The Loudness Wars | The Ivory Tower











Dave McNair (pictured), photo by Eric Franklin Shook

The Loudness Wars

I had an article sent to me recently about how streaming has ended the loudness wars. The article was so factually incorrect that I am inspired (agitated?) to offer my perspective on the topic, and mastering for loudness in general.

Words and Photos by Dave McNair

I think I’m qualified to speak on this because it’s actually my job. As a mastering engineer, I’m one of the guys (and girls) responsible for delivering that latest musical masterpiece at sometimes speaker melting levels.

Here’s my Q&A on the LOUDNESS wars in today’s music world.

The Right Questions and The Right Answers

Q: Has streaming ended the loudness wars?

Nope. Not remotely.

Is the latest Billie Eilish album wonderfully dynamic and is that because of the futility of crushing the dynamics in a volume normalized, streaming world?

Nope. It’s as crushed as anything else. The sense of dynamics is from the arrangement and spectral content of the mixes that very skillfully imparts a feeling of dynamics even though the loud parts are as smashed as most other things out there. Would it sound better if it wasn’t so limited? I seriously doubt it. I think it sounds rad just the way it is.

Q: So why do we do it?

Because that’s what people want.

By people, I mean the artists and members of the production team responsible for crafting the recording. I’ll add that the vast majority of music consumers are also plenty happy with how very peak limited, loud music sounds.

Q: Do some artists go too far in their quest for volume domination?

Most definitely.

But it’s not my music, it’s theirs. If that’s how they want it, I’ll do my damnedest to make it as clean as possible at the level they request.

Q: Why do they want it so loud?

Because that is human nature.

The way our ears hear sound, even a slight increase in level is interpreted as fuller, richer, punchier, and better sounding than the same thing a db quieter. We are also quite intolerant to most of the distortion that sometimes results from the ‘louderizing‘ process. And Heaven forbid your latest creation sounds quieter than the song that just played by a different artist.

Somewhere in our evolution, we became allergic to adjusting the volume control in a playback system.

Q: So if most streaming services use ‘volume normalization’ to make everything sound roughly the same volume level, why does the content creator want their shit so loud?

On the surface, this seems like a simple question. It’s not. I’ll try to answer by covering all the issues brought up by this question.

  • 99.9% of the time there is basically one digital master at the final, artist-approved level.
  • This file is used for CD, downloadable sales, radio, and the various streaming services.There might sometimes be a ‘hirez’ version at a higher sample/bit rate, but the volume level is basically the same, give or take a fraction of a dB.
  • Volume normalizing in a streaming app is not commonly on as the default and it certainly can be turned off by a user, so there is no guarantee that music mastered without much regard to volume will be listened to in this imaginary, level playing field environment.
  • Different streaming platforms use different algorithms to analyze and calculate the amount of volume offset needed to make everything sound the same.
  • The mastered level sweet spot for delivery is about -9 to -10db LUFS integrated. Just Google ‘LUFS integrated.’ This is loud enough to compete in most environments, yet not so crushed that it will sound lifeless if turned down in a normalized environment and played next to other things with a wider crest factor. Some mixes will go as high as -8db or so (the smaller number is louder) and still not very obviously suffer. Something at -12db will not automatically sound better played next to something -9 in a volume normalized environment. Some will. It’s tricky. If you’re an audiophile and you can’t bear to listen to limited music, get a turntable and listen to records. Most are cut from a production master that has less or no limiting.

Q: So Dave, what’s your personal take on all this?

Oh shit. Did you really just ask me that? Ok. Here goes.

I AM AN AUDIOPHILE AND I DON’T CARE!

Q: Whuuuut?

Very, very occasionally I’ll get something that I really like and the artist wants it louder than I think it will gracefully go. In times past I used to internally moan and curse people’s lack of knowledge or rue their wanton destruction of art. I used to even try and diplomatically talk them out of it.

That strategy failed miserably on a number of levels and I’m sure I alienated more than a couple of good clients. At some point, I realized I am not a typical listener but an engineering nerd, who also happens to be an audiophile. Who am I to decree what is the proper amount of limiting?

I’ll say it again, IT’S NOT MY ART. Mastering people are a service industry. We don’t make the magic. A good song is still a good song even if it’s a little louder and less dynamic than golden eared audiophiles prefer.

Most people listen (and I use that term loosely) to music for the song and whatever vibe may be contained therein.

On the other hand, audiophiles, myself included, derive a lot of satisfaction in our listening to not only the music but also to the sound quality. I get the frustration that I see expressed online about flatter than optimum dynamics or worse – gritty digital clipping artifacts.

But look at it in perspective.

Almost nobody these days would express frustration with how distorted or muddy or jumbled sounding a LOT of classic rock, soul, and blues is. The Stones? C’mon.

I don’t hear anybody say, “Ya know I kinda like Aretha, but her vocals are distorted AF.

To me, most DGG classical recordings are almost un-listenable because they are so dry and exhibit early digital brittleness. A ton of classic Jazz was recorded in an almost haphazard way with the bass player just about nonexistent.

But that is what became the artistic statement embodied in those recordings and sometimes even defined an entire style of production.

So, by all means, seek out music that you like in a recorded presentation that makes your ears happy, but don’t moan about the state of things while everybody else smiles and sings and dances when their favorite hyper-limited track bangs at the club.

Look, if it helps, you can always look forward to when the Billie Eilish’s of the world get that Acoustic Sounds full dynamics remaster in surround on 8-channel analog tape in the year 2040. Okay?

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About the author, Dave McNair

Dave McNair has been a professional recording engineer, mixer, producer, audiophile, and for the last 20 years, a multiple Grammy-winning mastering engineer. Since his earliest days, music has been a constant. Starting with seeing The Beatles live on Ed Sullivan to studying classical guitar from age 11, then later a series of rock bands, his love of music, sound, and tech, lead him to a career in music recording. Concurrent to beginning his engineering career, he sold high-end home audio in several locations including Innovative Audio and Sound By Singer in NYC. After years of residence in NYC, Los Angeles, and Austin, he now resides in Winston-Salem, NC where he operates Dave McNair Mastering and spends his free time listening to records, reading, meditating, cooking vegan food, hiking, riding road bikes and swapping out hi-fi gear in search of a better sound.