A 'cure' for the Loudness Wars: Give us two mixes!

The trend to loud-all-the-time music shows no signs of letting up, but here's a possible way out of the Loudness Wars.

Most of today's music on CD, LP, or download is compressed to sound loud all the time. The engineers, producers, and record labels are afraid not to make music sound as loud as possible.

Dynamic range compression isn't new, it's been used by recording, mixing, and mastering engineers for decades. A little bit of compression is fine, but the unnatural onslaught of dynamically compressed sound obliterates musical nuance, delicacy, and emotional power. Compression's loud-all-the-time nature sucks the life out of music. The overuse of compression has become known as the Loudness War.

Steve Guttenberg

Before we go any further, I'm not referring to the lossy compression used in MP3s, or the lossless compression used in Apple Lossless of FLAC files. Dynamic range compression is a very different predicament. Saving your music as a FLAC or Apple Lossless file can't undo dynamic range compression; you can't unring a bell.

To the casual listener, this form of compression can sound "good," because it makes music louder and punchier, and once music's natural soft-to-loud dynamics are squashed flat, music is easier to hear in noisy environments like cars, planes, and buses. Compression reduces the need to adjust playback volume--because it's always nearly the same volume--loud.

My solution to the Loudness Wars is fairly simple: record companies should sell two mixes of each album, compressed and uncompressed. That way everybody can get what they want; casual listeners would buy the compressed version, and people who want to hear music with its natural soft-to-loud dynamics intact would buy the uncompressed mix. I'm pretty sure 90 percent or more of the buyers would opt for the compressed version, precisely because they use music as background sound to accompany other activities: driving, exercising, working, and reading. They are not really listening; the sound is just there.

With my "Two Mix Solution" downloaded music files could include both versions, and everyone would be happy. LPs, which are much more likely to be actively listened to should be as uncompressed as possible, but right now most LPs are sourced from the dynamically compressed CD master.

It's impossible to fully describe the ill effects of over compression in words, so I'm happy to report the "The Loudness War" YouTube video adds a visual perspective that will help make compression's negatives easier to understand. Like most things on YouTube, there's a bunch of videos covering the same subject, in this case, the evils of compression, but "The Loudness War" is one of the best of its kind.

What do you think of my Two Mix Solution? Share your thoughts in the comments section.

About the author

Ex-movie theater projectionist Steve Guttenberg has also worked as a high-end audio salesman, and as a record producer. Steve currently reviews audio products for CNET and works as a freelance writer for Home Theater, Inner Fidelity, Tone Audio, and Stereophile.

 

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