We Won The Loudness Wars?
Guest article by Erik Magrini (Tarekith)
For the last few months, more and more industry experts have been proclaiming that the loudness wars have been won. No longer do we have to fight each other to get the loudness master on the planet, we can all go back to just enjoying nice dynamic music.
Except nothing has really changed, has it? How has this been won, when everything is just like it was before?
As a professional mastering engineer, I’ve noticed an increase in clients asking about this potentially confusing situation. There’s a lot of misinformation out there on the topic at the moment, and not much real understanding of why this may come to pass. To help people get better understanding of what’s going on, I thought I would try and briefly summarize the main causes of why someone might claim the loudness wars are over.
It all starts with ITUR BS.1770. Yes, that’s what it’s really called, and you can read it yourself if you really want:
Originally introduced in 2006, this standard was written to help TV broadcasters transmit audio at a uniform volume. That way one show is not louder than the next, and TV ads don’t playback louder than programs. It not only defined what that uniform volume should be, but also described the way audio must be measured to comply with that standard.
It gave us the means to measure music in a way that accurately reflects how humans perceive loudness.
By now, almost all TV broadcast stations around the world follow this standard, and slowly radio broadcasters have been following suit. Currently radio broadcasts are also volume controlled, but often with dynamic compression and other audio processing; this is not only expensive, it’s time consuming. The new 1770 standard only allows for raising and lowering of the overall song volume, the audio content itself is not being altered at all. Much cheaper and easier for radio stations to implement, and it sounds better too!
So far, this has nothing to do with us, I know. But recently internet radio has become much more popular, and it too is starting to follow this standard. Spotify has had a variation of it from day one, and Apple just adopted it for their iTunes Radio as well. iTunes has a similar function called Sound Check that does this for your music library as well.
Cars are already being equipped with services like Spotify, Pandora, and iTunes as standard, and in most cases here again we see manufacturers starting to equip loudness normalizing functions as default. In short, more and more ways we consume audio are being set up to automatically adjust the playback volume in order to achieve consistant loudness. What’s more, they are all following the same standard, or at least some variant of it.
Sensing the change coming, some plugin manufacturers are even starting to include BS.1770 metering into their plugins! Whether we intend it or not, very soon our music is going to be played back in an environment where everything is normalized to the same volume.
But why is that something that we need to worry about, won’t the software take care of it for us?
Yes, but here’s the catch. When we take the current hyperlimited tracks we have and play them back at the same average volume as more dynamic tracks, the limited ones sound weak and dull in comparison. All that work I did creating a nice, loud, and full sounding master for someone now backfires and the track doesn’t compete. Sigh… :)
For now I’m guessing that clubs and the party scene will be the last to agree to anything like a standardized way to even out playback volume. So in the short term, I’m telling most of my clients who are concerned about this that they might need two masters. One is a more compressed version like we’re used to today, and another would be more dynamic to sound better when played back at a standardize level for, say online streaming. At the very least, people should make sure they always back up the 24bit mixdowns they generate, because they can always be mastered to a different standard later should you have that need.
Like it or not, this is a change that is coming, and probably sooner than most people think. It won’t radically alter the way we write music yet, but there’s definitely a time coming when overall volume levels won’t be nearly as important. There’s still room for nice thick and dense dance tracks as well though, never fear! When not limited quite so hard it’s amazing how powerful they can be in fact.
I think once people start to hear the benefits of this for themselves, they’ll understand how this is going to be a very good thing. Now if we could just get Beatport, Traktor, and Serato onboard!
Erik Magrini (Tarekith)