Laying Off The Loudness

by Chas Danner

Nine Inch Nails has decided to release its new album, Hesitation Marks, in two versions, one mastered with maximized loudness in mind (as is the norm with virtually all mass-market music released today) and the other meant to respect the more natural dynamic range of the album as it was recorded in the studio. Dan Seifert explains why this is important:

This second “audiophile master” mix is the latest salvo against the overbearing loudness of pop music today, and, according to the band, it’s the first time that anyone has mastered the same album twice for different audiences.

Most songs produced today are louder than ever before, and have less variance between the loud and soft sounds within their tracks. This “brickwall” method of mixing music (which refers to a very compressed and loud audio track) is generally derided by audiophiles because it eliminates the delicate tones that can be heard with quality audio equipment.

Seifert adds that, “Chances are, audiophile-quality mixes of music will never really make the mainstream: for most people, pop music is too ephemeral to waste time, money, and storage space on higher-quality tracks.” But Zach Schonfeld thinks artists and audio engineers have a responsibility to ratchet back the loudness, seeing the alternate version of Hesitation Marks as an unfortunate half measure:

Famously attentive to every millisecond of sound, each snare hit and synth bubble, [Nine Inch Nails’ Trent Reznor is] throwing a bone to the thick-spectacled audiophile corner of his fanbase: He’s offering them a higher-quality product. But he’s also drawing a line in the sand between audiophile and average listener and suggesting that sound quality is only of interest to the former. Reznor is challenging the Loudness Wars, yet simultaneously capitulating to the new normal by offering up the “Audiophile Version” for a niche audience only.

This is a shame. As his producer, Alan Moulder, writes, “It is a fact that when listening back-to-back, loud records will come across more impressively, although in the long run what you sacrifice for that level can be quality and fidelity.” So why not just release the audiophile version on CD and vinyl and let it speak for itself?

Schonfeld also recommends Nick Southall’s fine 2006 essay on the Loudness War, a key section of which is excerpted below:

There are two ways to measure “loudness”—peak levels and average levels. The former refers to the loudest part of a piece of music or sound; a crescendo or climax. The difference between the highest and lowest points makes for the average level. Sadly, the science of psychoacoustics suggests our ears generally respond to the average level rather than the peak level of volume—hence we would perceive a consistently loud piece of rock music as being “louder” than a piece of classical that reaches the same or even a higher volume level during a crescendo, simply because the rock song is “loud” all the way through. “Loud” records grab our attention (obviously—being louder they are harder to ignore on first impression) and in order to grab attention quicker and more effectively in a crowded marketplace, record companies and artists have been striving to make their records as loud as possible from the second the first note is played, whatever the cost.

This isn’t a recent thing. The “Loudness War” has been going on almost as long as pop music has existed, and probably longer—nobody has ever wanted their record to be the quietest on the jukebox or the radio. The Beatles lobbied Parlophone to get their records pressed on thicker vinyl so they could achieve a bigger bass sound more than 40 years ago. The MC5 apparently mixed their second album, Back in the USA, at such extreme volume in the studio that they failed to notice how tinny and thin it sounded—there’s practically no bottom-end to it at all. Then there’s Phil Spector’s legendary “wall of sound” production style, mixed and mastered to sound good on tiny, tinny transistor radios, squeezing as big a sound as possible into as small a space. Three or four decades ago record companies would send out compilations of singles to radio stations on a single vinyl record—if a band or producer heard their song on one of these and it was quieter than the competitions’ song, they would call the mastering engineer and get him to up the levels until it was the loudest, even if that meant corrupting the sound quality.