How I got caugh in the Loudnes War and How I escaped
First time I heard of « loudness war » it was april 2014 and I was working on my first solo album The Grid The Cell. At that time I had been practicing music for twenty years, and it wasn’t my first experience of a home studio session. But this time everything was different : it was about Empty Shell Axiom, my absolutely personal project, and there was no one to snoop around the songs and spare tasks, except me, myself, and I.
Mixing is not a problem, but mastering… it’s something. Especially when you’re working with a casual laptop with less than one gigabyte of RAM available, trying to run Ableton Live 7 without a crash. You may be surprised that such thing is possible, but it is. Indeed, I’m still very happy of that mastering three years later. Sure, it crashed a few times, but Mister Casual Computer and I managed to get the job done.
The hardest part was I never got any mastering lessons. So I did what you do about everything in this information era : I googled « mastering » and I found a lot of pretty interesting material. I was used to computer assisted music so I connected the dots, tried my best and succeed to produce a far honorable mastering for The Grid. Honorable, but quite loud… cause in spite of my researchs I fall into the dark side and played the dangerous game of Loudness War, a game I ironically just heard about during those researchs.
You’re reading this post, so you probably know that « Loudness War » refers to the historical tendency of music industry to increase records volume year after year, using floods of compressors. We could tell ourselves « no problem » if it wasn’t for the loss of dynamic range. But it’s not only about dynamic range, it’s also about pushing up medium frequencies and violently beheading the waves of the songs. Let’s randomly check one of Converge songs — a band which had a huge impact on my life as an artist and a human being — and you’ll discover this powerful and so great sounding song shows gently beheaded waves in you digital audio workstation.
What is the problem ? Hardcore punk and metal music are made to be powerful and violent, to give off an impression of intensity, aren’t they ? Well, first, that’s what I told myself when I pushed the mediums up in my IDNA HYDRA EP, but the truth is your hears are quickly going to grow tired of it. Second : where are we going to stop ? Metallica’s Death Magnetic started a controversy due its bad production, but it didn’t prevent record compagnies to sink deeper in the War.
Taste matters, and where does taste come from ?
To be fair, we need to consider that there is no rule when it comes to music production. No rule, seriously ? So what about all the process that allowed engineers to have an efficient workflow so far such as using equalizers before compressors or recording drums before guitars ? Sure, these are some kind of rules but music is an artistic activity, and in art the norm is a matter of sociology. Cultural subjectivity is why some artists were first despised before being carried to the cloud a decade later. You can use science in your art : you technically know that a kick triggers a lower set of frequencies than a snare, that’s measurable and reproducible. But the fact we enjoy a low sounding kick more than a high one is a matter of taste. Rap music needs heavy low kick because… well, because it’s the way to create rap music, isn’t it ?
Here is why the war against Loudness War is tricky as hell. No one is a prophet in his own land and producing records with a lower volume implies that some part of the audience might not « get it ». Audiophiles don’t represent the majority of music listeners… but I wanted to be able to take a look in the mirror years later so I choose a path of moderation. My new record windowinter is as loud as Machine Head’s 94 Burn My Eyes, louder than Dark Side of the Moon, and way quieter than the vast majority of what electronic and heavy music produced in the last decade. It’s the balance I found between power and refinement. It may not subserve its public reception, but who cares ? I make music based on my own criterias. And what did build my criterias ? The devouring of music (the external cause) mixed with the mysteries of inner cooking — also known as « personality » and psychology. I’m always surprised to see young producers, especially in the EDM genre, who wants to create good music but have no musical culture. Based on the cultural aspect of aesthetics and due to the importance of imitation in the process of learning — artistic disciplines are no exception — one needs to build a world of his own by first growing a knowledge of what’s around. That’s quite a paradox that you need external influences to synthesize something which is a true echo of your self, but what is the « self » if not the enduring combination of internal and external factors ?
This explains why some will question the Loudness War and others will keep enjoying it. The Pareto Principle applies here. How many followers and copycats overrun the music industry, and how many unclassifiable bands create something genuine ? Type O Negative, Woods Of Ypres, Septic Flesh, Tool, Suicidal Tendencies (at least till their Freedumb LP), Neurosis, The Haunted… those henceforth acknowledged bands were all out of the box. And for each one of them, how many generic and vain bands ? The ratio easily reaches 80 % of ordinary even-if-not-bad bands. There is something to learn from that.
Nothing forced me to follow the Loudness War except the comparison with the bands I liked. After producing a master for a song I would check its waveform and compare it to the waveform of songs by an influent band — Nine Inch Nails, Front Line assembly or Converge as an exemple. Of course, the influent band’s song would always be louder, so I felt compelled to push the volume on my work. I wanted so much to be acknowledged for my creations that I was indeed trying to conform myself to an external model. How ironic. And on the other side I was conscious that something was wrong in the way I forced the songs toward loudness.
So I reconnected my work with my intuition rather than with a dominant standard. I took a gamble, and bet on the minority of audiophiles, whether muscians or listeners, who would dig my work instead of instantly rejecting it for some volume related reasons. And for whose who want to turn deaf before the age of 30, well, you still can push the volume toward the hearing loss area. Careful though, there’s no turning back.