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OpEd

The Loudness War: Volume Knobs Optional

When most of us go to play a CD or MP3 file, we don’t immediately think to check the production quality before giving the song our full attention. We judge the song based on a simple instinct of whether we like what we hear, or we don’t. As a listener, you place a certain amount of trust into the artist and production team to deliver a product that can sound good and balanced in any stereo you play it from. This is essentially the job of a mastering engineer.

Once the artist completes their recorded performance, the producer and recording engineer will mix the songs and pass them on to the mastering engineer. This stage in the recording process is where all the bells and whistles are addressed. Making sure the frequency equalization is balanced so there is not too much bass or treble destroying your speakers, adjusting volume fade in/outs on the front/back of certain songs, and most importantly adjusting the overall volume level or “loudness” of the entire album.

The goal of adjusting volume levels is necessary for all the songs on the album to flow cohesively when played as a whole. In the past this was done using analog technology, as opposed to the plethora of digital options available in today’s modern recording world. Even still, there are some engineers who prefer to use analog gear over digital. Analog provides a “fuller” sound with an audio shelf similar to a sponge that can absorb higher volume levels with minimal distorted results. Digital gear provides what some might call a “tinny” sound overall, and has an audio shelf similar to a brick wall. Where volume levels are not absorbed, but stopped in dead their tracks.

With the progression of recording technology digital gear became more popular and easy to use in not just the studio, but your own home as well. There was now the ability to record an endless amount of tracks, with an endless amount of audio processing effects all from your home computer. Thus eradicating the need for expensive recording consoles and outboard hardware processors. The ever so popular analog gear was now converted by way of digital emulation that could be installed as a plugin on your digital audio workstation, or “DAW” for short.

Since then, two pieces of digital gear have risen above the rest in popularity. The most well known “Auto Tune” and another called a “Brick Wall Limiter”. Almost all of us are familiar with “Auto Tune”, as it appears on nearly every pop release in modern music. However, not many are familiar with the Brick Wall used in audio mastering. If you have ever owned an album or played a song that sounded “squashed” or just way too loud reaching the point where you have to turn it down, chances are almost certain that it’s the work of a “Brick Wall Limiter”.

The function of this piece of technology is to take the average volume level of a song, and push it beyond natural capability. If you look at a digital volume meter (Figure A) you will notice a decibel (db) level displayed in numbers from -40db to 0db and above. This is how volume is measured within a piece of audio. The goal in any audio production is to stay within the realm of 0db and below. Any amount of sound that travels beyond 0db will create a distorted sound most commonly referred to as “clipping”. A typical songs natural dynamic volume is subject to fluctuate as different instruments play different parts. This causes the volume meter to push and pull across the decibel spectrum. In other words, the song has room to breathe while staying below 0db.

When you insert a Brick Wall Limiter into the mix, the volume level is pushed as hard as it can to 0db. So now we went from having a volume level that breathes within a range of -20db to -4db, to adding a Brick Wall that results in virtually no breathing room in a range of -2db to 0db (Figure B). This causes the volume to clip past it’s natural threshold while “technically” not exceeding 0db.

You might ask yourself “Why would someone want to suck the dynamics out of a song like that?” The main reason behind this is no surprise; the record labels demand their artists’ album to be equal if not louder than their competitors’ album. Record executives tend to look at the smaller picture rather than the entire horizon. In this case, if their artist doesn’t sound like the ones on the radio it’s just not good enough to release.

While the blame can’t be focused on one single artist, engineer, or executive behind it, the use of extreme volume levels or “hot” mastering was most commonly heard in the early 90s rock scene. Metallica’s “Black Album”, Alice In Chains “Dirt”, and Faith No More’s “Angel Dust” are some of the first albums to use these extremely high levels. At first use in the 90s, the difference was subtle in comparison to current recordings of the new decade. As the trend continued to spawn across recording studios, more artists were losing sonic credibility due to these lifeless sounding recordings.

When I was a teenager listening to “Dirt” and “Angel Dust”, I couldn't care less about what technology went into the songs I loved. I just wanted them loud, and gained respect for the band as a whole rather than basing it on a single recording. Again, it was a subtle difference back then compared to modern times. In today’s recording realm, a single album has broken all sonic barriers causing listeners to revolt in anger. A little album from a small group of lads called Metallica, dubbed “Death Magnetic” (or as it’s referred to now ‘Deaf Magnetic’)

Produced by Rick Rubin (AC/DC, Slayer, Nine Inch Nails, etc.), Death Magnetic has become the poster child of a debate now dubbed as “The Loudness War”. It seemed as though all the hype and excitement behind the release of Death Magnetic was quickly halted by listeners who started to think their stereo was broken. Only to find out it’s not their stereo at all, it’s Metallica who is playing too loud! Well, maybe it’s the mastering engineers fault...right? After Metallica fans petitioned with over 20,000 signatures for a remixed version of the album, a response was given from Death Magnetic’s mastering engineer Ted Jensen which read; “I’m certainly sympathetic to your reaction, I get to slam my head against that brick wall every day. In this case the mixes were already brick walled before they arrived at my place. Suffice it to say I would never be pushed to overdrive things as far as they are here. Believe me I’m not proud to be associated with this one, and we can only hope that some good will come from this in some form of backlash against volume above all else.”

Jensen’s response sparked immediate debate over whether this was a genuine response, or simply a transference of blame. As if fans were not frustrated enough, Metallica drummer Lars Ulrich told Blender Magazine “The Internet gives everybody a voice, and the Internet has a tendency to give the complainers a louder voice. Listen, I can’t keep up with this shit. Part of being in Metallica is that there’s always somebody who’s got a problem with something that you’re doing: ‘James Hetfield had something for breakfast that I don’t like.’ That’s part of the ride."

In the end, it’s obvious nobody wants to take the blame for the audio disaster of Death Magnetic. The album surprisingly received a solid amount of critical reviews, and there are just as many fans that enjoy it, as there are fans that hate it. If anyone is to blame, consider the record executives who order their albums to be louder. A good percentage of audio engineers know the difference between good and bad quality audio, and it’s hard to believe after hearing an album like Death Magnetic that someone would let that happen on purpose.

As someone who has devoted over a decade of my life to audio engineering, I have always read into the study of audio mastering. In almost everything I read on the subject, there seems to be an overzealous producer or mastering engineer who continues to promote bands to let a real mastering engineer handle the mastering job. “It’s a true science” they say, “which can only be handled by the utmost professionally trained ears.” If this is true, then why are there so many albums suffering from being too loud? Is taking the dynamics of a bands hard work in recording, and squashing them like a bug such a science that only “trained ears” can handle? Perhaps musicians are better off mastering the audio themselves. Such mastering programs as IK Multimedia’s T-Racks and iZotope’s Ozone can be purchased for under $500. Whether they result in a satisfying result in comparison to $20,000 worth of professional studio gear is completely in the ears of the artist.

It’s only a matter of time to see if the music industry catches on and puts a stop to it, or if it continues to plague ears across the planet. There are still bands out there who use Death Magnetic as the standard for volume on a commercially heavy album. This can only result in disaster if they don’t understand the consequence of squashing the dynamics and raising the volume. The listener should have control of the volume knob, not the producer, mastering engineer, or record executive.

To learn more about The Loudness War, check out the following links:

Loudness War - Wiki

Turn Me Up! - Organization Formed to Bring Dynamics Back to Music

YouTube Video Example

AutumnsEyes's avatar

As the upcoming host for Metal Underground.com's podcast, Dan has experience behind the microphone in more ways than one. He has devoted over ten years to his solo metal project Autumns Eyes, and most recently opened a Recording and Design Studio under the name Beneath the Woods.

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25 Comments on "The Loudness War: Volume Knobs Optional"

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zMETALlica's avatar

Senior News Correspondent

1. zMETALlica writes:

Glad to see this topic covered on MU. I may make an article about similar music destruction on the production end...

# Mar 24, 2010 @ 10:18 AM ET | IP Logged Reveal posts originating from the same IP address
zMETALlica's avatar

Senior News Correspondent

2. zMETALlica writes:

good article by the way. though don't make people think brick wall limiters are the problem. as it's the person who uses them beyond what they're made for.

i think a big problem with the digital world is that they don't use proper metering. we hear closer to VU/RMS than peak. most DAWs i know don't have RMS/VU meters built into their mixers.

another thing is that 0FS (full scale - digital peak meter system) is waaay louder than 0 in analog gear. if we ran a signal that was close to 0FS through analog gear it would most likely distort. if not i doubt it would be good for it.

digital is way cleaner (thus better to some) than analog, but people have no clue how to use it right, just like people didn't know how to use analog at one point (how many old records do you know that have distorted vocals or horns?). Digital is very clean whatever you put in you get out. analog colors the sound. both are helpful in getting a certain sound.

Either way I hope the industry can go back to cleaner sounding recordings and not have the distorted distorted guitars sounding mix.

# Mar 24, 2010 @ 10:34 AM ET | IP Logged Reveal posts originating from the same IP address
AutumnsEyes's avatar

Podcaster, Writer

3. AutumnsEyes writes:

I agree, I think analog has just become popular because of it's "vintage" quality. Regardless, I still use a couple analog plugins in my DAW that sound great. I have always recorded digitally, and am always happy with the results. Obviously my early recordings sound like crap compared to the newer ones, but that's normal for someone learning how to use the gear on their own. Even after recording for over ten years, there is still a hell of a lot more to learn and explore.

I kept the focus of the article relatively simple so readers who are new to the production realm wouldn't get lost in confusing production terms. It's an important issue that all music fans should know about, not just the audio geeks like you and I.

Thankfully there is a small handful of artists releasing "volume friendly" recordings lately. It's just a shame that the tables have turned so much to where being "loud" is considered the norm, and going back to "acceptable" levels is considered taboo in some aspects.

# Mar 24, 2010 @ 12:03 PM ET | IP Logged Reveal posts originating from the same IP address
deathbringer's avatar

Founder, owner & programmer

4. deathbringer writes:

I can totally see how we got where we are when you look at the factor of songs standing out in compilations and radio - if it jumps out at you, it gets more attention. But even if bands back down, it will only be a fraction of the decades-spanning climb. How do we get back to the "good" point again, not just a minor improvement, without sounding too faint?

Nice explanation of the issue though! I think it's important for people to get a semi-technical layman's explanation because so many people just had no clue what the complaining was about with "Death Magnetic" and chalked it up to haters as usual.

# Mar 24, 2010 @ 12:19 PM ET | IP Logged Reveal posts originating from the same IP address
hellrat's avatar

Member

5. hellrat writes:

Excellent article AE

i hate the loud trend as well, though its good that these boundaries are being tested, as it will help evolve the mastery of the newer tech....though its too bad that some decent current records are comprimised thus...

myself, i really do love the 'warmth' and 'roundness' of quality analog recordings...if that makes any fvcking sense whatsoever:)

# Mar 24, 2010 @ 1:00 PM ET | IP Logged Reveal posts originating from the same IP address
Anonymous Reader
6. Eric J. Bitterman writes:

Great article. I have been wondering about "clipping" for some time. Thank you for an easy to understand explanation. I totally blame Lars for the way DM sounds. I know he has serious hearing problems (it was on CNN for Khrist sake). The solution (for Metallica) is to ban Lars from the control room.

# Mar 24, 2010 @ 1:12 PM ET | IP Logged Reveal posts originating from the same IP address
God_Of_Wrath's avatar

Member

7. God_Of_Wrath writes:

Everytime a song ends while my iPod is on shuffle, I turn the volume down in case the next song is from DM and blasts my eardrums out. Loud? Yes. Still fvcking awesome? Hell yeah.

# Mar 24, 2010 @ 4:12 PM ET | IP Logged Reveal posts originating from the same IP address
Anonymous Reader
8. G-Reg writes:

if you listen to Slipknot's Subliminal Verses, the mastering is the same as Death Magnetic. The similarity I hear is the fact that the drums are wildly overdriven in both albums. Common denominator: Rubin's hired hands.

# Mar 24, 2010 @ 4:50 PM ET | IP Logged Reveal posts originating from the same IP address
zMETALlica's avatar

Senior News Correspondent

9. zMETALlica writes:

rick rubin has been distorting records forever. listen to newer slayer, system of a down (especially their debut), or red hot chili peppers albums you'll see what i mean. it's his style. i think people should stop hiring him.

# Mar 24, 2010 @ 10:34 PM ET | IP Logged Reveal posts originating from the same IP address
Anonymous Reader
10. b.bristowe writes:

Rick SNUUUUUUUbin.

This article gets a big thumbs up.
Down with sound. Down with sound.

Seriously though.

# Mar 25, 2010 @ 12:00 AM ET | IP Logged Reveal posts originating from the same IP address
Anonymous Reader
11. Death Magnetic writes:

is awesome

# Mar 25, 2010 @ 12:52 AM ET | IP Logged Reveal posts originating from the same IP address
Anonymous Reader
12. Fuzzypig writes:

"Record executives tend to look at the smaller picture rather than the entire horizon." - No surprises there then!

Great article!

I used to think all this re-release and re-mastering was simply companies trying to make money. I actually dug out my original copy of WASP, The Last Command on initial CD release, Jebus wept! The sound is completely flat, no dynamics, tinny as hell! I simply couldn't believe that we simply accepted it, we didn't know any better!

Now I don't mind buying some re-releases, if the engineer has got access to the original masters and mapped the sound out to more modern standards.

Try it yourselves, dig out an old CD from late 80s and compare it something you bought last month, you'll be amazed how bad the 80s sound was!!

# Mar 25, 2010 @ 9:10 AM ET | IP Logged Reveal posts originating from the same IP address
brandedcfh420's avatar

Member

13. brandedcfh420 writes:

Just because metallica was mentioned in the article, and it wasnt about them, the picture had to be them????

# Mar 25, 2010 @ 10:44 AM ET | IP Logged Reveal posts originating from the same IP address
deathbringer's avatar

Founder, owner & programmer

14. deathbringer writes:

It was just for you Branded... :-) I removed the relationship to Metallica though because it wasn't really about them and shouldn't be linked to them directly like that. That also removes the photo.

# Mar 25, 2010 @ 2:37 PM ET | IP Logged Reveal posts originating from the same IP address
brandedcfh420's avatar

Member

15. brandedcfh420 writes:

DB, I was just raggin on metallica man, you didnt need to re-arrange anything!! seriously man, i wasnt trying to be a huuuuuuuuuge turd this time around!!!

# Mar 25, 2010 @ 3:33 PM ET | IP Logged Reveal posts originating from the same IP address
deathbringer's avatar

Founder, owner & programmer

16. deathbringer writes:

Ah, it's ok. I was thinking about whether they should be on it from the start, honestly. It wasn't really an article about "why Death Magnetic sounds like sh**." They were just an example among others not linked.

# Mar 25, 2010 @ 4:17 PM ET | IP Logged Reveal posts originating from the same IP address
brandedcfh420's avatar

Member

17. brandedcfh420 writes:

right-o!!

# Mar 25, 2010 @ 4:22 PM ET | IP Logged Reveal posts originating from the same IP address
DeathCrush's avatar

Member

18. DeathCrush writes:

actually zmetallica gave me a perfectly produced version of broken, beat and scarred and this article is so right about death magnetic. Man, it is totally saturated with this volume buster

# Mar 25, 2010 @ 10:36 PM ET | IP Logged Reveal posts originating from the same IP address
DeathCrush's avatar

Member

19. DeathCrush writes:

also, i found this article incredibly educational, thanks autumneyes

# Mar 25, 2010 @ 10:37 PM ET | IP Logged Reveal posts originating from the same IP address
WOLF7's avatar

Member

20. WOLF7 writes:

Great article on a super important issue, as there are loads and loads of recordings out there these days ( perhaps majority of the recordings) that suffer from the Loudness hell or idiotically over compressed overall sound.
I've done the same mistake with my tracks in the past. By compressing the hell out of something initially sounds amazingly good and straightforward, but if you're patient enough to really listen and do a bit of A - B testing, more often than not your tracks gone for the worse.

The most incredible thing about Death Magnetic is that Metallica actually released it the way it was.
How it became what it is is no suprise. After all, Rubin's background are quite heavily in Rap/Hip hop, and I think we have the evidence that what might work great on a Beastie Boys or RHCP album, may not be the best thing to do with a Metallica album.

# Mar 26, 2010 @ 2:07 PM ET | IP Logged Reveal posts originating from the same IP address
Fuck_A_Name's avatar

Member

21. Fuck_A_Name writes:

Ive hated rick rubin since the dawn of music pretty much. I hadnt known he did the soad debut, but it makes sense now since ive had a problem with what i thought was amatuer production on that album. I had thought they had done it themselves or had some nobody do it for them in a basement. f*** rick rubin. Erik rutan for prez.

# Mar 26, 2010 @ 4:47 PM ET | IP Logged Reveal posts originating from the same IP address
Rayze's avatar

Member

22. Rayze writes:

Thanks, I was wondering why some of my stuff is so much louder than the other stuff.

# Mar 29, 2010 @ 7:50 AM ET | IP Logged Reveal posts originating from the same IP address
BLACKENED88's avatar

Member

23. BLACKENED88 writes:

my knob is not optional hahahahaha

# Apr 8, 2010 @ 1:55 PM ET | IP Logged Reveal posts originating from the same IP address
WOLF7's avatar

Member

24. WOLF7 writes:

^ hopefully at least volume is

# Apr 8, 2010 @ 2:05 PM ET | IP Logged Reveal posts originating from the same IP address
Anonymous Reader
25. greyback writes:

Agreed with this article. Most of what makes a recording unique is the dynamics of a song, and todays music lacks any depth, save for those who master their own stuff or a true audio guy, not some commercial jerk who wants the audio louder than anything else. I can give yuo plenty of crappy loud audio, let me take a mic into the bathroom and record me dropping a log with audacity and put it through a limiter. That would still sound better than clip magnetic.

# Apr 9, 2010 @ 1:24 PM ET | IP Logged Reveal posts originating from the same IP address

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