From a whisper to a scream: Most new albums are just a brick wall of sound.
By David Sason
It's called "soundcheck" on the iPod. On some television sets, its name is "steady sound." Today, virtually every electronic entertainment device has some sort of built-in volume control, seeking to level the increasingly jarring fluctuation in the loudness of audio or video content in the 21st century. "What's probably most noticeable to people is how loud a commercial is on television when it comes on," says Allen "Big Al" Wagner, recording industry veteran and proprietor of Big Toe Studio in Vancouver, Wash. "That's the same technology being used to make music louder."
As the cofounder of Turn Me Up!, Wagner, along with engineer-producer Charles Dye and rock musician John Ralston, is trying to counter a trend that's quickly entering the cultural lexicon via a dramatic term: the "loudness wars," a moniker that aptly describes the aggressiveness with which the loudness race has progressed and the destructive effect it's had on the audio arts. Whether rock, hip-hop or jazz, music is roaring like never before. Turn Me Up!--the name tells listeners what to do with quieter, more dynamic albums--aims to hush the blast.
"It's the equivalent of someone screaming everything they say," says Wagner. "Imagine taking a painting and saying, 'It's not bright enough, so let's take the Mona Lisa and go over it with all day-glo colors so that all the colors scream, all the time."
While best exhibited aurally--YouTube has plenty of didactic videos on the subject--the way a "loud" recording mutilates the original tracks is perceivable in a sensory nature. Individual elements within the recording (the range of instruments, for instance) are raised to a similar level to allow for a larger output, a process called compression. Without the contrast, drums once crisp and forceful are now muffled amid the rest of the sounds. Detail and distinction suffer in pursuit of a bigger impression. Sometimes, a cacophony of distortion occurs, known as "clipping." "There are no highs and lows, there's no inflection, and the original piece of art is actually being tampered with," laments Wagner.
Why would any musician release a record this way? While the rise of the still-controversial mp3 sound file has certainly undermined sound-quality preservation, the loudness war is just another example of the age-old dilemma: art vs. commerce. In the iTunes store, for instance, a heavier volume has proven a potent way to stand out among the competition. "Unfortunately, the human ear is easily tricked into thinking something is better if it's louder," says Wagner. "It's all about attention and sales. 'This record's going to come out and we need it to catch attention, so make it louder than everybody else's'--this is a common conversation in the industry."
And apparently not a new one. Way back when jukeboxes were a prominent form of music dissemination in the mid-20th century, 45s were mastered "hotter," as it was known then, to attract the attention of bar or club patrons. Even the great Motown Records was known for the practice, but the vinyl record format had its own inherent defense against the practice. "You could only make a record so loud when it came to using a vinyl LP disc or else the needle would jump out of the groove," says Wagner laughingly. "There were some natural restrictions, which is why you can't get an LP that can compete in the loudness wars beyond a reasonable limit."
The liberating technology in the 1980s of the compact disc, Wagner believes, was soon squandered. "CDs offered the wonderful vista of this extended dynamic range to where we could hear softer lows and louder highs, and that was going be a panacea for the music lover," he remembers. "Instead, the music industry chose to use all that extra headroom to push the volume as high as possible, and they used it as a launch pad for volume instead of taking advantage of its dynamic potential."
Although modern sound quality has been a concern for many rock luminaries like Bob Dylan, Neil Young and Beatles engineer Geoff Emerick, no case has garnered as much attention as that of Metallica. Due to the squashed "loudness" of their latest album, Death Magnetic, the band's fans turned on them, especially after the same tracks were released, sans the compressed mastering, on the video game Guitar Hero to universal praise. A petition is underway to demand a remaster of the CD and digital download versions.
Turn Me Up! applies the goal of dynamics to business as well as sound, looking for a way to make a record that doesn't join the loudness wars but is still commercially viable. The proof is abundant, Wagner feels. "If you go back and listen to The Joshua Tree by U2 or Synchronicity by the Police, they're very good examples of very dynamic records," he says. "You certainly can't say that either of those weren't powerful records or that they didn't sell well."
JJ Golden of Golden Mastering in Ventura couldn't agree more. "There's a reason why music from the '60s and '70s is still having such an influence on musicians," says the audio mastering technician, who's worked on records for everyone from Sonic Youth to Devendra Banhart. "Each time you listen, you may hear some little detail that you never heard before. These days, with overproduced and overcompressed recording, mixing and mastering techniques, it doesn't have that repeat-listening effect."
Since audio mastering is the final creative step before a final master is made, professionals like Golden are on the front lines of the volume wars. Engineer Ted Jenson, who mastered the notorious Metallica album, exacerbated the bad press through a telling online post last year. "Believe me, I'm not proud to be associated with this one," he wrote on Metallica's online fan forum.
"I've mastered a lot of records where volume is more important to the artist/label/producer/etc. than quality and feel," says Golden. "There's a certain immediate 'wow' factor when you listen to a loud album, but that wears off very quickly. It might work for TV commercials, but it doesn't do much for an album's longevity."
The tide is turning, but some artists may have to learn the hard way. "The same people come back a year or so later to master another CD and tell me they want this one to have more dynamics than the last CD and how they just can't listen to that last album anymore," says Golden. "But there are thousands of bands who are making their first record right now and will need to take that journey to 'loud land' to get some perspective." And the more common music fans that get involved, the better for the cause. "The more we talk about it in a nontechnical arena, the more aware people will become," Golden continues. "I think what Turn Me Up! is doing is great."
Wagner is similarly optimistic. "It's a matter of figuring out who's going to make the first move to start the dominoes toppling a little bit," he says, "and hopefully we have some small part in being that first domino."
Listeners can find out more, and bands can get their records certified for clarity, at www.turnmeup.org.