With any luck, the “loudness wars” that made music listening progressively less pleasurable over three decades have come to an end.
Put simply, the “loudness wars” were continuing increases in audio levels of recorded music, utilizing signal processing techniques, primarily dynamic range compression, to make recordings as loud as possible.
That was intended, initially, to make a recording stand out when heard on the radio. It soon became a matter of self-defense -- if every other record aimed at maximum loudness, producers and engineers needed to match that with their output.
All that loudness, however, sacrificed sound quality -- and some artists didn’t take part in the wars.
That led to a surprising turn in the battle -- courtesy of music streaming services like YouTube, Spotify and Apple Music.
Since songs that were being compiled into playlists came in at a variety of loudness levels, the services needed to equalize them so listeners wouldn’t get a constantly jarring combination of songs.
That led to a system that sets a uniform loudness level for streaming music. So no matter how loud the recordings are made, all the songs in a playlist are going to be at the same level.
Since streaming is now the primary way music is heard, there’s no longer any advantage to be gained by making records ever louder.
“The wars, they are over,” said audio engineer Werner Althaus. “There’s no more need for it ... That will be excellent for people who really want to hear music. There was to be light and shade, focus and out of focus in music. You cut the full saturation and it’s all there. That’s what our hearing wants to hear.”
What hearing wants to hear, however, didn’t appear to be a consideration when the loudness wars cranked up in the 1990s.
Records had been getting ever louder since the 1940s and the advent of the 45 rpm single, which could be louder than either 78s or 33 rpm albums. But the loudness wars accelerated with the compact disc and digital recording, which allowed even more compression and loudness.
The peak of loudness, Althaus said, may have been Metallica’s 2008 “Death Magnetic” album that was recorded six decibels louder than “pink noise.” That loudness can’t be achieved without “clipping,” noticeable distortion of the audio.
By the late 2000s, the loudness wars were in decline -- Guns N’ Roses, for example, rejected maximum loudness for it’s “Chinese Democracy” album in favor of presenting the record’s full dynamic range.
Now producers, engineers and mastering engineers have almost no incentive to push loudness to the edge and beyond.
So Althaus recorded and mixed Lincoln's Will Hutchinson’s new album, “Wildflower People,” without trying to make it louder, capturing the music that he, Hutchinson and other players played.
Proof of that loudness level can be found in YouTube analytics, which give the “Wildflower People” a 100 percent on its measurements.
"That means it hasn’t been touched,” Althaus said. “It hasn’t been turned up or down.”
The loudness wars may be over. But for some people, there are likely still aftershocks in their listening experience.
“It’s entirely possible that somebody who came of age listening to hyper-compressed music loses the enjoyment when it goes away,” Althaus said. “I don’t know what it’s like having grown up listening to loud music on earbuds. But in my opinion, it (the end of loudness) is the best thing that’s happened for listening.”