< Back to index


An older essay I wrote on the loudness war, which ruins music and ruins ears.

This was a piece I wrote for Senior Composition, dated January 13, 2017. It's alright. Paragraphs are unwieldy and I think my explanation of dynamic range compression is a bit oversimplified and inaccurate. What can you do though? I'll revisit the topic sometime, because it's not getting any better.

A sonic arms race is happening all around us, and most people have yet to realize. It's called the "loudness war"—and it's destroying our music and our ears. Despite coverage on the BBC, NPR, Sound on Sound, and The Quietus, the loudness war continues to rage. Albums from major artists and indies alike get amplified to unbearable, distorted levels in the hopes that people pay more attention to it. In short, the loudness war is a terrible thing because it's ruining our music, damaging our hearing, and annoying listeners and devoted fans. Any discussion on the topic has to start with a bit of technical explanation for how this is happening.

In audio parlance, a "compressor" is a device that attenuates (or softens) loud sounds. Compressors are often good for evening out the quavering volume of a human voice, or allowing a record producer to turn the volume up louder. In simpler terms, a sound can only get so loud before it begins to distort. An easy solution is to turn the loud bits down and turn everything up as a result. When this is applied in large quantities to an entire song, drums begin to lose their definition and intentionally quiet passages no longer sound any quieter than the loud passages; without this crucial contrast, music sounds flat and lifeless. Compare the original 1991 mix of, say, "Smells Like Teen Spirit" by Nirvana, an already loud, messy punk song, to the version on the recent 20th anniversary reissue of Nevermind; the drum fill that puts the song into motion goes from a sudden jolt into a mushy, nondescript noise, and the formerly, quiet, ambient verses register at the same volume as the explosive chorus, the open space squeezed out of them. In even more drastic cases, such as Foo Fighters' 2001 album One by One, audible clicks, pops, and distortion result from the overcompression. Simply put, it's an audible disaster, and one that could have detrimental effects on our ears.

It's a natural response to turn up the volume on something pleasant to our ears. With already deafening, compressed mixes played directly into our ears with headphones and earbuds, however, tinnitus and hearing loss suddenly becomes a grave concern. A 2015 paper found that 324,000 new cases of clinically significant tinnitus were to occur in England between 2012 and 2021, and that the annual incident rate went from 4.5 per 10,000 in 2001 to 6.6 per 10,000 in 2011 (Martinez et al.). Children are especially at risk. While the data might seem tame, the incident rate is only projected to increase. It's irresponsible to contribute to our already flashy, noise-polluted world with yet more noise, ruining ears and ruining our enjoyment of our music.

While we turn up the volume for ourselves, there's no evidence that a song mastered at a louder volume has any effect on song sales or enjoyment of the song. In fact, there's been noticeable pushback against especially loud albums. Metallica's 2008 album Death Magnetic has been heavily criticized for its bombastic, distorted mixing, to the point where consumers circulated the Guitar Hero III version of the album (a far less distorted copy of the album) on file-sharing sites (Kreps). Similarly, one can find quieter, more dynamic pre-release versions of Red Hot Chili Peppers' Californication through torrent sites, and remasters of Rush's Vapor Trails and The Stooges' Raw Power have also been released officially after outcry over their original mixes (Anderson). It goes beyond rock music as well: Daft Punk's successful 2013 album Random Access Memories is much quieter and more dynamic than many modern electronica albums have been as of late, even winning a Grammy for Best Engineered Album, Non-Classical (Brown). There is clearly demand for better mixing and sound quality in our music, but most of the industry has yet to catch up.

The loudness wars continue to ruin our music and damage our hearing. People don't respond any better to a louder song than they do a quieter one, especially on radio, where stations use their own compressors to even out the volume between songs, distorting them further. The increase in the sales of vinyl, as well as the reissues of the aforementioned Vapor Trails and Raw Power, show that consumers want a better, cleaner-sounding version of their music, but as of yet, the industry has yet to give listeners what they want. As Daft Punk said, give life back to music.

Works Cited

< Back to index