‘Loudness War.’ The phrase is often associated with the ongoing war waged between mix engineers/artists and the consumer marketplace. Changes in broadcast standards, portable music playback, and consumer trends have all led to increased loudness. At some point during the digital age, the demand for louder output, to the detriment of fidelity, grew exponentially. It wasn’t until the last year or so that the war reached a bit of a tipping point.
Recently, playback platforms, namely streaming (i.e Spotify, Apple, Youtube, Pandora), have introduced algorithms to normalize playback volume. (Peak to Loudness ratios or PLR). The algorithms have been designed to intentionally limit and reduce specific sonic values into a designated rage (PLR) thereby forcing the content towards a more neutral place. Ideally, this will result in mix engineers and artists returning to a more sensible mix based decision-making process because regardless of how ‘loud’ everyone’s work attempts to be, it will ultimately live in a similar space. That notwithstanding, the dilemma and attempts for the industry to correct itself have a relation to art beyond the music world.
Our work should have an aesthetic, it should be ‘loud’, but it shouldn’t be cheap. Imagine a painting, designed to communicate a message within the physical confines of its’ medium, the canvas. If we were to take that canvas, contract and expand it until it became something larger than it really was, we would be left with a distortion. What was once defined is now blurred and riddled with artifacts.
This distortion effect tampers with the experience thereby introducing an inarticulate relationship. Similarly, a well mixed and balanced record loses its ‘mix’ when it’s over-compressed for increased ‘perceived loudness’. What originally was a great artistic effort to breathe life into the song is now a mix that ceases to exist. Why? It has literally been squashed to death.
We have a responsibility not only as creators but also as consumers. Cheap begs cheap. If the process is allowed to run a haphazard course we’ll experience heightened confusion, diminished effort, shallow understanding, and a proverbial ‘limiter’ beginning to lower the output for everyone involved.
Artists and consumers have to push each other. Being proactive lightens the limiting, increases the communication headroom, and breathes life back into the analog experience.