Winning the Loudness Wars

At the 133rd Audio Engineering Society (AES) Convention at San Francisco's Moscone Convention Center, a full house flocked to aptly numbered Room 133 on October 27 to hear Stereophile's John Atkinson and four other major audio professionals deliver a two-hour presentation, Loudness Wars: The Wrong Drug? Sharing the stage were the panel's chair, Thomas Lund of TC Electronic A/S from Risskov, Denmark; Florian Camerer of ORF of Vienna, Austria; fabled recording and mastering engineer Bob Katz of Digital Domain in Orlando, Florida; and the equally fabled George Massenburg, McGill University, Montreal, Quebec, Canada, who engineered, among other things, that audiophile favorite, Jennifer Warnes' "Bird on a Wire."

The "Loudness Wars" panel (L&R):George Massenburg, John Atkinson, Bob, Katz, Florian Camerer, and Thomas Lund.

Lund, whose company's LM6 loudness monitoring meter was put to use in slides projected throughout the panel, began with a long demonstration whose message was, in so many words: Don't use the peak level meter to adjust volume. Instead, use the Peak-to-Loudness Ratio (PLR), which measures the peak level of a track ("true-peak") relative to normalization. This preserves micro-dynamics, in which the heart of music lies."

Lund explained that the ear/brain judges loudness by the music's average level. Dynamic Range is not the same as Loudness. The louder the music, and the higher the average level of loudness, the lower the dynamic range, and the more lifeless and squashed a recording becomes. Maximizing loudness actually minimizes transient peaks, to the detriment of the music.

"Don't squash the peaks to control loudness!" Lund proclaimed. As proof, he played four modern tracks that sounded pretty hideous. In fact, one of the high points of his presentation came when he projected a chart that compared the PLR of five well-mastered tracks (Paul Simon's "Homeless," Donald Fagen's "I.G.Y.," Warnes' "Bird on a Wire," Lou Reed's "Dirty Blvd.", and Michael Jackson's 1982 "Beat It") with five others that were pretty awful (Take That's "Shine," Michael Jackson's 2009 "Beat It" remastered edition, AC/DC's "Rock'n Roll Train," Kelly Clarkson's "Since U Been Gone," and Metallica's if only it were true "The Day That Never Comes"). Another chart showed the abysmal decline of the Peak-to-Loudness ratio of the 10,000 most popular music tracks in the US, UK, and Germany from a relatively Golden Age of Recording, which reached a PLR apex of 16dB in 1982–1984, to the nadir of 2006–2008, where PLR declined to a little over 9dB.

The Brave New World of Loudness Normalization: Terminology

Normalization Suggestions

Living in a loudness-normalized world.

Engineers to the Fore
Floridian Bob Katz, introduced as "a brother in arms for many years," did his tie-die San Francisco thing by proclaiming that he votes to preserve free-range organic transients. He was joshing, but he wasn't far off. By the time you read this, Californians tried but failed to buck a huge PR campaign spearheaded by Monsanto and Dow Chemical to prevent labeling of foods containing GMOs.

One-Size Fits-All Track Normalization (left) compared with Album Normalization (right), which preserves the loudness ratios of loud and quiet songs.

Katz, who has just had his Mastered for iTunes book published, declared, "Per track normalization in iTunes is an insidious compressor. It makes soft songs sound too loud." Far more preferable is album normalization. To make his point, Katz projected a chart that measured the per track normalization of four tracks–loud and soft songs by the Beatles and Frank Sinatra–to demonstrate that per-track normalization makes soft songs sound way too loud, and diminishes swing in loud numbers. Album normalization enables everything to sound and feel right.

Bob Katz's favorite lament of the mastering engineer.

"Should it be the mastering engineer's job to fix the damage that that mixing engineers have done?" Katz asked. "Why should I have to restore the peaks the mixing engineers have squashed?"

From right to left: Bob Katz and John Atkinson observe George Massenburg's real-time mastery of Pro Tools plug-ins.

George Massenburg, introduced as the man responsible for some of the finest rock mastering Lund has ever heard, made the case for "aggressive use of dynamics." He also played several fine-sounding tracks, including a recent recording by Aimee Mann, on which compression has been selectively employed on individual instruments to positive effect.

Florian Camerer took to the floor to explain how European broadcasters are switching from Peak Track Normalization to Loudness Normalization, eliminating any loudness advantage over-compressed songs might have had.

Florian Camerer shared good news. As the chair of a panel that sets European broadcast standards, he announced that European broadcasters are switching from Peak Track Normalization to Loudness Normalization. (The European broadcast standard currently normalizes PLR at –23 LUFS/LKFS, and may switch to –24 in December.)

"The tide has turned in Europe in terms of broadcasting," he said. TV is already in the bag, and radio is next. He also noted that iTunes, which now normalizes loudness at –16.2 LUFS/LKFS, and uses peak normalization for tracks with high PLR, is doing a pretty good job.

JA's loudness map of Shelby Lynne's "Just a Little Lovin'," prepared with the TC Electronics LM6 meter plug-in.

The Listener's Perspective
JA, whose opening slide was used as the heading image for this story, was introduced as the one panelist who would speak from the perspective of listeners, ie, us. Although time limitations forced him to truncate his presentation a little, John was able to play Shelby Lynne's "Just a Little Lovin'" to demonstrate how true music lovers value space between sounds, and a dynamic range that preserves a huge amount of transient information.

The loudness map of Delbert McClinton's "Mother's Little Baby Doll"—all loudness all the time.

For contrast, he then played an extremely noisy track by the Red Hot Chili Peppers in which space was no longer the final frontier—it didn't even exist. "As a Chili Peppers fan, I want to enjoy this," he lamented, "but I can't." People knew how to preserve dynamics in classical music well way back in 1932, he noted, yet, in 2009, Don Was so flattened the peaks on Delbert McClinton's musically excellent album, Acquired Taste, that it couldn't be featured it as a "Recording of the Month" in Stereophile.

JA welcomed the idea of Loudness Normalization in broadcasting, as now those who squashed the life out of music to increase un-normalized loudness—the current situation—would be penalized, as post-normalization, all the listener would hear would be the damage done to the music: "wimpy "loud" music, in Bob Katz's immortal phrase. The incentive for record industry "suits" to hyper-compress songs during mastering would thus be eliminated.

Turning to "Money" from the hybrid SACD issue of Pink Floyd's Dark Side of the Moon, John compared the SACD layer, which preserves the superior original mastering, to the CD layer, which squashes dynamics. Summarizing observations that he first elaborated upon in his 2008 "As We See It" editorial, "CD Quality: Where Did the Music Go?," he concluded, "As an end user, I welcome the trend in the industry toward reliance on the Peak-to-Loudness ratio. Loud music should sound loud, not weak or wimpy."

Skep tica's picture

Jason, thanks for covering this. In my personal investigations as to what can make music sound good or bad I've learned that what happens in the recording environment is far more important to sound quality than any in-board or out-board DAC, cable, or expensive consumer equipment.

I'm frustrated by a review industry that so often puts the sound engineering on the back seat of importance. I'll take a 320kbs (or even 256k) MP3 that is from a well recorded and well engineered recording and be able to enjoy that on a decent speaker, over a recording encoded at the highest of bit rate, and irrespective of delivery format, to a recording that wasn't engineered well and played on the most expensive of equipment, anytime.


mrplankton2u's picture

Recording "engineers" and producers have a responsibility to convey what the artist intended. An important part of that responsibility is to communicate with the artist(s) on the subjects of dynamic contrast, compression, loudness, tonal balance, and so forth. Engineers or producers who fail to engage with the artist on these subjects just aren't doing their job. More than likely, they think they know better than the artist or that those apsects of the recording process are too technical for the artist to understand. Rubbish.

Utlimately, the recording engineer's job is to make the media and the multitude of recording systems transparent to the listener - conveying precisely what the artist has intended. The vast majority of recordings in existence today clearly establish that most recording engineers are clueless as to what they are supposed to be doing.

mixpro's picture

I take exception to your dumping it all on recording engineers. As a long time recording engineer and re-recording mixer, it's my feeling that the loudness war is driven mainly by the record companies' mistaken belief that louder tracks on the radio will equate to increased sales. The mastering process, where most of this insane compression is applied, is often supervised and paid for by the record company, particularly in the case of emerging artists without a lot of "clout". Quality mastering will enhance the final product, but as the panel pointed out, bad mastering can ruin a good recording.

The other side of the declining music sales coin is that shrinking sales equal shrinking recording budgets, so artists cut corners too; and are often unwilling to pay for a quality engineer. They get the roadie to do it, or the greenhorn who will work for nothing in the artist's bedroom.

If there's any tarnished silver lining to the mp3 explosion, it's that these super loud tracks make horrible sounding distorted files when they go through the lossy compression schemes. I'm encouraged by this movement toward more reasonable levels.

John Atkinson's picture

Recording "engineers" and producers have a responsibility to convey what the artist intended.

In general respecting the artists' wishes is what we always do, or we wouldn't get any work. The pressure on the mastering engineer to "make it louder" comes from many places, including the artist.  10-15 years ago the pressure was largely about "my quiet master won't sound good on the radio", Which is untrue but hard to convince a record company A&R or an insecure artist. But today iTunes is the driving force in the loudness race because  iTunes playback permits jumping from any tune to any other tune in their library. Making the already-insecure artist even more insecure.

For popular music, 2 dB lower than the "competition" is about as much as I can risk before it is likely to be rejected because it won't fit into an iTunes playlist.

So "Make Sound Check a default" has to become the outcry of artists and producers worldwide.- Bob Katz

deckeda's picture

I've never once enabled Sound Check in iTunes because I never wanted what it does. I often listen the old fashioned way, one album at a time and therefore, adjusting the volume one time and leaving it alone isn't a hardship. Yeah, "quaint notion."

I never realized it could actually be used to do something for ME, by having others enabling it and therefore sending a message to the industry that their song would still be heard "as intended" (i.e. at the "right" volume level reletive to the competition.) Weird.

ianshepherd's picture

Great summary, thanks for posting !

Anyone who wants to help raise awareness of this issue might like to support Dynamic Range Day next year - more info here:

I'll be adding this article to the News section.



rBurki's picture

This article seems extremely biased to me... litered with terms such as "better than" or blatent statements saying something is "aweful" already point to quite a biased point of view on the Loudness Wars. I'm not saying I'm a pro on the matter, maybe I'm just making a fool of myself but I don't think it would hurt to approach the matter with some more facts. Such as that what is considered "good" or "bad" is subjective and varies from person to person. Secondly I'd like to point out one of the first things I was taught regarding audio, being that people (audio engineers included unless you're from another world) like what they know, and what they're used to. Most people will have difficulty listening to anything which isn't what they have grown used to throughout their lifetime, that said, most engineers that argue the loudness wars tend to be of the era of acoustic recordings, and most of those argueing for it tend to do so from an electronic music perspective, or other "loud" genres like heavy metal etc. What most engineers fail to remember in my humble opinion is that every technique is suited for a different purpose, I have come across many works where overcompression and the total lack of dynamics made up an essential part of the track, generating what some like to think of as "a wall of sound". In my personal opinion there is nothing wrong with that what-so-ever, but when people start looking over their shoulders and compete for "loudness" simply for the sake of being as loud as possible, when their music doesn't even demand it, is quite ridiculous. Therefor, and again, this is only my humble opinion, and for what I know I may be totally wrong, but I think the problem is not the technique, but the application of it to almost every single recent release.