Monthly Archives: February 2018

The Loudness War

The so-called “Loudness War” is a seemingly never-ending race to the bottom to dull music into uniformity and conformity for an inattentive audience listening on lowest common denominator, low-fidelity devices such as phones and cars. Nothing has any dynamics or emphasize in modern popular music. The instruments, if they are even real people playing real instruments and not just pre-recorded samples, have no dynamics or feel; they sound as if they were being played by robots operating an automated assembly line. Vocals no longer soar, shriek, and scream. They are reduced to a uniform lull.

Compression in modern, digitally produced music seems to have long ceased been used to to enhance the listener’s reality while opening up new avenues of artistic expression. Prior to digital audio workstations becoming commonplace in studios, compression was used not only to control the volume of instruments and voices by reducing the overall level of the signal but also to create new forms of “hyper-reality” that went beyond the natural world of real instruments. It allowed a sort of supernatural reality to be perceivable by listeners similar to special effects and specific camera angles in film. Crooning, the ridiculously fat back beats of the 60s, John Bonham’s otherworld heavy drum tons on Led Zeppelin’s cover of “When the Levee Breaks”, and the impossibly fast, clear, and intricate drumming of early death metal were all only achievable with the heavy but judicious use of compression in the studio.

Making the musically supernatural, that is what would normally be unplayable or inaudible, perceivable to the audience is no longer the goal necessitating the use of compression. Rather the modern popular music industry wants to make uniform products that will not call attention to themselves.Take for example a snare drum, one of the loudest pieces in a drum kit. Snare drums no longer pop or cut through the other instruments; they are merely another tinny noise in the background. If they were call attention to themselves, they would defeat the point of the loudness war: to be “competitive” with other popular music. A loud snare hit draws attention to itself; it forces the listener to pay attention to something not glorified elevator music. Placing an older or “underground” track without heavy compression in a random playlist of modern pop music on an iPhone or Spotify, makes the contemporary pop obvious for the timid, bland mass-manufactured, and disposable product it truly is.