Why Go to Live Concerts? (II) The Loudness War


Part II: The Loudness War.

In Part I, I presented questions over live concerts versus CDs, MP3s and DVDs. This post addresses one aspect of this issue, namely a production technique referred to as the “Loudness War.”

This term refers to producers tendencies to record and produce music at progressively increasing levels of loudness make a CD stands out from the competition. The maximum volume level of a CD can only go so high, so the overall loudness can only be increased by flattening the overall dynamic range. This is done by pushing the lower dynamic levels higher.

This technique alters the true fidelity of the music being recorded and manipulates it in a way to make it sound “better” to the average listener. At one time “high fidelity” was a major concern and selling point for classical music production on vinyl records.

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Perhaps this is one reason why many audiophiles prefer vinyl records over CDs.

This YouTube video does a superb job of illustrating the concept.

While this technique is more commonly used in popular music, I have heard a few examples in classical CDs where overall levels sounded compressed to my ears. When I compare old vinyl recordings for example, to their new, re-mastered CD versions I hear a substantial difference and find myself adjusting the volume knob.

I notice this more so with MP3 downloads. One supposes that engineers do this to compensate for the signal loss that occurs with MP3 compression.

Louder is better

Beyond classical recordings, I bring up this loudness issue for another reason; it is an assault on the senses and a deliberate attempt to manipulate. Loudness can be like a narcotic and enthusiastic musicians may sometimes confuse loudness with “goodness.”

From a 2007 Rolling Stones article “Death of High Fidelity:”

[According to] Daniel Levitin, a professor of music and neuroscience at McGill University and author of This Is Your Brain on Music: The Science of a Human Obsession

….Human brains have evolved to pay particular attention to loud noises, so compressed sounds initially seem more exciting.

This is a popular trick that television commercials employ on a regular basis. If it is louder then it must be better, our brains tell us.

The bigger picture

Fortunately classical music has mostly been spared from this phenomena. I have read some blogs claiming that certain classical labels do this more than others but I cannot substantiate any of those claims.

My broader point here for brass students especially is that it is a slippery slope to get enamored with loud CDs and to associate loudness with excellence (i.e. “I must play loud so that everyone can hear my Art!”).

Caveat emptor.

In my younger days I went through a “Captain Blasto” phase where forte dynamic levels and above were more like a competition rather than a balanced dynamic and sound within an ensemble. Fortunately for me I was eventually “educated” by a musician on why this was not a good thing to do. (See this page, #1 for details).

“Loudness war” issues aside, there are other more common and tangible manipulation tricks in classical recording to discuss in future posts – digital editing being the major one.

With the right software, a moose can be made to sound like an angel.


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