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The Loudness Wars: The Myth of Better Sounding Recordings

We’re all familiar with the “loudness wars.” And if you’re not, you haven’t listened to any music that has been released in the past 20 years.

Just in case this is the case, here’s an explanation. Record labels found out – through customer and market research – that louder recordings score better with the average music listener. “Louder sounds better” is the common phrase.

Also, with the way that people listen to music, more compressed and louder tracks seem to perform better. Apple earbuds and car stereo systems do better with louder, more compressed recordings.

But today we’re going to see why this is a myth – one that you should avoid when making your music.

Even though the average listener thinks that louder music sounds better, there are actually a few downsides to making louder tracks.

The first is that your ear becomes fatigued much faster when listening to highly compressed music. People won’t want to listen to your music as long if it’s fatiguing to their ears. Leaving some of the dynamic range in tact alleviates this problem.

The second is that your music becomes less musical. Without the highs and lows in the dynamic range, your track becomes stale. Over-limiting your master bus will surely kill off any dynamics.

Finally, the worst part about over-limiting your tracks to make them appear “louder” is that you risk clipping and distorting your audio. This is not a good thing to do, even though some commercial records do it from time to time.

However, it is still important to make your recordings “competitive” – if they are too soft, they will stand out and be annoying to listen to.

So here are the guidelines to making sure you don’t fall into trap of “over-limiting” or making your music too loud, while setting the appropriate level.

First, find two records that you like – one that is very soft, another that is very loud. When you’re setting your level, try to aim for the middle of these two records. For me, I like to use Jay-Z’s “Black Album” and Lil Wayne’s “Tha Carter III.” The Jay-Z album is so loud, it hurts. The Lil Wayne album is pretty soft, but still acceptable.

Second, make sure that you are keeping the dynamics in your tracks. To do this, import your final mixdown into a DAW and look at the waveform. If it looks like a brick of black, it’s probably too loud. Remember, dynamics are a good thing to have, so keep them alive!

With these two simple tests, you’ll be sure to set the right level for your recordings!

One thought on “The Loudness Wars: The Myth of Better Sounding Recordings”

  1. Without dynamics you don’t have music, you have a brick of pinned down sounds. Loudness wars are silly… Making use of TT Dynamic Range meter is valuable as well. I find people don’t pay enough attention to the RMS level of their mixes, peak only matters for peaks, everything else is all about RMS, especially when the mix hits mastering.

    Always specify to retain dynamics to your mastering engineer…Always. DR7-9 = great and what my finished productions come out to afterward. Generally around -9 RMS. Save those ears! Volume knobs exist for a reason 😉

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