Even if you stopped buying CDs over a decade ago, you can’t have failed to notice the coming of the loudness wars. Better writers than me have analysed what exactly this means for your listening experience, so I’ll leave the commentary to them. For me it just serves as another example of the lack of respect that the music industry has had for its public in recent years.
For the uninitiated, the term “loudness wars,” refers, basically, to noisy mastering. Compression is used to make the track more uniformly loud, often with the effect of reducing the dynamic range. Sound On Sound Magazine explores the matter comprehensively here.
Of course, compression is a necessary part of the mastering process, but if a track is too heavily compressed you’ll be able to hear it without necessarily understanding what you’re hearing. There are plenty of examples, including many of Depeche Mode‘s albums starting with the otherwise lovely Playing the Angel (see analysis here). Even their most recent album Delta Machine still suffers from it, which is rather sad, as it does tend to ruin things.
Where people tend to get really upset is with reissued albums. The remastering process can bring out sounds and details beautifully, and can really add to old releases when done well. Sometimes, it isn’t done well. There’s a revealing commentary about the Joy Division and New Order reissues here, although it’s easy to read that piece and come away thinking the author is equating “compressed” with “poor quality”, which would of course be wrong.
But I can’t help but see something of an irony here. The music industry thinks we’re all criminals who want to download everything illegally. But if the only reason to buy music is to avoid doing something a bit criminal, it’s never going to come back. Only when we kill off silly music industry practices like the loudness wars will people go back to giving their money directly to record companies.
Which brings us to what the organisers of Dynamic Range Day are working to achieve. Last year’s was on 22nd March, and this year’s is coming very soon, and the aim is to try to raise awareness of the loudness wars, and ultimately to try and kill them off. Who knows how successful they will be.
In the long run, for me, the loudness wars are another example of the “music industry” exhibiting little or no respect for the record buying public. I wouldn’t argue that only acousticians should be allowed to master music – in fact it’s difficult to know if that would actually achieve anything – but if record companies want to stop illegal downloading, one of the strongest weapons in their arsenal is the fact that they hold the original masters for everything. They can sell us the best possible quality recordings. So why not treat consumers with a little respect? Having spent our hard earned money on these releases, why shouldn’t we be rewarded with full fidelity sound?
Incidentally, Wikipedia has an interesting, if typically overcomplicated, discussion on the loudness wars here, with a rogue’s gallery of particularly bad examples.