Loudness Peace

Combine harvester in France - removing the 'peaks'

If someone would ask me, what is the most significant issue when it comes to sound quality, I could give only one answer: that technology does not hinder the artists. Grimm Audio was founded in 2004 for that very reason: to develop audio equipment that is as transparent as possible, so it aids in crafting a piece of musical art and transporting it unaltered to the listener. Largely by pure coincidence in the same year that Grimm Audio was founded, I took up the huge task to help fight and end the Loudness War. This blog is a tale from the trenches.

In the audio chain from microphone to the listeners ears, the medium is the principal limiting factor for sound quality. This may come as a surprise, because one would think that the medium is as transparent as can be: the bits that you put on a CD or in a file will come out unchanged. But it is not unintended loss of data that makes the medium non-transparent. It is the response of human nature to the digital nature of the medium. Digital audio has a distinct clipping point: sound just below ‘full scale’ has no distortion, and at a fraction louder it distorts. Because of this, sound engineers have always ‘normalized’ the peak levels of their masters: on every album at least one peak hits the ceiling. Unfortunately the ear judges subjective loudness not on the peak level of sounds, but on their average energy. With the advent of fast digital peak limiters, it became possible to lower the peaks and use the free space for extra gain, so the track sounded louder. When such a ‘limited’ track is then played next to another album’s track, it sounds louder and is therefore easily judged as ‘better’. Once this limiting practice started at the end of the nineties, there was no way back and we found ourselves in a race to the bottom that’s called the ‘Loudness War’. It has done more damage to the sound quality of pop music than anything else in history. 

Don’t blame the mastering engineers for this. They hate to be in this race, because decisions about dynamics are not made for artistic reasons anymore. It is obvious that in this situation the medium hinders the engineering artists in their freedom of expression. And therefore I was bound to act. In 2004 I put the loudness topic on the agenda in The Netherlands by organizing a symposium for broadcasters. In 2008 I joined the new EBU (European Broadcast Union) PLOUD group that developed the R128 recommendation for television broadcast which ended the loudness war on television in 2010. Finally commercials were at equal loudness as other program material, band aid solutions were removed and viewers could enjoy drama productions with beautiful dynamics again. The next thing that happened was that movie mixers asked me for help to solve the loudness war that started to rage in the cinemas too. Because theaters turn down the volume in their cinemas as an answer to customer complaints, properly mixed movies became too low in level. In response, studios mixed all their movies louder, sacrificing dynamics. Nowadays a mix for television can be more dynamic than for cinema, which is the world upside down. We try to solve this problem via the AES (Audio Engineering Society).

Combine harvester in France - removing the 'peaks'
Combine harvester in France – removing the ‘peaks’

Last but not least I work with friends like Bob Katz, Thomas Lund, Florian Camerer, Kevin Gross, Bob Ludwig, Matt Mayfield and Ian Shepherd on a solution for the loudness war in music. And music is where my heart is.

Now this is what I do, but perhaps you wonder what you can do. In fact I would be very happy if you can help me a little bit by signing the Loudness Petition. The key to end the Loudness War is in the hands of the new music streaming services who have become the primary source for music overnight. Because all music files are on their servers, they can analyze the loudness of the files and send that information along with the audio stream. The playback device will then normalize the loudnesses of all albums. This is very convenient for the listener, but it also takes away the pressure to master as loud as possible – the playback device will just attenuate the very loud ones. The engineers will soon change their habits and music can breath again, regaining subtle micro-dynamics and striking macro-dynamics. If you love to see this happen, please join the choir of voices at https://www.change.org/p/music-streaming-services-bring-peace-to-the-loudness-war.

Eelco Grimm