Here's what - there is a phenomenon which has been called "The Loudness Wars", apparently brought about by the fear that if your tracks are not as "loud" as the hottest commercial release of the moment then no-one will listen to them, therefore no-one will play them, and you will be doomed to poverty, obscurity, loneliness and misery. Let's be clear, this is nothing new and it's not even completely irrelevant; back in the days when juke boxes played 45s it was important that your disk was as loud as the one played before and after, and when your CD is stuck in a multi-changer at a party then it matters there too! That's about it though - radio levels loudness, my MP3 player can level loudness, my PC media player can do it, my car stereo can do it - so being "loud" REALLY DOESN'T MATTER (mostly).
Jimmy Page used-to do a neat trick where he would switch his Les Paul to the neck pickup, and over the course of an extended solo he would gradually turn-down the output until it was whisper-quiet. Once everyone was leaning -in and listening hard to try to hear what he was playing he would switch to the bridge pickup at full output and blast them. It worked because the quiet made the loud shockingly loud. And that's the rub, to be loud, you need quiet, and music that is produced to be loud loses the quiet, so it can’t have loud either! This doesn't just manifest itself in terms of struggling to make the chorus louder than the verse (macrodynamics), but also in terms of getting the kick drum to drive the music when it's no louder than the maracca and the tambourine.
The people who care about this? Realistically, probably generally the people who mix and master your music are the most aware at an intellectual level. Record companies are said to be completely ignorant of this, but I don’t believe it for a moment. Surveys based on listening to test tracks suggest and support the idea that the listening public, with whatever level of knowledge or ignorance it may have, does prefer the sound of less hammered music, and I do too (although don’t tell anyone but I love sound of Death Magnetic).
There are a number of initiatives aimed at redressing this problem, but a major, major issue is that it is really difficult to explain loudness without going all “area under the curve” on it, and it’s even more difficult to measure it. Sure, we can measure peak values, RMS values, we can use the K-System with calibrated monitors and there is the odd “Perceived Loudness” meter on the market. On a mastering session I’ll often have more meters glowing than EQs and Compressors, and none of them actually tell me when it’s too loud.
Last week, I found the answer and it shocked me. And it’s free! I was listening back to a number of masters I had worked on of an electronic based pop-track. Now electronic music is always a bit of an odd one for me because there is very little that is “real” to compare the track to, and much of it is very tolerant of distortion to the peaks. I was listening hard (monitors, headphones, leaning forwards, brow furrowed and so on) between 2 versions with a difference in RMS value (measured with the TT DR Offline meter) of less than 1dB and I could not hear any difference at all. I expanded the waveform and side-by side could see no difference). But every time I played the quieter track (less than 1 dB remember) I started tapping my foot, and every time I played the louder one I stopped. Sadly it took me ages to realise this, but after another jug of coffee I set up a blind test on myself and got it every time. There you go – listen with your feet – I just wish I could patent it!
(If you want a quicker way, try an eleven-year-old. I asked my daughter which one she preferred. She listened to both versions for a few seconds then very matter-of-factly picked the quieter one because “it’s just better”).
As the great Neil Diamond wrote, “Don’t think, feel”
As a footnote, there are many people involved in the production of your music who feel very strongly about this issue. It’s very very unfair of me to single-out one of them but it’s my website so I can do it anyway. Ian Shepherd is not only passionate and articulate about the subject but he has stuck his neck-out and committed to really making a difference. On top of this he is hugely generous with his knowledge and provides a lot of help and information for people in the music production business. Check-out
for more info and stick a like on