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.
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