Are the loudness wars worth fighting, or is it much ado about nothing?

Answer:

The Loudness War is in its last throes because loudness standards, along with loudness levelling algorithms, are simply making hyper-compressed, brick-wall limited “loudness” an irrelevant part of the mix/mastering equation.

Club music and hip-hop may be the last bastions of hyper-compression, and arguably even depend on it as part of the oeuvre itself (along with a few other genres of course), but anyone self producing music and preparing it for online distribution and consumption should be aware of what loudness levelling is and why it is important.

Although the loudness standards are aimed primarily at broadcast programming (TV), standalone music is becoming increasingly affected by loudness levelling because most (if not all) all streaming services already seem to be implementing some kind of (proprietary) loudness algorithm to even out their levels*.

This is important because cloud storage and streaming are playing larger and larger roles in accessing music, ownership and storage of actual audio files will eventually become moot, and at some point, no one will hear your music without loudness levelling of some kind being applied to it by a third party platform.

I will not go into loudness standards and what loudness normalisation is, but you can catch up with the details in this article I wrote for ask.audio – Demystifying Confusion Around Loudness, Metering & Levels

What I would like to point out is that on page 13 of the European Broadcast Union (EBU) document Tech 3343-2016, Guidelines for Production of Programmes in accordance with R-128, – https://tech.ebu.ch/docs/tech/te… – it suggests two approaches to mixing with loudness levelling in mind.

I paraphrase the gist of the suggestion in the conclusion of another article I wrote for Ask.Audio: 5 Common Myths About Loudness Metering Debunked:

In the EBU-R128 documentation it is explicitly suggested that no major changes to current mixing styles (as of 2016) are immediately necessary, but it is strongly recommended to consider the implications.

For music producers** and engineers there are two choices:

  • Mix as you always have, and have your music turned down later by loudness compliant playback systems.
  • Mix to the new loudness standard of -23 LUFS/-1 dBTP*** and utilize the large headroom and dynamic range it affords.

When you mix/master your music track to the current standard of 16 bit 44.1kHz with peaks at between -0.3 and -0.5 dBFS with an average RMS of say -12dB to – 6dB (brick-wall limited and loud) this track when measured with a EBU compliant meter will show levels way above -23 LUFs (and possibly true peaks upwards of +3dB) and thus will be turned down until it has an integrated loudness of -23 LUFS.

No compression, no further processing, just literally turned down.

What this means is that pushing for high RMS values and squashing out dynamic range will now actually work against your music when your “sausage” is played against music mixed to utilize the dynamic range afforded by the -23 LUFS mix headroom.

“Loud” over compressed and brick-wall limited music – read: music with no dynamics – really cannot compete sonically with more dynamic material in the new standards.

The last line is key.

Conclusion:

With the psychoacoustic weapon of “loud” disabled, a well mixed track with a wide dynamic range retains vitality and expression, while a well mixed but dynamically crushed track played back at the same perceived loudness struggles to make an impact.

Tracks maximised to be loud, ostensibly to stand out from the competition, are rendered ineffectual by loudness levelling, and therein lies the death of hyper compressed and limited loudness as a means to an end – it literally eats itself.

The music biz should be rejoicing though, it provides major labels another incentive to re-sell catalogue they mucked up when they entered full “make-all-the-things-loud” mode, er, I mean when they “re-mastered” all the classics. </sarcasm>

Notes:

*Clear info on exactly how (or even if they are doing so) is weirdly murky.
**The EBU-R128 is a technical document for broadcast programming and not music per se, so loudness normalisation levels differ on music streaming services, but the same principles of dynamic range apply.
*** -23 LUFS/-1 dBTP is broadcast-standard target level. Youtube appears to normalise to an integrated loudness of -14 LUFS and iTunes soundcheck appears to normalise to -16 LUFS.