How the West was Won: Part 1

It’s a bizarre sequence of events but stick with me...

By now just about everyone who is into music has probably heard of the so called ‘loudness wars’. This involves the hyper compression and limiting involved in modern music production, most often in the mastering stage, that has led to the average loudness of contemporary music becoming louder and louder. At the expense of this quest for volume has been dynamic range, effectively the range between the quietest and loudest parts of a song, now commonly referred to as Peak to Loudness Ratio (PLR).

 When used well dynamic range is incredibly effective at drawing the listener in and communicating emotion. But it seems that since the late ’90’s the quest for sheer volume has trumped dynamic range as a key goal of music production. It should be understood that as listeners we often perceive louder as better, punchier and more exciting. The problem is that when everything is loud all the time then loudness kind of loses its impact and listener fatigue sets in, particularly when consuming hyper compressed music for an extended period of time (does anyone listen to full albums anymore?). This is a necessarily brief outline of the problem of loudness in music production, and I encourage you to research this further if you are interested. But this does is set up my next point...

 So, the logical ‘fix’ to the loudness problem is to standardise it, but this is virtually impossible to enforce, particularly with when music is now consumed in many different ways (traditional radio, internet radio, streaming platforms, iPods,CD’s, Vinyl, downloads etc). The professional audio industry, and its peak body the AES, has undertaken and published research into what might be a suitable target loudness, and many professionals and consumers alike have lamented the detrimental effect of the so-called ‘loudness wars’ but to very little effect. In the background we have the rise of streaming platforms (Spotify, Youtube, iTunes etc) that are effectively the arch nemesis of anyone interested in high fidelity audio. Streaming music inevitably requires a compromise in fidelity due to internet bandwidth restrictions and invariably results in lossy compression codecs reducing music down to anywhere from 128kpbs to 356kpbs (isn’t it bizarre that a 356kbps mp3 file is now viewed by many consumers as high quality when the CD master wave file standard is 1411kbps!!!!! Do the math and think about that for a bit). The rise of streaming services as a primary mode of consumption, coupled with the loudness wars surely signals the death of thoughtfully produced, dynamic music, and no one, no industry body or uber-celebrity can save it!

But then something happened. Consumers on these streaming platforms started complaining about the variation in level between songs (a bi-product of the increased lust for loudness over the last 20 years). Everyone has been there, you’ve got Spotify (not me, the idea of streaming music for pleasure hurts my balls) or an iTunes playlist kicking in the background of your dinner party and you have to constantly keep turning the stereo up or down as the level lurches dramatically from track-to-track. So the streaming services take on board the complaints of their customers (who’d have thought) and introduce a loudness normalisation algorithm to effectively keep the playback volume consistent from track to track. What this seemingly minor innovation does is set to completely change the way modern music is produced...