The music industry can get even crazier than usual at times. Bragging rights over decibel levels has always been around. The Loudness Wars took it to a whole new level. Inevitably then came the snarky responses.
A Loud History
The Loudness War or Loudness Race was a phenomenon seen in the early 1990s. CDs came into existence in the 1980s but remained new (and expensive) technology. The early adapters took to it but vinyl remained distribution medium of choice since the 50s, including on jukeboxes. Music producers started mastering records louder. This would make the track stand out on compilation albums, which was a very critical element. This could make a song stand out to radio show producers. This would make the song sound louder on jukeboxes, where owners usually preset volume levels.
Labels like Motown Records pushed the limits of what could be done on vinyl. A new breed of rock and roll was evolving. Heavy metal and hard rock were in their infancy. People wanted to play faster, louder, and harder than ever before. By the 70s, bands like Led Zeppelin were often said to have another band member: the studio. Artists and producers were pushing the limits at the studio.
They could only get so loud on vinyl. After all it was limited by the groove on the record.
But ultimately digital music, on the CD, lifted what restrictions on volume vinyl had. The vinyl volume wars that started in the 1950s was about to get a lot louder.
With the onset of the 90s, the CD was entering its second decade of existence. It was taking over the spot of the vinyl record. The technology had been around long enough to inform how records needed mastering. Engineers and producers continued to boost decibels on the masters. Their reasoning was to make track stand out and also they assumed people wanted loud tracks on their CDs. Like in the vinyl days, the race heated up between artists. Everyone was opting for the louder, heavily compressed tracks. It did not matter, at some point in time, that sound quality would invariably suffer. Vinyl, in it’s non digital format, ensured some limit on compression. It thus also ensured basic levels of sound quality.
The madness reached it’s peak in 2008 with Metallica’s Death Magnetic album release. Critics, fans, and peers were divided. Everyone loved Metallica’s return to their thrash roots. This was good news, especially after the debacle of St. Anger. Many people also correctly stated that the sound quality was terrible, especially for a band of Metallica’s stature (and budget). The band, in their quest for loudness, had compressed the tracks far too much. Thanks to it being Metallica, the compression issue gathered mainstream exposure.
And Sense Prevails?
Since the 2010s, there has been a move away from compression. The CD was on life support. Vinyl was in the middle of a revival, ironically for sound quality and authenticity. People had moved digital and multimedia. Audiophiles started moving to FLAC formats, unhappy with compressed MP3s.
Even bands had had enough by that point. Daft Punk put out Random Access Memories in 2013. The album immediately took a place in the top ten albums of the decade, with seven years to go. It won 5 Grammys, including one for best non classical engineered album. Critics praised the sound quality on the album. The band had deliberately not kept it loud. They felt that only improved the sound.
The sound wars really ended thanks to Apple. iTunes has a mandatory Sound Check which ensured songs had to be mastered to Apple’s criteria. This ensured reduced compression and better sound quality.
Invariably producers had to make that change or run the risk of their tracks sounding inferior on iTunes Radio.
Better sense had finally prevailed. After all music is all about the quality. Sometimes less is truly more in music.
If we want loud, we always have them: