The Loudness Wars: Why Music Sounds Worse
As we come to the end of the decade, we turn to one of the more dramatic changes we’ve heard in music over those 10 years: It seems to have gotten louder.
We’re talking about compression here, the dynamic compression that’s used a lot in popular music. There’s actually another kind of compression going on today — one that allows us to carry hundreds of songs in our iPods. More on that in a minute.
But first, host Robert Siegel talked to Bob Ludwig, a record mastering engineer. For more than 40 years, he’s been the final ear in the audio chain for albums running from Jimi Hendrix to Radiohead, from Tony Bennett to Kronos Quartet.
Bob pointed to a YouTube video titled The Loudness War. The video uses Paul McCartney’s 1989 song “Figure of Eight” as an example, comparing its original recording with what a modern engineer might do with it.
“It really no longer sounds like a snare drum with a very sharp attack,” Ludwig says. “It sounds more like somebody padding on a piece of leather or something like that,” Ludwig says. He’s referring to the practice of using compressors to squash the music, making the quiet parts louder and the loud parts a little quieter, so it jumps out of your radio or iPod.
Ludwig says the “Loudness War” came to a head last year with the release of Metallica’s album Death Magnetic.