"And the Grammy for the loudest song goes to... no-one."
I have thousands of pictures of my kids on my phone, and of course, I love to share them with anyone who cares to look at them and tell me how beautiful they are. But if anyone suggested I put one into Photoshop and retouched the image I would think they were out of their mind.
Why do so many of us allow our beloved songs, which we've sometimes spent months lovingly crafting to be spoiled trying to make them louder?
Checking the loudness of tracks has been part of the role of a mastering engineer for many years. When vinyl records were made it was essential to keep an eye on the level, for as much to check for overs as unders. Even when CDs took over, checking loudness on an album was still an essential part of a mastering engineer’s job. Monitoring loudness in CD production was critical because digital is unforgiving and when a digital master clips you don't get a nice bit of saturation, you get a sound that no one wants.
The loudness wars have been talked about for years, and knowing that one couldn't clip some thought it would be better to fill the space under the point of clipping with as much sound as possible by reducing the dynamic range. Compressors and limiters were created to compress the signal, at first in subtle ways but as time went on some people thought it would be a good idea to squeeze the shit out of the sound, a bit like trying to shove a whole bag of marshmallows into your mouth in one go, it's possible, even a funny party trick but not advised and certainly not the best way to consume them.
Stories emerged of mastering engineers being put up against one another, with record companies awarding the job the one who created the loudest master. In an interview for Mix Magazine some years ago mastering engineer Joe Gastwirt said;
“I deal with the so-called level wars all the time,” offers Gastwirt. “I've been really lucky that most of my clients are very loyal and do care about good sound. That's probably why they came to me in the first place. As far as the level thing is concerned, I usually demonstrate on several listening systems: I'll show my clients the level that I'd like to master the record, and then I'll put the signal through the typical equipment to make it louder, like a [Waves] L2 [hardware] limiter or some other type of digital compressor/peak limiter and demonstrate the effect it has on the sound. Almost always the client agrees that the result is unmusical; the louder, more compressed version seems to flatten the stereo image, as well as eliminate much of the dynamics intended in the mix. And when the peaks are removed, the three-dimensionality and the space between the speakers become compromised. This is a big problem to me because I am a fan of listening on a large hi-fi system where detail and dynamics rule. Listening on an iPod with little ear buds or in the car won't reveal all the problems that are being introduced by this type of signal processing, but I believe that the abrasive-sounding distortion can be heard on any listening system.”
The loudness wars were terrible enough when professional mastering engineers were trying to deal with the audio arms race, but then self-mastering became a thing, and everyone decided to see how loud they could make tracks, irrespective of how much experience and skill they had. My number one problem with self-mastering is it removes objectivity, which is the reason I use mastering engineers. I compare it to cutting my own hair; it is possible to do it but not something I would recommend.
Playlists Mean You Are Fighting A Pointless War
I run about 3.5miles three times a week these days and to keep the boredom from killing me I use playlists. There's a ton of playlists on all the music services, at the moment I'm using a rock/pop one from Apple that has everything from Genesis to Tom Petty, there are about 30 songs in the list. One thing has become apparent as I run, the volume of each track varies significantly, I've not put a meter across them, but I'm talking several dB not just points of a dB.
Fewer albums are being made, and more people are listening to playlists, so anyone trying to make their songs louder is frankly pointless. You might argue that you want your song to be the loudest on the playlist, well good luck with comparing it to the millions of potential songs that may be on the same playlist as yours.
Guess what I do when I find a track is too quiet or too loud? I turn it up or down. I know that might sound like a revelation, perhaps we should make a video tutorial on how to use a volume control? It's really simple to do. In a world where some people will sleep rough on the streets tonight, some will visit food banks, and thousands of children will die today because of a lack of clean drinking water, someone complaining because they have to reach for the volume knob needs to get a life... or at least a less entitled one.
You Might Have The Plugin But Not The Skill Or Experience
There's another reason you should stop trying to crush the life out of your songs - most of us can't master stuff. Now I know some of you are going to take exception at me suggesting you can't do every task that goes into making a great track, but you'll just have to get over it. We live in a world now where we all want to reject experts and professionals; it seems the audio world is one such place where we all think we can do everything well. Thankfully most people aren’t dumb enough to think that using a flight simulator is the same as flying a plane so “move over pilot and let me have a go”. Few of us would have a loved one led into surgery and think I saw a YouTube video so let me do this heart surgery. Having a mastering plugin and watching some YouTube videos doesn't make you a mastering engineer, reducing their craft to simply maximising loudness is as dumb as suggesting all a nurse does is put plasters on cuts.
If you are serious about getting a great sounding master, then put your finely crafted songs into the hands of a mastering engineer, or at least in the hands of someone who will have another perspective. If you can’t afford a mastering engineer then at least stop trying to crush the energy out of your songs, forget what the rest of your peers might think is a great sounding master (for that read “loud”), give your track the love it deserves.
For many of us we don’t have record labels dictating how loud our tracks should be, if that’s you then take the opportunity to put some life back into your tracks, let them breathe as they were meant to, heaven knows how much compression has already been applied throughout the process before it even gets to mastering.
Stop Trying To Win An Award That Doesn’t Exist
And finally, the people who will listen to your tracks don't think 'I wish this were louder.' They think this is a great song and crank up the volume.
There is no award for the loudest song, so stop wasting your time trying to win one.