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Musical Space

Musical Space: The Loudness War


Makers of pop music have always engineered their songs to sound big and loud. Motown records, for instance, have a legendary, huge sound. Sometimes, though, loudness can be overdone, and this problem seems to be getting worse.

The technology behind this is a device called a compressor. Its job is to keep a volume level consistent. This is great when you want, say, a vocalist to remain audible above the other instruments.

Unfortunately, though, a compressor also takes away the dynamics of a performance; some of the emotion is lost when there is no difference between loud and soft. Worse yet, compressors can be used to make everything sound loud. This is why TV commercials seem louder than the movies they interrupt.

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Credit Wikimedia Commons
Different releases of Michael Jackson's song "Black or White" show increasing loudness over time.

Record companies are in the business of making their songs sound more impressive than anyone else’s, and, as technology improves, pop radio has become a battleground in the fight for volume supremacy. It’s called the Loudness War and it has become a serious problem.

Thirty years ago, a typical rock song averaged around 18 decibels below the level of complete saturation. This worked well for vinyl records, because a mix much hotter than this could make the needle jump the groove.

With digital media, however, a pop song can hover near maximum from beginning to end. You’ve probably noticed it; many new songs on the radio sound noisy and fatiguing because of the hot mix, but at the same time seem flat and unemotional due to the lack of dynamic range.

I just wish the listener was given a little more credit. It’s the soft verses that make the choruses seem loud, and it is the nuanced performance that has the best chance of catching the listener’s ear.