Loudness war

The loudness war (or loudness race) refers to the trend of increasing audio levels in recorded music, which reduces audio fidelity, and according to many critics, listener enjoyment. Increasing loudness was first reported as early as the 1940s, with respect to mastering practices for 7" singles.[1] The maximum peak level of analog recordings such as these is limited by varying specifications of electronic equipment along the chain from source to listener, including vinyl and Compact Cassette players. The issue garnered renewed attention starting in the 1990s with the introduction of digital signal processing capable of producing further loudness increases.

With the advent of the Compact Disc (CD), music is encoded to a digital format with a clearly defined maximum peak amplitude. Once the maximum amplitude of a CD is reached, loudness can be increased still further through signal processing techniques such as dynamic range compression and equalization. Engineers can apply an increasingly high ratio of compression to a recording until it more frequently peaks at the maximum amplitude. In extreme cases, efforts to increase loudness can result in clipping and other audible distortion.[2] Modern recordings that use extreme dynamic range compression and other measures to increase loudness therefore can sacrifice sound quality to loudness. The competitive escalation of loudness has led music fans and members of the musical press to refer to the affected albums as "victims of the loudness war."


The practice of focusing on loudness in audio mastering can be traced back to the introduction of the compact disc, but also existed to some extent when the vinyl phonograph record was the primary released recording medium and when 7-inch singles were played on jukebox machines in clubs and bars.

Jukeboxes became popular in the 1940s and were often set to a predetermined level by the owner, so any record that was mastered louder than the others would stand out. Similarly, starting in the 1950s, producers would request louder 7-inch singles so that songs would stand out when auditioned by program directors for radio stations.[1] In particular, many Motown records pushed the limits of how loud records could be made; according to one of their engineers, they were "notorious for cutting some of the hottest 45s in the industry."[3] In the 1960s and 1970s, compilation albums of hits by multiple different artists became popular, and if artists and producers found their song was quieter than others on the compilation, they would insist that their song be remastered to be competitive.

Because of the limitations of the vinyl format, the ability to manipulate loudness was also limited. Attempts to achieve extreme loudness could render the medium unplayable. Digital media such as CDs remove these restrictions and as a result, increasing loudness levels have been a more severe issue in the CD era.[4] Modern computer-based digital audio effects processing allows mastering engineers to have greater direct control over the loudness of a song: for example, a "brick wall" limiter can look ahead at an upcoming signal to limit its level.[5]

The stages of CD loudness increase are often split over the decades of the medium's existence.


Since CDs were not the primary medium for popular music until the late 1980s, there was little motivation for competitive loudness practices then. The common practice of mastering music for CD involved matching the highest peak of a recording at, or close to, digital full scale, and referring to digital levels along the lines of more familiar analog VU meters. When using VU meters, a certain point (usually −14 dB below the disc's maximum amplitude) was used in the same way as the saturation point (signified as 0 dB) of analog recording, with several dB of the CD's recording level reserved for amplitude exceeding the saturation point (often referred to as the "red zone", signified by a red bar in the meter display), because digital media cannot exceed 0 decibels relative to full scale (dBFS). The average level of the average rock song during most of the decade was around −16.8 dBFS.[7]:246


By the early 1990s, mastering engineers had learned how to optimize for the CD medium and the loudness war had not yet begun in earnest.[8] However, in the early 1990s, CDs with louder music levels began to surface, and CD levels became more and more likely to bump up to the digital limit,[note 1] resulting in recordings where the peaks on an average rock or beat-heavy pop CD hovered near 0 dB,[note 2] but only occasionally reached it.

The concept of making music releases "hotter" began to appeal to people within the industry, in part because of how noticeably louder some releases had become and also in part because the industry believed that customers preferred louder-sounding CDs, even though that may not have been true.[9] Engineers, musicians, and labels each developed their own ideas of how CDs could be made louder.[10] In 1994, the digital brickwall limiter with look-ahead (to pull down peak levels before they happened) was first mass-produced. While the increase in CD loudness was gradual throughout the 1990s, some opted to push the format to the limit, such as on Oasis's widely popular album (What's the Story) Morning Glory?, which averaged −8 dBFS on many of its tracks—a rare occurrence, especially in the year it was released (1995).[8]


By the early 2000s, the loudness war had become fairly widespread, especially with some remastered re-releases and greatest hits collections of older music. In 2008, loud mastering practices received mainstream media attention with the release of Metallica's Death Magnetic album. The CD version of the album has a high average loudness that pushes peaks beyond the point of digital clipping, causing distortion. This was reported by customers and music industry professionals, and covered in multiple international publications, including Rolling Stone,[11] The Wall Street Journal,[12] BBC Radio,[13] Wired,[14] and The Guardian.[15] Ted Jensen, a mastering engineer involved in the Death Magnetic recordings, criticized the approach employed during the production process.[16] A version of the album without dynamic range compression was included in the downloadable content for the video game Guitar Hero III.[17]

In late 2008, mastering engineer Bob Ludwig offered three versions of the Guns N' Roses album Chinese Democracy for approval to co-producers Axl Rose and Caram Costanzo. They selected the one with the least compression. Ludwig wrote, "I was floored when I heard they decided to go with my full dynamics version and the loudness-for-loudness-sake versions be damned." Ludwig said the "fan and press backlash against the recent heavily compressed recordings finally set the context for someone to take a stand and return to putting music and dynamics above sheer level."[18]


In March 2010, mastering engineer Ian Shepherd organised the first Dynamic Range Day,[19] a day of online activity intended to raise awareness of the issue and promote the idea that "Dynamic music sounds better". The day was a success and its follow-ups in the following years have built on this, gaining industry support from companies like SSL, Bowers & Wilkins, TC Electronic and Shure[20] as well as engineers like Bob Ludwig, Guy Massey and Steve Lillywhite.[21] Shepherd cites research showing there is no connection between sales and loudness, and that people prefer more dynamic music.[22][23] He also argues that file-based loudness normalization will eventually render the war irrelevant.[24]

One of the biggest albums of 2013 was Daft Punk's Random Access Memories, with many reviews commenting on the album's great sound.[25][26] Mixing engineer Mick Guzauski deliberately chose to use less compression on the project, commenting "We never tried to make it loud and I think it sounds better for it."[27] In January 2014, the album won five Grammy Awards, including Best Engineered Album (Non-Classical).[28]

Analysis in the early 2010s suggests that the loudness trend may have peaked around 2005 and subsequently reduced, with a pronounced increase in dynamic range (both overall and minimum) for albums since 2005.[29][30]

Replay volume normalization

With music sales moving towards file-based playback and streaming and away from CDs, there is a possibility that the loudness war will be blunted by normalization technology such as ReplayGain and Apple's Sound Check.[31] Most cloud-based music services perform loudness normalization by default and may reduce the market pressure to overcompress material.[32]

In October 2013, Bob Katz announced on his website that "The last battle of the loudness war has been won", claiming that Apple's mandatory use of Sound Check for iTunes Radio meant that "The way to turn the loudness race around right now, is for every producer and mastering engineer to ask their clients if they have heard iTunes Radio. When they respond in the affirmative, the engineer/producer tells them they need to turn down the level of their song(s) to the standard level or iTunes Radio will do it for them. He or she should also explain that overcompressed material sounds 'wimpy' and 'small' in comparison to more open material on iTunes Radio." He believes this will eventually result in producers and engineers making more dynamic masters to take account of this factor.[33] His point of view has been widely reported and discussed.[34][35]

Replay volume normalization also helps when listening to playlists or shuffle play where otherwise variations in perceived loudness of recordings results in uncomfortable loudness shifts.[36]


Competition for listeners between radio stations has contributed to a loudness war in radio broadcasting.[37] Loudness jumps between television broadcast channels and between programmes within the same channel, and between programs and intervening adverts are a frequent source of audience complaints.[38] The European Broadcasting Union has addressing this issue in the EBU PLOUD Group with publication of the EBU R 128 recommendation. In the U.S., legislators passed the CALM act, which led to enforcement of the formerly voluntary ATSC A/85 standard for loudness management.


The production practices associated with the loudness war have been condemned by recording industry professionals including Alan Parsons and Geoff Emerick,[39] along with mastering engineers Doug Sax, Stephen Marcussen, and Bob Katz.[3] Musician Bob Dylan has also condemned the practice, saying, "You listen to these modern records, they're atrocious, they have sound all over them. There's no definition of nothing, no vocal, no nothing, just like—static."[40] Music critics have complained about excessive compression. The Rick Rubin produced in albums Californication and Death Magnetic have been criticised for loudness by The Guardian, the latter was also criticised by Audioholics.[41][42] Stylus Magazine said the former suffered from so much digital clipping that "even non-audiophile consumers complained about it".[8]

When music is broadcast over radio, the station applies its own signal processing, further reducing the dynamic range of the material to closely match levels of absolute amplitude, regardless of the original recording's loudness.[43]

Opponents have called for immediate changes in the music industry regarding the level of loudness. In August 2006, the vice-president of A&R for One Haven Music, a Sony Music company, in an open letter decrying the loudness war, claimed that mastering engineers are being forced against their will or are preemptively making releases louder to get the attention of industry heads.[4] Some bands are being petitioned by the public to re-release their music with less distortion.[39]

The nonprofit organization Turn Me Up! was created by Charles Dye, John Ralston, and Allen Wagner in 2007 with the aim of certifying albums that contain a suitable level of dynamic range[44] and encourage the sale of quieter records by placing a "Turn Me Up!" sticker on certified albums.[45] As of 2019, the group has not produced an objective method for determining what will be certified.[46]

A hearing researcher at House Ear Institute is concerned that the loudness of new albums could possibly harm listeners' hearing, particularly that of children.[45] The Journal of General Internal Medicine has published a paper suggesting increasing loudness may be a risk factor in hearing loss.[47][48]

A 2-minute YouTube video addressing this issue by audio engineer Matt Mayfield[49] has been referenced by The Wall Street Journal[50] and the Chicago Tribune.[51] Pro Sound Web quoted Mayfield, "When there is no quiet, there can be no loud."[52]

The book Perfecting Sound Forever: An Aural History of Recorded Music, by Greg Milner presents the loudness war in radio and music production as a central theme.[10] The book Mastering Audio: The Art and the Science, by Bob Katz, includes chapters about the origins of the loudness war and another suggesting methods of combating the war.[7]:241 These chapters are based on Katz's presentation at the 107th Audio Engineering Society Convention (1999) and subsequent Audio Engineering Society Journal publication (2000).[53]


In 2007, Suhas Sreedhar published an article about the loudness war in the engineering magazine IEEE Spectrum. Sreedhar said that the greater possible dynamic range of CDs was being set aside in favor of maximizing loudness using digital technology. Sreedhar said that the overcompressed modern music was fatiguing, that it did not allow the music to "breathe".[36]

In September 2011, Emmanuel Deruty wrote in Sound on Sound, a recording industry magazine, that the loudness war has not led to a decrease in dynamic variability in modern music, possibly because the original digitally-recorded source material of modern recordings is more dynamic than analogue material. Deruty and Tardieu analyzed the loudness range (LRA) over a 45-year span of recordings, and observed that the crest factor of recorded music diminished significantly between 1985 and 2010, but the LRA remained relatively constant.[30] Deruty and Damien Tardieu criticized Sreedhar's methods in an AES paper, saying that Sreedhar had confused crest factor (peak to RMS) with dynamics in the musical sense (pianissimo to fortissimo).[54]

This analysis was also challenged by Ian Shepherd and Bob Katz on the basis that the LRA was designed for assessing loudness variation within a track while the EBU R128 peak to loudness ratio (PLR) is a measure of the peak level of a track relative to a reference loudness level and is a more helpful metric than LRA in assessing overall perceived dynamic range. PLR measurements show a trend of reduced dynamic range throughout the 1990s.[55][56]

Debate continues regarding which measurement methods are most appropriate to evaluating the loudness war.[57][58][59]

Examples of "loud" albums

Albums that have been criticized for their sound quality include the following:

ArtistAlbumRelease date
Arctic Monkeys Whatever People Say I Am, That's What I'm Not[8] January 23, 2006
Black Sabbath 13[60] July 10, 2013
Christina Aguilera Back to Basics[4] August 9, 2006
The Cure 4:13 Dream[61] October 27, 2008
The Flaming Lips At War with the Mystics[8][note 3] April 3, 2006
Led Zeppelin Mothership[62] November 12, 2007
Lily Allen Alright, Still[63] July 13, 2006
Los Lonely Boys Sacred[4] July 18, 2006
Metallica Death Magnetic[64][65][note 4][42] September 12, 2008
Miranda Lambert Revolution[66] September 29, 2009
Oasis (What's the Story) Morning Glory?[8] October 2, 1995
Paul McCartneyMemory Almost Full[67] June 4, 2007
Paul SimonSurprise[68] May 9, 2006
Queens of the Stone AgeSongs for the Deaf[8]August 27, 2002
Red Hot Chili PeppersCalifornication[42][8] June 8, 1999
The StoogesRaw Power (1997 remix)[68] April 22, 1997
Taylor Swift1989[69] October 27, 2014

See also


  1. Up to 2 or 4 consecutive full-scale samples was considered acceptable.
  2. Usually in the range of −3 dB.
  3. Won Grammy Award in 2007 for Best Engineered Album, Non-Classical
  4. The Guitar Hero version of this album does not have the same quality issues.


  1. "The Loudness Wars: Why Music Sounds Worse". NPR. December 31, 2009. Retrieved September 2, 2010.
  2. Milner, Greg (February 7, 2019). "They Really Don't Make Music Like They Used To". New York Times.
  3. The Big Squeeze: Mastering engineers debate music's loudness wars, Mix Magazine, December 1, 2005, archived from the original on August 25, 2010, retrieved September 2, 2010
  4. Joe Gross (October 2, 2006), Everything Louder Than Everything Else, Austin 360, archived from the original on October 19, 2006, retrieved November 24, 2010
  5. Mark Donahue, The Loudness War, Performer, retrieved November 24, 2010
  6. "Sharp Dressed Man" plotted using MasVis, a freeware mastering analysis program.
  7. Katz, Bob (2013). Mastering Audio: The Art and the Science (3rd ed.). Focal Press. ISBN 978-0-240-81896-2.
  8. Southall, Nick (May 1, 2006). "Imperfect Sound Forever". Stylus Magazine. Archived from the original on June 12, 2006.
  9. Viney, Dave (December 2008). "The Obsession With Compression" (PDF): 54. Retrieved July 24, 2011. there is no evidence of any significant correlation between loudness (& implied compression) and commercial success Cite journal requires |journal= (help)
  10. Milner, Greg (2012). Perfecting Sound Forever: An Aural History of Recorded Music. Granta Publications. ISBN 9781847086051.
  11. Kreps, Daniel (September 18, 2008). "Fans Complain After "Death Magnetic" Sounds Better on "Guitar Hero" Than CD". Rolling Stone. Retrieved March 15, 2011.
  12. Smith, Ethan (September 25, 2008). "Even Heavy-Metal Fans Complain That Today's Music Is Too Loud!!!". Wall Street Journal. Retrieved October 17, 2008.
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Further reading

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