What the hell is the Loudness War? It's music business, baby. Put it this way. Everything is getting LOUDER.

IF YOU'RE LOUD YOU GET NOTICED PEOPLE READ YOU FIRST BUT EVERYTHING STARTS TO SOUND THE SAME.

That's just a simple "visualization" of what the loudness war is doing to music (recorded music anyway).

You could perhaps lay the blame on 5-CD changers. If you had one back in the 90s, you probably noticed that whenever it switches discs, you had to adjust the volume. And then MP3 players didn't help, although now the software will automatically adjust the loudness of tracks to match each other. And car CD players, where everything has to be loud to even hear it. But really, it's the fault of computers, and in particular a device called a digital compressor.

Basically here's the problem in a nutshell. Music has variations in volume, between the quiet parts and the loud parts. If you're in a movie theatre, concert hall, or at home with a good stereo, this is exciting, it's dynamics. The music can start out quiet, and then build up and then reach out and grab you by the throat in the exciting bits. This is GOOD.

But psychological studies have shown that people subconsciously think that louder is better, and the problem comes in when you are moving from one song to another. If you go from a loud song to one that starts out really quiet, your subconscious brain is going to tell you that the quality of music just went down, and you're going to hit the skip button or change radio stations.

So the producers use the compressor to "compress" (yeah, that's why it's called a compressor...) the dynamic range so that the difference between the quiet parts and the loud parts is minute. Basically, they make everything LOUD.

A few years ago Rolling Stone had an article called The Death of High Fidelity, it's about the Loudness War, and you can see a sort-of good video about it on YouTube

There also a a great article from IEEE Spectrum magazine: Tearing Down the Wall of Noise. Good reading.

All in all these stories demonstrate without a grain of doubt that (a) the Loudness War is real and (b) it's causing damage to the music. Constantly loud music makes you tired and ultimately isn't satisfying or good. The subconscious thing is temporary, but the damage to the music is permanent.

What can you do about it? Buy music that isn't compressed, for starters. Some artists are fighting back, like Norah Jones with Not Too Late and Dylan's Modern Times. Or, just buy OLD albums, like CDs from the 80s, the time before compressors existed. Or buy vinyl, which for physical reasons doesn't really allow compression, but to me, having to go back to old tech like that is just silly. The music industry needs to fix this on the new technology. Even if they can crank up the volume, they shouldn't turn it into pure noise.

PS: Seems that you can use "Average RMS Power" to get a rough idea of the dynamic range of a tune. And you can measure that using various tools, e.g. Amadeus Pro (Analyze > Waveform Statistics). Here are some values from my library:

  • Norah Jones, Feels Like Home, Sunrise: -13.5 dB .... that's not great but it's not as bad as it could be ... I don't really listen to this much any more though, and I think it's partly because it's tiring to listen to.
  • Decca Georg Solti Nibelung, Walkure Act I: -25 dB... I have no trouble with ear fatigue listenging to this one.
  • Beatles, Revolver, Taxman (no idea what edition): -16 dB ... I find it a bit loud, but I guess partly that's intentional?
  • Cowboy Junkies, Trinity Sessions, Blue Moon: -21 dB .... what can I say? niiiiice.

OK, so I guess pretty much everything in my collection is OK at least. Probably because I delete anything that has crap dynamics. For comparison here's some stuff I wouldn't listen to.

  • Coldplay, Viva la Vida:-12.3 dB ... well, it could be worse.... a bit... this would be a lot better with better dynamics.
  • Rihanna, Disturbia: -11 dB ... just looking at the waveform for this makes my ears hurt in advance.

Yeah, those are fairly hard to listen to.

Someone ought to make an average RMS database.