The Loudness Wars

The previous post, Greg Borrowman made reference to ‘The Loudness Wars’ and gave a small explanation. But he has now drawn my attention to a very useful little video that explains what this means in practice. It is here, and it does an excellent job of explaining the technical effect.

But what has this to do with a ‘war’? It is largely to deal with what is sometimes known as the ‘Jukebox Effect’. You are playing a CD at a very enjoyable volume level on a multi-disc player. It comes to an end and the next disc starts. It is considerably quieter and consequently much less enjoyable.

The loudness wars is the marketing response to this. Pressure was placed on recording engineers to make recordings sound louder, lest they seem inferior.

But there’s a problem with this: loudness is subjective sensation, and our assessment of it is largely biased towards a short term average level of the sound. Short peaks only slightly affect the overall sense of loudness.

So to make a bit of music sound louder, you have to raise its average level.

But PCM digital recording is a bounded process. With the CD system, the total number space available is 65, 536. If you push the average to a higher level, there is less room at the top for the peaks. That’s why they have to be reduced in level. That’s why on today’s mainstream music you rarely hear drums with the bite and clarity that is apparent on much music from the 1970s.

The example on the video exaggerates the effect, but it is sound in showing you what to listen for. Having said that, apples are not oranges. Perhaps towering crescendos and percussive spikes shooting forth from the music are not at the moment something attractive to listeners.

So it’s perhaps best to find apples to compare with apples. In other words, digital┬áremasters?

Lot’s of popular and rock music from the 1970s was released on CD during the second half of the 80s and early 90s. Since the mid-90s a lot has been re-released in ‘Digitally Remastered’ versions. Some of these are clearly better than the first releases. But this isn’t always the case.

For example, I have a cheap version of Jeff Beck’s album Blow by Blow on CD, and also the SACD version of it. The latter isn’t a hybrid, so there is no CD layer, and so it is not directly comparable. But I prefer to to listen to the CD. It is much more lively.

I also have quite a few original CDs and remasters. Perhaps it’s about time I did some comparisons between the two sets.


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