Loudness War: How Daft Punk changed the way Mastering works

Jan 23, 2017 · 3 min read

Daft Punk’s Random Access Memories is a milestone in the worldwide music business for several reasons: the cycling nature of the arrangements, the ambiguity of certain musical keys (e.g. Get Lucky), the symbolism of cinematic images, the hypnotic magnetism of the lyrics, the mix between analogue and digital sounds and the hybridism of this particular genre, from disco music to funky. This album is a masterpiece for its outstanding mastering techniques: we’re not talking about a revival of the 70’s album’s dynamics, but of the construction of a modern dynamic. From a psychoacoustic point of view it’s soft, fresh and gives the listener a relaxing sensation, although it provides occasional sparkles of loudness. The focal point is to make the listeners aware of something different they’ve never heard before, but at the same time make it enjoyable.

Every sound engineer is familiar with the renowned “Loudness War”, a widely discussed subject on forums, blogs and magazines all around the world (there’s a free online Dynamic Range Database, which is a useful tool to understand the evolution of this phenomenon).

Even Wikipedia has a dedicated section to it: “Loudness war or loudness race is the popular name given to the trend of increasing audio levels in recorded music since the early 1990s, which many critics believe reduces sound quality and listener enjoyment”. Considering the fact that the maximum amplitude available on a Compact Disc is limited to 96dB, the overall volume can be increased only by reducing its dynamic range. This technique is obtained by applying an extreme compression, boosting the quieter parts and cutting the peaks that exceed the volume limit.

The Loudness War was born in the 80’s as a consequence of the upcoming CDs and was exasperated in the early 2000 with the birth of lossy formats like MP3s. Having the possibility of listening to music anywhere through small earbuds has made music itself more disposable for the masses.

More and more people listen to music to escape from the noises of the urban soundscape, so turning the volume up has become a real necessity.

The most disturbing thing is that distortion, which is the natural consequence of this procedure, has become a synonym of commercial success in every musical genre. In Greg Milner’s book Perfecting Sound Forever (2010), mastering engineer Chris Johnson wrote a list of the best selling albums in the world, assigning individual scores based on the platinum awards they had won. A further technical analysis revealed that the majority of them had a very small dynamic range. Loudness War hasn’t spared anyone, from Red Hot Chili Pepper’s Californication (1999) to Depeche Mode’s Playing the Angel (2005); from Christina Aguilera’s Back to Basic (2006) to Flaming Lips’ At War With the Mystic, released the same year.

This mastering technique dominated for fifteen years until Daft Punk’s Random Access Memories put a giant question mark over it in 2013. This work of art is a milestone not only from a musical point of view, but it represents a new approach to mastering records. Even at first hearing, the listener can perceive an obsessive care of the dynamic range and it’s weird to believe that such a sudden change of trend came from a dance album, a genre certainly not well known for it’s wide headroom…