Written by 6:00 am Audiophile

How Streaming Killed The Loudness War

Steven Stone looks at why that time in the past when “louder” was better is over…


AR-VUMeter450.jpgIt would be uplifting to be able to write that pressure from audiophiles killed off the “loudness war” of increasingly more compressed pop music, but they didn’t. In point of fact it seems that audiophiles were not even part of the equation, really…

No, it was the streaming services that killed off dynamic-less music, here’s why…

Basically, the introduction of “normalized levels” made it so when streamed “loud” tracks with very little dynamic differentiation between the loudest and softest tracks are played they sound much worse than tracks with expanded and less compressed dynamic range.

Since ALL the major streaming services have adopted normalized levels, including YouTube, Apple Music, iTunes with Soundcheck, Tidal, and Qobuz; highly compressed pop tracks that used to sound louder when maxed-out levels were the only consideration now sound thin and gutless when streamed through any of the more popular streaming services with normalized levels. 

AR-brickwall450.jpgFor a detailed video presentation about the why’s and how’s of this new streaming world I heartily recommend this YouTube video of a presentation by mastering engineer Alan Silverman – he goes into much more technical detail than I will here.

Basically, there was a period of time when it was considered “good technique” by mastering engineers to make a track sound as “loud” as possible. And how was loudness defined? By overall maximum signal level. The track with the highest level, which is an objective measurement of one particular variable, such as SPL, watts, volts, or RMS, was “louder.” 

But loudness is not merely about objective levels. Instead perceptual loudness is about many factors including pitch, balance, tonality, transient response and perhaps most importantly, dynamic range. This is why two tracks that have the identical maximum levels can have entirely different dynamic ranges…

AR-StreamingLoudness450.jpgAs an example of what is being done now in the pop realm Let’s look at the Gammy-winning track “Bad Guy” by Billie Eillish. The song begins with an aggressive bass line coupled with an almost whispered lead vocals. Almost immediately it’s the contrast between the vocals and the bass line that sets up a strong dynamic counterpoint. I heard this track played through the three-inch ceiling speakers in my local Planet Fitness locker room…what a difference with no bass – only the vocals and the slightly goofy synthesizer line…which brings me to the fact that when heard over a good pair of headphones the dynamics of “Bad Guy” will move you. 

Another clear example of how dynamics can drive a track is “My Boy” from Eilish’s previous album. The initial bass line is not only huge, but also tunefully dynamic with energy and power. This is the sort of thing that you can’t achieve from a compressed track; much of the track’s power comes directly from its dominant dynamics.

AR-Scream.jpgSo, we audiophiles won…and we didn’t even have to raise our voices…so the next time someone utters the words “loudness wars” as an excuse for why modern pop doesn’t cut it, you might want to direct them toward listening to something new that reflects the current dynamic renaissance, such as the one of these Eilish tracks…or try “You Should See Me in A Crown” to see if your system can really take it…

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