yes Pabitra......"cacophony".....that's what it was.

        You know, as I walked through the store I thought to myself, how do the employees deal with this noise all day?

        It must be doing major damage to them. And I'd just hate to be the family member receiving such a dear one at the end of their work day......

        It does sound like something needs to be done?

        I'll be thinking on this throughout the weekend.

        I can't help but think it was so timely, my going to that place and this conversation on the very topic.
        Serendipity!!!

        And, we need huge signs in front of stores that play such music.....not just labels on the CDs.
        • Apr 22 2013: Thanks to you both, Mary and Pabitra, for your insights!

          Mary, I do also love a serendipity!! But what a horrific experience you had to endure - and one I'm sure many of us recognize or have experienced ourselves, sadly enough!

          YES, write a letter!

          Loud music is damaging not only to our ears, but to music itself. The whole point of music is to draw us in as listeners, but when the volume is forced to such extreme levels, it pushes us away. Anyone who has taught in a classroom will agree that the way to get kids' attention is by not saying anything at all! Silence captures attention!

          Listening to loud music can be fatiguing physically, as well as mentally. And in a situation like yours, you are being forced to listen against your will! This is not what music is about!!!

          I love the double meaning in your statement, "It does SOUND like something needs to be done". It certainly does. I have some ideas... now to get the whole world on board. ;)
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      Apr 26 2013: The situation you're describing seems highly irregular.
      Let me explain ;) Malls nowadays are designed to be pleasing on all sensoric levels - visually and yes, also aurally - for the sole purpose of boosting sales. Individual stores or shops need to chose their own music to reach the target audience and target customers for their brands (you do not play speedmetal in a candystore, if you catch my drift).
      If being between the stores was an awful experience for you there is a fair chance it can be that for a number of other potential customers, leading to lower number of visitors in this section. If this was just an incident and a result of a tiny accident - ok. But if this continues and shows in lower income for both stores, they will figure out that something's wrong and fix it sooner or later. Trust me.
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    Apr 19 2013: What happens to the 'crescendo'?
    • Apr 19 2013: It's gone, like any other use of dynamics that makes music so wonderful to listen to and enjoy. At least, on digital recordings.

      Of course, the "Loudness War" doesn't apply to all music! There are thankfully still folks in the industry who want to keep music intact and don't succumb to increasing volume and decreasing integrity. It applies to the majority of pop music, what we are exposed to via the media (TV, radio, internet).
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        Apr 19 2013: I always held the view that if I want to listen to a song it must sound like the singer is sitting across from me, so that I can 'see' the sound. I can feel if she cried last night or felt elated to see someone she loves. All instruments are secondary.
        If I want to listen to instrumental, I shall listen to an orchestra.
        But them I am pretty old fashioned.
        • Apr 19 2013: Then you and I, and I'm guessing millions of others, are old-fashioned as well.

          The sad thing of this trend is that it not only defeats the purpose of digital audio technology, it in no way proves to sell any more records and worst of all, it hurts our ears!
          I truly believe no one wants this to continue except the producers and labels who suffer from 'loudness envy' and have convinced themselves the music will sell better if it's louder. Nothing could be further from the truth!

          A good example of someone losing this battle is Metallica. Definitely not my genre, but it goes to show what can happen if you push the boundaries of digital mastering too far. They released their album "Death Magnetic" in 2008, and apparently over 16,000 people who had bought the CD actually sent it back because they thought something was wrong with it. What they were actually listening to was extreme distortion caused by 'clipping' during the mastering process. And yet, even since then, the war still rages...
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        Apr 19 2013: Cannot agree more about Metallica.
        In any case I don't believe 'pop' is a natural genre, or techno. These are industry made myths.
        You asked who can stop this loudness war. My answer would be: us. There is still honest and good music. Like, say, Adele's. Or Matt Cardle covering her song.
        https://www.youtube.com/watch?v=ttdp3M2C-2I
        • Apr 19 2013: I agree! But at the same time, I'm concerned that money will always win the battle.
          Like you say, there are still musicians out there who DO make music with integrity and keep their music intact. They obviously have people in the industry around them who support them and invest in them.

          With any extreme movement, there is always an anti-movement. I hope!!

          Thank you for contributing to this, Pabitra!
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    Apr 19 2013: Why has music gotten louder?
    • Apr 19 2013: Hi Fritzie!
      Well, I'd be happy to tell you!

      This video by mastering engineer Bob Katz explains it so well:
      www.youtube.com/watch?v=u9Fb3rWNWDA

      Here's a summary:
      The average level of music during the 80's was recorded at -20dB, a very comfortable volume to listen to.

      In the 1980's, when the "Loudness War" began according to Bob, music was recorded in real-time, with acoustic instruments, mostly on vinyl, and it was full of dynamics and pleasant to listen to.

      Bob explains the various 'accelerants' that have led to music becoming louder:

      Accelerant 1: the car CD player. To compensate for the sound of the car's engine, the bass needed to be increased, and as a result, the peak level (the loudest sounds in the music) needed to increase as well. This resulted in an overall increase in volume.

      Accelerant 2. Digital audio software and gear was becoming more affordable, and was gradually becoming the norm in recording studios. The possibilities were endless, because CDs offered a wider dynamic range than vinyl, a whopping 96dB as opposed to about 60dB!
      http://forums.stevehoffman.tv/threads/vinyl-dynamic-range-questions.217444/

      Accelerant 3. "Greatest Hits CDs", when singles were suddenly in competition with each other. All those old recordings were re-mastered and re-released and aggressively equalized with the idea that the songs will stand out better.

      Accelerant 4. The iPod and the dreaded "shuffle" option, where again, individual songs were getting louder and louder. The dynamic range is next to nothing, and with all the compression and limiting available, songs were becoming beyond full scale, resulting 'clipping', which is distortion.

      Someone recently mentioned the juke-box may also have been one of the earliest accelerant.

      The irony is that even though digital technology allows for an increase in dynamic range, music is becoming less dynamic and more distorted.

      Hope this explains it!
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        • Apr 24 2013: Hi Katy,
          indeed, there is little space left to hear any sounds of nature what with all the 'noise' around us, including this particular type of music...
          I would even go so far as to say, the 'Loudness War' is the audible equivalent of pollution. It just can't be good for us!