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Music is getting louder.  It’s not just played louder and written faster, harder, with lower lows and higher highs, but actually processed to sound louder on your stereo regardless of where you set your volume knob.   Louder songs sell.  If Intergalactic is played right before Boom Boom Pow, and Boom Boom Pow sounds louder, listeners will prefer Boom Boom Pow because the louder song is initially more pleasing.   At least that’s what record execs and studio producers believe.

The problem lies in what is lost when the ‘volume’ is cranked up.   When the quiet parts of the song are loud and the loud parts are peaking at  zero (the loudest volume possible on CD’s) the listener misses out on the subtleties in many songs.  String accompaniments are drowned out by bass beats and electric guitar.   Snare drums sound dull.  Otherwise beautiful and dynamic songs lose much of their texture.  Imagine listening to The Dark Side of the Moon with the levels on your equalizer all the way up.  Try it sometime.  It’s disgusting.

NPR’s All Thing’s Considered ran a story on this phenomenon a few weeks ago.  Check it out here.

Because louder music creates a more immediately pleasing effect on the listener, record execs have been ordering the volume knob cranked up for the last three decades. This could be chalked up to harmless capitalism, but the problem is that audio can only get so loud before it begins to lose all the stuff that makes it so good. Once you compress the peaks and valleys of rhythm and sound too far, it becomes the visual equivalent of typing in all caps: All the the loud sounds are loud and so are all the soft ones. The dynamic of sound, or the part of music that makes it funky or groovy or smooth or mellow or punchy or whatever you like, is suddenly being pushed to what is more or less white noise, merely for a chance at that #1 spot.

NPR – A Visual History of Loudness

The Loudness War is a youtube video that provides an excellent audio/visual representation of the loudness problem:

Even if you’re listening to properly mastered music, you still might be falling into a similar trap by listening to low quality .mp3 files (avoid going lower than 256kpbs!) or listening on crappy headphones/speakers.  You might also be cranking up the bass or treble on your equalizer or by using the loud feature on your stereo or mp3 player.   If you try flattening your equalizer and listening on great headphones, you will hear all the subtleties in the music (as the artist intended).

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One Comment

  1. Great post. It’s always amazing going back to some mp3s obtained via Napster (yeah, I still have music from those days), then listening to the CD/LP and realizing how much you’ve missed by listening to lossy-format qualities.


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