On The Loudness War

Angry man screaming

My buddy Greg is an eminently friendly guy, a bike enthusiast, a root beer aficionado, and one of the finest Mastering Engineers you’re likely to encounter. When you meet him, you immediately consider him one incredibly smart, chill dude. But you want to piss him off? You want to see a Jedi temporarily swerve into the Dark Side?

Tell him you want your masters REALLY loud.

It’s hilarious. Not just because he must hear this all the time, and not just because he has been a leading crusader against “The Loudness War” for many years, but mostly because he’s right.

Let’s talk about what it is, and why you should consider staying out of it.

“My CD isn’t as loud as their CD.” This speaks to the heart of the controversy. When we had vinyl, we weren’t limited by any sort of universal standard. We were limited by physics. Make a record too loud and you’re going to launch the needle right out of the groove.

CDs came along and that particular problem was solved. At first, things started off normally. But the more CD players and CD changers became prevalent, the more the “perceived quality” of a CD was determined not by how it actually sounded, but by how loud it was relative to the previous song or album you heard. Record companies soon recognized the pattern, then saw what a relatively “quiet” CD did to their bottom line… and the Loudness War began.

6 REASONS why Louder isn’t necessarily Better.

  1. CDs are dying. I know. Sad face. I used to LOVE getting a CD, reading the lyrics, admiring the artwork, learning who wrote/produced/mixed/played what. But that’s not the world we’re in anymore. Physical sales are in a slow but steady decline, and really… how many of us still have 100 CD changers on shuffle mode in our music rooms?
  2. FM Radio crushes your mix, no matter how loud it is. If you get a chance, read up on the Orban Optimod. It changed FM Radio forever, mostly by taking anything they get and applying stereo enhancement, phasing, EQing, compressing and limiting the ever-loving shit out of your master. This thing is the “Black Knight” meets “Gandalf” of not letting any sort of volume peaks pass. So yeah, good luck making your “ultra-loud” mixes make a lick of difference on FM.
  3. Digital Downloads still outsell all physical mediums COMBINED. iTunes, Amazon and CD Baby are about half a billion dollars above physical sales over the last 3 years. And last time I checked, those don’t play on your CD player.
  4. Streaming services are KILLING IT. Last year, the Spotifys and Apple Musics and You Tubes of the digital era accounted for TWICE the revenue that digital downloads and physical sales did… combined. As much bitching as we do about how little streaming services pay (and they do pay for crap), they still account for the lion’s share of all music sales worldwide.
  5. Digital Players apply normalization to all of your tracks. If you look at your iTunes Preferences, you’ll find a little box that says “sound check.” When it’s on, it makes sure your listening experience is streamlined by making sure none of your songs play back too quietly or too loudly. Spotify does this too, and I think most other players have this feature as well. This means, your ultra-loud mix will sound roughly the same as anything else – just less dynamic, and in effect, shittier.
  6. Loud Mixes can actually CLIP on streaming services and Satellite Radio. Last time I was at Greg’s we did a little experiment. We made a final master competitively (i.e. unnecessarily) loud, then had it analyzed by a program called Fraunhofer – Pro Codec. It actually showed us that if were were to rely on the CD master for the other two arenas, both would result in a signal that clipped. Meaning, not only would the mixes themselves suffer, a master of this loudness would result in digital distortion for the most common means of distribution in the industry.

I could go on, but I think the point has been made. So what do we do now?
I think there are two important things we can do to help everyone involved. First, let out a big sigh of relief because you no longer have to feel the stress of competing in this ridiculous game. Second (and more importantly) let your mastering engineer know where you plan to distribute your music. If you’re doing CD and digital distribution, ask for both types of masters. One louder for CDs, one more dynamic for the digital world. Use them accordingly and feel good knowing you went about it the right way.

If you want to know more about all of this, check out the article Greg did for Mix Magazine. He lays it out better than I ever could: https://www.mixonline.com/news/loudness-war-over-420885

Post comments below (especially Greg, if I screwed any of this up), and thanks for your friendship, your interest, and your art.




Owen Sartori is a 35-year veteran in the music industry as a musician, songwriter, and producer. Currently, he is a co-owner of F5 SoundHouse in Minneapolis, MN and helps mentor, produce and write with/for artists wherever he is needed.

For more, visit f5soundhouse.com.