Back in the early 90s it became apparent to the industry just how powerful the effect of perceived loudness is. Anybody who has some experience in audio will know just how impressive it is to bump up your mix a few dB, or to run the vocals through a compressor that’s really just boosting gain. It’s a phenomenon that can be creatively used to great effect. Bringing a loud and heavy drop after a quiet breakdown is the basis of 95% of all electronic dance music. It intrigues the ears and excites the listener.
This is something that was known for a long time before the 90s, however what they realized was that this effect directly correlated to songs playing next to each other on the radio. If a song came on that seemed louder, the listener perceived it as being better and this supposedly meant more record sales, which of course meant more money for the record company. So, pretty quickly there became a massive push for mastering engineers to start hitting their equipment as hard as possible without completely destroying the fidelity. There was less care given to the sonic quality of the song and more towards just how it loud it was going to sound. By the mid 2000’s this trend was in full swing and it became a war (or race as mastering engineers are pacifists) to see who could pull the loudest sounds.
But music, like so many other things in life, is a balancing act. If you take away something from a whole then it’s going to feel off. If you emphasize something to the extreme then be sure to expect that something will diminish. In this case, when you aim for the heights of loudness while mastering then your compromise is going to be the dynamic range of the track. And not just throughout different sections, but between the balance of the instruments too. This, for some genres and pieces of music might not be too much of an issue. But for so many it will take away the life, the breath. Having music “brick walled” creates a fatiguing listening experience and can seriously take away the impact of a performance.
So where does this leave us? Is music irrevocably ruined? I wouldn’t throw out my stereo just yet. Interestingly one of the things that has been so terrible for music in so many ways is starting to reinstate the dynamic masters of yesteryear. Itunes, Spotify and other electronically based listening mediums actually employ loudness normalization algorithms in order to keep consistent volumes between different tracks from different eras. To achieve this programs generally utilize a relatively low loudness standard. What this does is it allows a large headroom margin, ensuring that a normalized dialog track that plays next to Stravinsky’s Rite of Spring will sound (on average) the same volume, while still affording the Stravinsky piece the room needed to deliver a shattering crescendo. What’s really incredible is when a hyper compressed piece of audio plays against a relatively un-compressed piece it’s the hyper compressed piece that suffers, sounds flat and uninteresting.
So due to modern listening methods and loudness normalization it is the general hope of many (myself included) that we will see a return a mastering process where less attention is given to the loudness and the engineer is freed up to focus on sonic quality.