Record label bosses and producers are continually competing to put out the loudest possible songs they can, and the only achievable way to do this is to reduce the peaks and troughs (loud bits and quieter bits) in a song, resulting in a maximised sound signal throughout.
Once upon a time a song could go from very quiet to very loud, now we have very loud to very loud and nothing else will do!
So what’s the problem with loud music?
The way loud music is achieved is by ‘compression’ and ‘peak Limiting’.
Compression makes the quieter sections louder, and the louder sections quieter. Limiting squashes the overall signal and allows you to turn the ‘flattened/compressed’ audio up as loud as possible, 0db being the loudest.
You can see a great example of this recording studio technique by going to http://www.applebeam.com/compression
The first picture shows a mildly compressed signal, in this instance there would be a bigger difference between the louder and softer sections of the song.
In the second example we can see a heavily compressed signal. This would have very little difference between the loud and quiet sections. The result is ear fatigue!
Ear fatigue is a known phenomenon where the human ear tires of repetition, over compression limits the ‘colour’ inherent in a piece of music to the point where it can become un-listenable.
A community of top producers are calling for a stop to the ‘loudness war’ and recognise a degradation of music quality that is a result of constantly ‘squashing’ songs to be louder and louder.
This ‘squashing’ is amplified with mp3’s as they have extra compression by default.
More to fatigue your ears
Most songs that use programmed instruments have a single sample that is looped, for example the snare might be a single sample of a snare that the producer has repeated throughout the song.
This means that there is literally no dynamics from the snare drums (or whatever sample is being looped), causing a similar effect to ear fatigue, where the mind will struggle to cope with the onslaught of repetition.
Kick drums, Hi Hats, Shakers etc are all commonly used as samples in programmed music. Compare this to music of years gone by where each instruments was played live and only lightly compressed and you can see the dramatic difference in today’s music.
When played live, each hit of a drum or pluck of a string is different in tone and volume which gives the brain something to engage with and reduces ear fatigue.
The digital age allowed producers to go from the average -18dB in the 1970’s right up to 0dB today. The race for loudness forces producers to limit more and more and squash the song so that that the whole thing is one big wall of noise with no subtle dynamics or tonal changes at all and therefore has a perceived loudness.
The first time I noticed how far this had gone was on Beyonce and Sean Paul’s ‘Baby Boy’ single. This song is almost un-listenable on certain systems and is very heavily compressed.
But there are worse, Tom Brady of Time21 Music says,
“a recent rock album I bought seemed to exist in the red, the effect was a distorted buzz through the entire album”.
The fact is CD sales are down and the problem of over compression could be partially to blame. The trouble is younger people don’t know anything else apart from over compressed music so it would be very hard to reintroduce more dynamics as the quieter sections would then appear too quiet for today’s listener!
It seems that today’s producers are keen to restore elements of the old analogue sound such as record hiss, tape saturation and warm eq’s but dynamics is a no no!
I think there is a balance to be had but to my ears the digital harshness is sometimes a high price to pay for loudness.
As a producer myself I treat each song differently but I notice that I instinctively pump the volume to max and try and squeeze as much juice out of the track as possible to get it loud, after all I don’t want someone else’s track louder than mine right!
Maybe the time has come to try and set the wheels in motion and let the music breath again with some old skool dynamics!