If you are a passionate music listener or musician you are very likely confronted with the problem of “loudness” in contemporary music. I am not talking about high sound pressure levels at rock concerts – that is another story – but about flat (=compressed), loud recordings on CDs and the radio. The problem started in the early 90s when digital brickwall limiters were introduced and was later dubbed the “loudness war”. Based on the assumption that a record sells better if it is just a little louder than other records, sound engineers pushed the limits of how loud a recording could be. Music lost one of its most important elements: dynamics. In these days it looks like the loudness war will come to an end because of newbroadcasting regulations and “replay gain”-like countermeasures in online music stores like iTunes.
However, I am sure that the loudness war is not the problem itself but a symptom of a larger trend in (digital) media. First, we must broaden the definition of “loudness” a bit into the direction of “screaming for attention”. These are a few examples of occasions where the “attention war” takes place:
- commercials and trailers: the louder, the better. Ultra-deep drone sounds, ridiculously deep male voices, superfast cuts and stupid lines of epic blablabla are ok for one trailer. In the average German cinema, I am being bombarded with that shit for about 45 minutes.
- classical music: modern orchestras have the tendency to tune their instruments to a higher pitch (e.g. 445 Hz). Thus, the whole string section sounds more brilliant and louder.
- instrumentation in film music: in modern blockbusters, every film score sounds similar to me in the sense of instrumentation and dynamics. Every small phrase or melody is duplicated among every orchestra/synth/choir/something-section. Thus the score does not contain any surprising ups and downs in dynamics but is just a big sausage of orchestral bwwam – similar to “sausage waveforms” in over-compressed recordings.
- dramaturgy in modern films: modern blockbusters contain frantic action (and no story!) from beginning to end. Good examples are the Transformers series, Dark Knight Rising, Pacific Rim. “Loud” scenes are included instead of more story elements or quiet sections, making the story arc of the film appear like a flat line.
These the-more-the-better media all fail eventually because of the fact that loudness is measured in relative units (decibels), because humans perceive volumes relative to other volumes. To make something LOUD, it must be preceded by something quiet. The result of a constant bombardment with loudness is usually numbness, which dulls the interest for things which are really interesting/important. Consumers of media do not have short attention spans in general, but they are treated like idiots anyways. For instance, many radio stations assume an attention span of less than thirty seconds and torture their listeners with ultra-short information snippets, stupid music and “you are listening to YELL-O-RADIO”-announcements every 45 seconds.
In part 2, I will try to find some reasons for the overall loudness problem and list some possible remedies.