The Loudness War And
How It Impacts Consumers
YouTube Is The Number One Way People Listen To Music Today, But Their Treatment Of Audio Is A Potential Problem For Listeners Who Are Largely Unaware That There Is Any Difference
By Ryan Scott
Modern Times Magazine
April 3, 2015 — Since the early 2000’s, the way people consume and purchase (or not purchase) music has undergone severe changes that greatly affected the industry as a whole.
First, when the iTunes store launched in 2001, it was the beginning of the iPod and mp3 era, that started the true decline in physical music sales. More recently, the tide is shifting again to streaming music on services such as YouTube or Spotify as opposed to owning the music at all.
YouTube is currently the No. 1 place that people listen to and discover new music, according to Nielsen, but consumers may not understand what sacrifices they may be making for the sake of convenience and saving money.
As of December of last year, YouTube started using something called “loudness normalization” on all of their videos and music. This means that all music, no matter how it was mixed, mastered or recorded in a studio, is played at a similar level of loudness on their platform.
Many may wonder why this is significant, and it comes down to the concept of dynamics.
"Dynamics is the difference (as it pertains to loudness) between the quiet part in a piece of audio and a very loud part," said Ronald J. Llewellyn III, an audio mastering engineer and owner of Welshman’s Pride Recording.
Basically, if a song was made to have a lot of range with quiet parts, loud parts and changes in volume throughout for effect, those differences are being taken away via this normalization that is taking place.
This all stems back to something that has been going on in music for quite some time and that is what people refer to as the “loudness war.”
As far as music goes, there have been extensive studies that show that people enjoy music at a higher volume. There's a tiny organ in the inner ear called the sacculus that is linked to the region of the brain associated with pleasure. The sacculus has been shown to respond to frequency vibrations that are generated by loud music. It makes it more pleasurable. So, to accommodate that, those working in the audio industry have been making records to be louder so that they seem more pleasurable.
"You can take any good recording and just turn up the volume and make it loud,” Llewellyn said. "The loudness is war is where you are altering the dynamics of a track so that there is no difference between the quiet part of the song and the loud part of the song. It's almost entirely perceived to be the same."
Llewellyn went on to say that when he comes across someone who may not understand this or be aware of it, it helps to show them something from a different era to hear that there is a difference.
"Listen to old (Black) Sabbath records and then go listen to the newest Metallica record or something like that. Hell, listen to old Metallica records and then listen to the new Metallica record."
Ian Shepherd of Production Advice recently compared several tracks with varying dynamic range on CD, then compared that to their dynamic range on YouTube. He found that though all of the tracks were previously very different dynamically, were all virtually the same on YouTube.
However, that isn’t to say that loudness normalization doesn’t have its place.
“I find it annoying to be watching a video with soft sound and then have an ad come on in the middle that blasts my speakers and ears so, some element of volume control is needed. However, that isn't to say we are getting the best quality by leveling everything either,” said film composer and audio engineer Scott Haskin.
Haskin has run into some specific problems in his field having to compose music for films, however, a main battlefield in the loudness war.
“The challenge with the way things are being done today is that if you don't play the loudness game, your music sounds weak compared to others. I like to find a compromise taking and maximizing the peaks and letting the valleys keep their curves,” Haskin said.
The appeal of streaming services like YouTube and Spotify are very evident, and they absolutely have their place. It is accessible from anywhere with an Internet connection and these services largely defer the financial cost of purchasing music. However, some degree of quality is being sacrificed and there will be consequences if people don’t do something to change it.
“Music is meant to be dynamic and have its ups and downs and ebbs and flows. Making it all the same level of volume takes away from the dynamic range of its musicians,” said Mandi Kimes, a local music enthusiast and music blogger.
Kimes prefers to listen to music on vinyl but does use Spotify when she’s out and about. She hopes that people will try to understand the problems and educate themselves, but isn’t overly optimistic about it.
“I just people will educate themselves. But I know they won't. People are getting lazy with their music. They want it here, now, at whatever costs,” Kimes said.
Llewellyn feels that there are people who are realizing there is a problem and said that for those who want to further understand the problem, they should visit the Dynamic Range Day website, which has audio examples and materials to help people understand the situation better.
"We're finally getting a bit of a backlash where the average consumer is saying 'this doesn't sound very good, the last record sounded better.' They may not fully understand why, but they know it when they hear it,” Llewellyn said.
For those who want to hear examples of dynamic range differences and to better understand the Loudness War, visit http://dynamicrangeday.co.uk/.
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