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Are the Volume Wars Killing Music? Which Side are You On?

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The party is in full swing, your iPod is plugged into your biggest and best speakers, and you've just hit Play on your grooviest party mix playlist. The bass is thumping, the crowd starts to move, and so far the neighbors don't seem to mind. Then something happens. This song sounds so much quieter than the other ones. People start to sit down. What a crappy song! Would you like to be the producer responsible for that track? No way! And thus the Volume Wars came into being.

Compression plugins are commonly used when mastering. One of the aims is of this is to maximize the volume of the album. But when there is a war for maximum volume on the playlist, how far do you take this, and what do you sacrifice to achieve it?


I Like it Loud. What's the Problem?

Last year Daniel at the "Life of a Rat" blog was thinking of this very issue, and described it very well. He wasn't thinking of the producers' role in this war - he was the cause of his own pain. He had installed a Winamp plugin called Audioproc, which enhances all of your music through compression effects which ultimately increase volume. At first he enjoyed the extra "oomph", but later he realized he was actually enjoying music less. I'll let him explain in his own words:

The problem was that after a while I had a feeling I was no longer enjoying my music as much. I noticed I was getting tired of listening to my music and it all sounded flat and the same; my volume problem was fixed but now there was no dynamic range any more because of the overloaded compression processors.

After realizing what he had done to himself, he discovered that the problem was more widespread. He discovered the Volume Wars.

Basically it's literally a war between bands and their engineers and labels to make their music sound as loud as possible in order to get an edge on the radio mainly, basically by turning up the volume as much as physically possible on the mixer without it causing obvious distortion. They use a horrible processing technique called "brickwall limiting" which actually allows for hard clipping, which means that if the signal goes over its limit it is simply clipped by allowing no more variation in the character of the output signal (what you hear). What this means is that the really loud parts of the songs sound harsh and flat. Actually, distortion is even allowed to leak through although only in very small bursts and masked by other sounds so that you, hopefully, won't notice it. (Have a listen to MGMT's Electric Feel to hear this effect in a really obvious manner. MGMT do this kind of audible clipping on purpose though - it's actually part of their sound, or so they claim.) Of course making the song loud overall reduces its dynamic range a whole lot which quickly leads to listener fatigue as a constant unvarying loud noise is unnatural and tiresome to the human ear.


Dynamics are Worth Fighting For

One of the ingredients that makes music interesting is dynamics - the building of a song from a quieter section to a climax. It makes music more expressive. It allows a song to go on a journey. I love music that uses dynamic changes effectively. Using a lot of compression removes those dynamics. By maximizing volume, you kill expressiveness.

Here are some diagrams from Wikipedia that illustrate this. They show both how much louder albums have become over the last thirty years, and also show how little variation in volume (dynamics) there are now compared with the good old days.

Firstly, this animated image shows the increase from 1983 to 2000:

Secondly, this image show how Michael Jackson's albums have become more compressed from 1991 to 2007:

This Youtube video sums up the problem well:

None of this is new. Musicians, producers, bloggers and podcasters have been talking about it for years. A lot of people are concerned. The problem is - how do we fix the problem? It can't be solved by one person. Remember - no band or producer want to be that wimpy song at the party. As long as other bands are louder, the motivation to compete remains.

The only real solution is for everyone to turn the volume down. For everyone to co-operate. And that's a big job. There are no worldwide Volume Police to enforce this. There are no fines for over-compression. There is just the love of music. We all need to agree that dynamics are worth fighting for.


So What's the Solution?

Because the problem is so widespread, and there is no centralized way to fight it, a variety of strategies need to be used. What we are aiming for is that a significant number of producers and mastering engineers change their practice. Here are some ideas to get us started. Please add yours in the comments.

Be Aware of the Amount of Compression You Master With

It starts with you. Be part of the solution, not part of the problem.

Take a Stand and Make Others Aware

That's basically what I'm trying to do here. Spread the word. If you're a band, talk to your producer about the issue. If you're a producer, talk to the band. If you're an engineer, talk to everyone. Make a stand.

How strong a stand you make, however, might cost you work. There's an old thread on the Gearlutz forums called "Not competing in volume wars has cost me a job." Enough said.

Check out Pleasureizemusic.com and Join Their Campaign

The Pleasurize Music Foundation are spreading the word through their website, www.pleasureizemusic.com, and are running a campaign to encourage change. The also created the Youtube video you saw above.

Our aim is to improve the sound quality of music in its various recorded formats – including data compression methods such as MP3 – as well as music destined for radio broadcast.

Only music that provides a positive musical listening experience has real market value. The Foundation's aim is to increase the value of music within the creative production process for the entire music industry.

The objective is to revive the willingness to pay for music and therefore to create a healthier basis for all creative participants within the music industry.

To sign up and show your support of their campaign, click here, choose one category that you fit into at the top of the page (music listener, musician, music producer, mixing engineer, mastering engineer, record company etc.), and click the relevant "sign up" link.

Celebrate Dynamic Range Day on March 20th

Write it in your diary right now! Visit this page to find out more about the day, and play to write about the Volume Wars in your blog that day.

How Spotify Are Helping

The popular European online music site Spotify are aware of the Volume Wars, and doing what they can to win the battle. They are using "Volume Normalization" by default.

Ian Shepherd of the RecordProduction.com blog describes the strategy:

It adjusts the playback level of all songs so you don’t have to keep adjusting your volume control.
Which means that a genuine pop classic like “Billy Jean” will play at the same volume as the flat, fuzzy distorted mess that is Cheryl Cole’s new single.

And that anything off Kasabian’s latest album will play at the same volume as anything by Black Grape. Or that “In Bloom” from Nirvana’s masterpiece “Nevermind” will play back at a similar level to U2′s recent Loudness-War-casualty “Vertigo”.

Guess which ones sound better ? The modern, brickwalled, crushed-to-death clipping victims, or the lower-level, more dynamic, open, punchy, older stuff ?

You guessed it. To take that last example, Nirvana wins – by a mile. The kick kicks, the guitars bite, the whole thing rocks. Vertigo is a limp, mushy lump by comparison.

Well, that's one great reason to support Spotify.


Conclusion

A fitting way to finish this article on the Volume Wars is to quote Creatdigitalmusic.com's article from March 20th last year. And if you've forgotten already, that was Dynamic Range Day.

Now, the idea of crushed dynamic range is nothing new. But via comments, mastering engineer Tobias Anderson points out that it’s not always the mastering that’s to blame — some people are actually distorting at the digital conversion stage. (That’s, incidentally, not the fault of digital recording, either – to screw that up, you have to be really careless, which evidently people are.) ...

Now, obviously, this is an issue that can generate some controversy. But start talking about simply preserving dynamic range? I think just about everyone can get behind that. The idea of “quality” can often be loaded, but talking about dynamics as pleasure is as universal as hearing.

What are your thoughts about the Volume Wars? Which side are you on? What action can you take? Let us know in the comments.

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