Loudness war

Loudness war
Different releases of Michael Jackson's song "Black or White" show increasing loudness over time.

The loudness war or loudness race is a pejorative term for the apparent competition to digitally master and release recordings with increasing loudness.

The phenomenon was first reported with respect to mastering practices for 7" singles.[1] The maximum peak level of analog recordings such as these is limited by the specifications of electronic equipment along the chain from source to listener, including vinyl record and cassette players.

With the advent of the Compact Disc (CD), music is encoded to a digital format with a clearly defined maximum peak amplitude. Once the maximum amplitude of a CD is reached, loudness can be increased still further through signal processing techniques such as dynamic range compression and equalization. Engineers can apply an increasingly high ratio of compression to a recording until it more frequently peaks at the maximum amplitude. Extreme uses of dynamic range compression can introduce clipping and other audible distortion. Modern albums that use such extreme dynamic range compression therefore sacrifice sound quality to loudness. The competitive escalation of loudness has led music fans and members of the musical press to refer to the affected albums as "victims of the loudness war".[2]



The practice of focusing on loudness in mastering can be traced back to the introduction of the compact disc itself but also existed to some extent when vinyl was the primary released recording medium and when 7" singles were played on jukebox machines in clubs and bars. Jukeboxes were often set to a pre-determined level by the bar owner, yet any record that was mastered "hotter" than the others before or after it would gain the attention of the crowd. The song would stand out. Many record companies would print compilation records, and when artists and producers found their song was quieter than others on the compilation, they would insist that their song be remastered to be competitive. Also, many Motown records pushed the limits of how loud records could be made, and record labels there were "notorious for cutting some of the hottest 45s in the industry."[3] However, because of the limitations of the vinyl format, loudness and compression on a released recording were restricted in order to make the physical medium playable—restrictions that do not exist on digital media such as CDs—and as a result, increasing loudness levels never reached the significance that they have in the CD era.[4] In addition, modern computer-based digital audio effects processing allows mastering engineers to have greater control over the loudness of a song; for example, it gives them the ability to use a "brick wall" limiter which limits the level of an audio signal with no delay (hardware equivalents have a short delay caused by processing time).[5]


The stages of the CDs loudness increase are often split over the two-and-a-half decades of the medium's existence. Since CDs were not the primary medium for popular music until the late 1980s, there was little motivation for competitive loudness practices then. CD players were also very expensive and thus commonly exclusive to high-end systems that would show the shortcomings of higher recording levels.

As a result, the common practice of mastering music involved matching the highest peak of a recording at, or close to, digital full scale, and referring to digital levels along the lines of more familiar analog VU meters. When using VU meters, a certain point (usually −14 dB below the disc's maximum amplitude) was used in the same way as the saturation point (signified as 0 dB) of analog recording, with several dB of the CD's recording level reserved for amplitude exceeding the saturation point (often referred to as the "red zone", signified by a red bar in the meter display), because digital media cannot exceed 0 dBFS. The average level of the average rock song during most of the decade was around −18 dBFS.[citation needed]


In the early 1990s, CDs with music louder level began to surface, and CD levels became more and more likely to bump up to the digital limit[note 1] resulting in recordings where the peaks on an average rock or beat-heavy pop CD hovered near 0 dB[note 2] but only occasionally reached it.[6][not in citation given]

The concept of making music releases "hotter" began to appeal to people within the industry, in part because of how noticeably louder releases had become and also in part because the industry believed that customers preferred louder sounding CDs, even though that notion might not have been true.[7] Engineers, musicians and labels each developed their own ideas of how CDs could be made louder.[citation needed] In 1994, the digital brickwall limiter with look-ahead (to pull down peak levels before they happened) was first mass-produced. While the increase in CD loudness was gradual throughout the 1990s, some opted to push the format to the limit, such as on Oasis's widely popular album (What's the Story) Morning Glory?, which averaged −8 dBFS on many of its tracks[6]—a rare occurrence, especially in the year it was released (1995). In 1997, Iggy Pop assisted in the remix and remaster of the 1973 album Raw Power by his former band The Stooges, creating an album that, to this day, is arguably the loudest rock CD ever recorded. It has an average of −4 dBFS in places.[6]


Loud mastering practices caught media attention in 2008 with the release of Metallica's Death Magnetic album. The CD version of the recording has a high average loudness that pushes peaks beyond the point of digital clipping, resulting in distortion. These findings were reported by customers and music industry professionals. These findings were later covered in multiple international publications, including Rolling Stone,[2] The Wall Street Journal,[8] BBC Radio,[9] Wired,[10] and The Guardian.[11] Ted Jensen, a mastering engineer involved in the Death Magnetic recordings, subsequently criticized the approach employed during the production process.[12] A version of the release without dynamic range compression was included in the downloadable content for Guitar Hero III.[13]

In contrast, in late 2008 mastering engineer Bob Ludwig offered three versions of the Guns N' Roses album Chinese Democracy for approval to co-producers Axl Rose and Caram Costanzo, and they selected the one with the least compression. Ludwig wrote, "I was floored when I heard they decided to go with my full dynamics version and the loudness-for-loudness-sake versions be damned."[14] Ludwig feels that the "fan and press backlash against the recent heavily compressed recordings finally set the context for someone to take a stand and return to putting music and dynamics above sheer level."[14]


In March 2010, mastering engineer Ian Shepherd organised the first Dynamic Range Day,[15] a day of online activity intended to raise awareness of the issue and promote the idea that "Dynamic music sounds better". The day was a modest success and its follow-up in 2011 built on this, gaining industry support from companies like SSL, Bowers & Wilkins and Shure[16] as well as "name" engineers like Bob Ludwig. Shepherd cites research showing there is no connection between sales and "loudness", and that people prefer more dynamic music.[17][18]

With music sales moving towards digital downloads and away from CDs, there is a possibility that the loudness war will be blunted by normalization technology such as ReplayGain and Apple's Sound Check.[19] Other proposals include the use of dynamic range expansion such as a system proposed by DTS which aims at restoring transients that have previously been reduced in dynamic range.[20]


This practice has been condemned by several recording industry professionals including Alan Parsons, Geoff Emerick[21] (noted for his work with The Beatles from Revolver to Abbey Road), and mastering engineers Doug Sax,[3] Steve Hoffman, and many others, including music audiophiles, hi-fi enthusiasts, and fans. Musician Bob Dylan has also condemned the practice, saying: "You listen to these modern records, they're atrocious, they have sound all over them. There's no definition of nothing, no vocal, no nothing, just like—static." Nonetheless, the compact disc editions of Dylan's more recent albums Modern Times and Together Through Life are examples of heavy dynamic range compression.[22]

When music is broadcast by a radio station, the station will apply its own signal processing, which further reduces the dynamic range of the broadcast material to closely match levels of absolute amplitude, regardless of the original record loudness.[23]

Opponents have also called for immediate changes in the music industry regarding the level of loudness. In August 2006, the vice-president of A&R for One Haven Music, a Sony Music company, in an open letter decrying the loudness war, claimed that mastering engineers are being forced against their will or are preemptively making releases louder in order to get the attention of industry heads.[4] Some bands are being petitioned by the public to re-release their music with less distortion.[21]

The nonprofit organization Turn Me Up! was created by Charles Dye, John Ralston and Allen Wagner to certify albums that contain a suitable level of dynamic range[24] and encourage the sale of quieter records by placing a "Turn Me Up!" sticker on albums that have a larger dynamic range.[25] The group has not yet arrived at an objective method for determining what will be certified.[26]

Hearing experts, such as a hearing researcher at House Ear Institute in Los Angeles, are also concerned that the loudness of new albums could possibly harm listeners' hearing, particularly that of children.[25]

A 2-minute YouTube video addressing this issue by audio engineer Matt Mayfield[27] has been referenced by The Wall Street Journal[28] and The Chicago Tribune.[29] Pro Sound Web quoted Mayfield: "When there is no quiet, there can be no loud."[30]

The book Perfecting Sound Forever: An Aural History of Recorded Music (Faber, 2009), by Greg Milner presents the Loudness war in radio and music production as a central theme. The book Mastering Audio: The Art and the Science (2nd Edition, Focal Press, 2007), by Bob Katz, includes a chapter about the origins of the loudness war and another suggesting methods of combatting the war, based on Katz's presentation at the 107th Audio Engineering Convention (1999) and his Audio Engineering Society Journal publication (2000).[31]

Loudness in broadcasting

Broadcasting also has its loudness wars. Competition for listeners between radio stations and competition for clients between recording studios[dubious ] has also resulted in a loudness "arms race".[32] Loudness jumps between broadcast channels and between programmes within the same channel are a frequent source of audience complaints.[citation needed] The European Broadcasting Union is addressing this issue in the EBU PLOUD Group, which includes over 230 audio professionals, many from broadcasters and equipment manufacturers.

In August 2010 the EBU published EBU Recommendation R 128, which specifies a new way of metering and normalising audio, based on ITU-R BS.1770. It is accompanied by the EBU Loudness Metering specification EBU Tech 3341, which includes the so-called 'EBU Mode' to make meters interoperable. Also a Loudness Range descriptor is defined, in EBU Tech 3342, which helps audio mixers understand what loudness range their material consists of.

Dynamic range reduction

The practice of increasing music releases' loudness to match competing releases can have two effects. Since there is a maximum loudness level available to recording (as opposed to playback, in which the loudness is limited by the playback speakers and amplifiers), boosting the overall loudness of a song or track eventually creates a piece that is maximally and uniformly loud from beginning to end. This creates music with a small dynamic range (i.e., little difference between loud and quiet sections), rendering it fatiguing and robbing it of emotional power.[33]

Digital media cannot output signals higher than digital full scale (0 dBFS), so whenever the peak of a signal is pushed past this point, it results in the wave form becoming clipped. If clipping occurs too frequently in a recording, it can make the recording sound distorted.

In other cases, compression or limiting is used. While the resulting distortion is less obvious in the final product, when taken to severe levels, it can reduce the natural dynamics of other instruments within the recording and introduce other undesirable effects such as audible compression pumping.[note 3][34][35]

Dynamic range or broadcast-style compression may be applied to the music to make the loudness in different song sections more uniform.[33] This can make the recording more suitable for background listening or noisy environments but can also reduce the dynamic expressiveness of the song as a whole. Applied in the extreme, however, very aggressive compression or automatic gain control can cause "pumping" and "breathing" artifacts as the gain changes rapidly. In FM stereo broadcasting, so-called composite clippers have also been employed that provide a hard limit to the FM stereo composite signal.[36]

Examples of "loud" albums

Some of the albums that have been criticized for their sound quality include the following:

Artist Album
Arctic Monkeys Whatever People Say I Am, That's What I'm Not[6]
Bob Dylan Modern Times[22]
Together Through Life[22]
Christina Aguilera Back to Basics [4]
The Cure 4:13 Dream[37]
The Flaming Lips At War with the Mystics[6][note 4]
Lily Allen Alright, Still[38]
Los Lonely Boys Sacred[4]
Metallica Death Magnetic[39][note 5]
Miranda Lambert Revolution[40][41]
Oasis (What's the Story) Morning Glory?[6]
Paul McCartney Memory Almost Full[24]
Pearl Jam Ten (2009 remaster)[42][43][44]
Queens of the Stone Age Songs for the Deaf[6]
Red Hot Chili Peppers Californication[4][6]
Rush Vapor Trails[45]

See also


As this waveform shows, the Guitar Hero downloadable version (bottom) is far less compressed than the CD release of Death Magnetic (top).
  1. ^ Up to 2 or 4 consecutive full-scale samples was considered acceptable
  2. ^ Usually in the range of −3 dB
  3. ^ Most commonly noticed when the loudness of cymbals is heard to dip in time with the rest of the percussion.
  4. ^ Won Grammy Award in 2007 for Best Engineered Album, Non-Classical
  5. ^ The Guitar Hero version of this album does not suffer from the same quality issues.


  1. ^ "The Loudness Wars: Why Music Sounds Worse". NPR. 31 December 2009. http://www.npr.org/templates/story/story.php?storyId=122114058&sc=nl&cc=mn-20100102. Retrieved 2010-09-02. 
  2. ^ a b Kreps, Daniel (2008-09-18). "Fans Complain After "Death Magnetic" Sounds Better on "Guitar Hero" Than CD". Rolling Stone. http://www.rollingstone.com/music/news/fans-complain-after-death-magnetic-sounds-better-on-guitar-hero-than-cd-20080918. Retrieved 2011-03-15. 
  3. ^ a b The Big Squeeze: Mastering engineers debate music's loudness wars, Mix Magazine, 1 December 2005, http://mixonline.com/mag/audio_big_squeeze/, retrieved 2010-09-02 
  4. ^ a b c d e Joe Gross (2006-10-02), Everything Louder Than Everything Else, Austin 360, http://www.austin360.com/music/content/music/stories/xl/2006/09/28cover.html, retrieved 2010-11-24 
  5. ^ Mark Donahue, The Loudness War, Performer, http://performermag.com/Archives/loudness.php, retrieved 2010-11-24 
  6. ^ a b c d e f g h Southall, Nick. Imperfect Sound Forever . Stylus Magazine. 2006-05-01. Retrieved on 2007-05-15.
  7. ^ Viney, Dave (December 2008). The Obsession With Compression. p. 54. http://dl.dropbox.com/u/8441718/DRD/project%20dissertation.pdf. Retrieved 24 July 2011. "there is no evidence of any significant correlation between loudness (& implied compression) and commercial success" 
  8. ^ Smith, Ethan (2008-09-25). "Even Heavy-Metal Fans Complain That Today's Music Is Too Loud!!!". Wall Street Journal. http://online.wsj.com/article/SB122228767729272339.html. Retrieved 2008-10-17. 
  9. ^ "'Death Magnetic' Sound Quality Controversy Focus Of BBC RADIO 4 Report". BlabberMouth.net. 2008-10-10. http://www.roadrunnerrecords.com/blabbermouth.net/news.aspx?mode=Article&newsitemID=106612. Retrieved 2008-10-17. 
  10. ^ Van Buskirk, Eliot (2008-09-16). "Analysis: Metallica's Death Magnetic Sounds Better in Guitar Hero". Wired. http://blog.wired.com/music/2008/09/does-metallicas.html. Retrieved 2008-09-17. 
  11. ^ Michaels, Sean (2008-10-01). "Death Magnetic 'loudness war' rages on". London: The Guardian. http://www.guardian.co.uk/music/2008/oct/01/metallica.popandrock. Retrieved 2008-10-17. 
  12. ^ Michaels, Sean (2008-09-17). "Metallica album latest victim in 'loudness war'?". London: The Guardian. http://www.guardian.co.uk/music/2008/sep/17/metallica.guitar.hero.loudness.war. Retrieved 2008-09-17. 
  13. ^ Vinnicombe, Chris (2008-09-16). "Death Magnetic Sounds Better in Guitar Hero". MusicRadar. http://www.musicradar.com/news/guitars/blog-death-magnetic-sounds-better-in-guitar-hero-173961. Retrieved 2008-09-18. 
  14. ^ a b Ludwig, Bob (November 25, 2008). "Guns ‘N Roses: Dynamics and quality win the Loudness Wars". Loudness Wars. Gateway Mastering. http://www.gatewaymastering.com/gateway_LoudnessWars.asp. Retrieved March 29, 2010. 
  15. ^ Dynamic Range Day Official Site
  16. ^ Dynamic Range Day heralds new movement against loudness, Pro Sound News, February 22, 2011
  17. ^ Earl Vickers (November 4, 2010). "The Loudness War: Background, Speculation and Recommendations". AES 2010: Paper Sessions: Loudness and Dynamics. San Francisco: Audio Engineering Society. http://www.sfxmachine.com/docs/loudnesswar/loudness_war.pdf. Retrieved July 14, 2011. 
  18. ^ The Loudness War: Background, Speculation and Recommendations – Additional material
  19. ^ Greg Reierson (2011-02-08), The Loudness War is Over, Mix, http://mixonline.com/mixline/reierson_loudness_war_0802/index.html 
  20. ^ Martin Walsh, Edward Stein, Jean-Marc Jot, DTS, Inc. (May 13, 2011). "Adaptive Dynamics Enhancement". AES 2011: Paper Sessions: Production and Broadcast. London: Audio Engineering Society. http://www.aes.org/events/130/papers/?ID=2637. Retrieved May 20, 2011. 
  21. ^ a b Adam, Sherwin (2007-06-07), Why music really is getting louder, The Times, http://entertainment.timesonline.co.uk/tol/arts_and_entertainment/music/article1878724.ece, retrieved 2007-06-12 
  22. ^ a b c Curnyn, Sean (September 3, 2009). "Tears of Rage: The Great Bob Dylan Audio Scandal." Retrieved on March 2, 2010.
  23. ^ What Happens To My Recording When It's Played On The Radio? also available from the AES library
  24. ^ a b Will the loudness wars result in quieter CDs?, The Guardian, January 10, 2008
  25. ^ a b Emery, Chris (November 25, 2007). "Audio gain in volume signals loss for listeners". The Baltimore Sun. http://articles.baltimoresun.com/2007-11-25/news/0711250027_1_hearing-loss-sound-engineer-seldon-plan. Retrieved September 2, 2010. 
  26. ^ Turn Me Up! About Us. Retrieved on August 13, 2009.
  27. ^ Mayfield, Matt. "The Loudness War". http://www.youtube.com/watch?v=3Gmex_4hreQ. 
  28. ^ Even Heavy-Metal Fans Complain That Today's Music Is Too Loud!!!, The Wall St. Journal, September 25, 2008
  29. ^ Loudness war stirs quiet revolution by audio engineers, Chicago Tribune, January 4, 2008
  30. ^ "Video: The Loudness Wars Exposed: "When there is no quiet, there can be no loud."". Study Hall. Pro Sound Web. March 30, 2011. http://www.prosoundweb.com/article/video_the_loudness_wars_exposed/. Retrieved April 4, 2011. 
  31. ^ Integrated Approach to Metering, Monitoring and Leveling Practices
  32. ^ Interview with Inovonics CEO Jim Wood[dead link] at RadioWorld
  33. ^ a b Robert Levine (2007-12-27), The Death of High Fidelity, Rolling Stone, archived from the original on 2008-07-24, http://web.archive.org/web/20080724194200/http://www.rollingstone.com/news/story/17777619/the_death_of_high_fidelity 
  34. ^ Jay Kadis (2008). "Dynamic Range Processing and Digital Effects". Archived from the original on 2010-09-02. http://www.webcitation.org/5sS2s5ZkW. 
  35. ^ Paul White (January 2001). "Advanced Compression Techniques: Part 2". http://www.soundonsound.com/sos/jan01/articles/advanced.asp. Retrieved 2010-09-02. 
  36. ^ "Orban FM Radio Products Optimod-FM 5300 Signal Flow". Orban. http://www.orban.com/products/radio/fm/5300/signal_flow/. Retrieved 2010-11-24. 
  37. ^ Doran, John (2008-09-27). "Review The Cure 4:13 Dream". The Quietus. http://thequietus.com/articles/00617-the-cure. 
  38. ^ Levine, Robert. "The Death of High Fidelity: In the age of MP3s, sound quality is worse than ever". Rolling Stone. Archived from the original on July 1, 2008. http://web.archive.org/web/20080701220047/http://www.rollingstone.com/news/story/17777619/the_death_of_high_fidelity/print. Retrieved December 1, 2010. 
  39. ^ "Metallica Face Criticism Over Sound Quality of "Death Magnetic"". Rolling Stone. http://www.rollingstone.com/rockdaily/index.php/2008/10/01/metallica-faces-criticism-over-sound-quality-of-death-magnetic/. 
  40. ^ Neal, Chris (2009-09-14). "Everything Louder Than Everything Else". The 9513. http://www.the9513.com/everything-louder-than-everything-else/. 
  41. ^ Country Weekly Magazine review from October 19, 2009
  42. ^ "Laid Off Loser Album of the Day: "Ten Deluxe Edition"". Laid Off Loser Blog. http://www.laidoffloser.net/2009/04/laid-off-loser-album-of-day-ten-deluxe.html. 
  43. ^ "Thoughts on Pearl Jam's Ten (Remastered)". Overclock.net Forum. http://www.overclock.net/music/659145-thoughts-pearl-jams-ten-remastered.html. 
  44. ^ "Pearl Jam reissues album "Ten"". Whirlpool.net Forum. http://forums.whirlpool.net.au/archive/1167346. 
  45. ^ Rowan, Rip (August 31, 2002). "Over The Limit". ProRec.com. Archived from the original on June 10, 2008. http://web.archive.org/web/20080610184821/http://www.prorec.com/Articles/tabid/109/EntryID/247/Default.aspx. Retrieved May 21, 2010. 

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