Jan 4, 2010

The Loudness Wars

Music is much, much, much louder overall than it used to be, and it may be hurting music sales. There is an article on NPR about the rise in overall volume in popular music over the last decade due to the type of compression used. According to the article, "He's [Bob Ludwig's] referring to the practice of using compressors to squash the music, making the quiet parts louder and the loud parts a little quieter, so it jumps out of your radio or iPod."

Most music is dynamic, or at least it used to be. Different instruments were recorded (or mastered) at different levels to give each its place in the song. That way, the drums, for example, had a very distinct punch, or the lead guitar rose above the rhythm section, or the accordion was clearly audible over the polka singers. Or whatever. That practice has slowly been abandoned over the last several decades and came to a head - according to the article - with Metallica's last album, Death Magnetic. All the instruments are either recorded at the same levels or compressed so that they play back at the same level, and it ruins the quality of the music, some say.

From NPR:

"It [Death Magnetic came out simultaneously to the fans as [a version on] Guitar Hero and the final CD," Ludwig says. "And the Guitar Hero doesn't have all the digital domain compression that the CD had. So the fans were able to hear what it could have been before this compression."

According to Ludwig, 10,000 or more fans signed an online petition to get the band to remix the record.

Ostensibly, Ludwig is worried about fatigue the ear goes through in listening to such loud albums, but it's also about the quality of the music, he says. The two ideas are related in that, once you've listened to an album produced in this manner, you are far less likely to listen to it over and over again the way that you might listen to an album with more sonic texture. Check out the difference in how music is compressed in the following video, The Loudness War.

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