A blog post

The loudness war

Posted on the 06 January, 2012 at 7:34 pm Written by in Music

The loudness war is now discussed in Norway also (“lydstyrkekrigen”). It is not a war. The use of the term says something of our time. But it is a fairly bad case of mismanagement. Like the idea – perhaps not when it first formulated, but when it was later repeated – of the CD as “perfect sound forever”. This case of mismanagement is similar to using too much sugar when producing food.

Sugar is sweet, and cheap, why not use it to raise food business profits? This time, it is music business profits, with sound compression the equivalent of sugar. Same shit, new wrapping. Loudness functions as “ear candy”. The music sounds more engaging, especially in the beginning. It has a greater chance to catch the ear, over a lot of other noise. Compression means that the sound level is turned up, so it all sounds louder  -and initially more engaging.

The cost of this loudness turn-up and compression, is that it all sounds more tiresome after a while, like sugar not being so good for the body. Especially, the intense parts are limited or cut off. The sound is quite nasty especially during these parts, as a lot of internet users have complained. I just read a user complaining “it sounds like poo”. New terms are used to describe the problem, the music sounds “crushed”. The typical listener reaction, the first line of defense, is to turn the volume down. But then the music is no longer so engaging – which was the goal, in the first place.

The extra sugar, or loudness, is more easily heard, the better and more truthful the sound reproduction system. On a quality sound system, the same music sounds good on quiet to moderate or less dynamic passages, but turns hard and brittle on dynamic passages. Clearly something is not working very right. This now gets critique from vinyl record buyers especially, not just oldie audiofiles but the hip young crowd also, complaining that their new favourite today’s year group actually sounds worse than some post-punk LP from 1985 or so.

An example is the ambitious and often successful Danish band Mew. Their newest album No more stories is well pressed on two fairly thick vinyl LPs. The vinyl production is fine. The problem is the master used in the first place – it seems to be the same compressed master used for the CD, whatever the case, the sound is not right. It is fine when the group is quiet, ok when it is louder, but bad when it gets loud. How come? Such LPs should have a warning sticker “COMPRESSED SOUND”. Even better, the sticker should specify the digital or analog copy method used, and if digital, the resolution used, along with the amount of compression.

Buying new LPs, I tend to hear three typical detractors from enjoyment. The first, and worst by far, is the compression discussed above. The second is digital copying with too low resolution. The third is poor production, very common in the early 2000s when it looked like the LP was going to die, but improved and less common now. Some quality record labels –  Speaker’s corner comes to mind – very often give good sound, avoiding compression and minimizing digital problems. Some bands and artists are very keen on getting the best sound, not just the best music, like Tom Petty and Steven Wilson. Whenever I see the name “Bernie Grundman” and other good producers I tend to look once more at the title, this usually means good sound. The Grundman-produced Shelby Lynne: Give me some loving LP is great. ECM’s new vinyl, at least Nik Bartsch: Llyria are very good, no compression here and not much digitalis either (this is not so strange, since it seems that most or all of the recording is done in the analog domain in such cases). However, these are niche products.

In Norway, recording studios like Kirkelig kulturverksted often produce good music, but the sound is not high class, but only mid-level resolution, slightly higher than CD. When this is put to vinyl, the results are often only mediocre, as on Kari Bremnes: Reise, a live LP. The sound is clearly inferior to the better resolution and production on Kari Bremnes: Norwegian mood (which got some special EU audiofile attention). This seems typical.

One of last year’s most-favoured and most-sold albums, Adele: 21, has upset the discerning buying public by its compressed sound. I can hear it even on my PC, and can very well understand why those investing in the LP get mad about it. The internet is full of complaints.

So we will see, who wins the sugar war or the loudness war, who brings home the bacon, and who will fry.