You’ve heard people say it often enough, me included – but is it true ?
Well, the evidence is deeply divided.
On the one hand, both Drake and Beyonce have both released new albums in the last couple of weeks – and neither of them is unspeakably “loud”, thankfully. (They sound pretty good, by the way.)
Don’t get me wrong, they both have a handful of songs with very high levels, full of saturation, distortion and pumping as a result. But they also both have an “integrated loudness” – you can think of it as a loudness “centre of gravity” – of about -10 LUFS. And by 21st century standards, that’s positively restrained, especially in these genres.
On the other hand…
Radiohead have just released a new single, Burn The Witch, and it’s integrated loudness is right up at -7 LUFS, despite having a quiet introduction. The loudest moments get right up to -4 LUFS, which is absurd, in my opinion. You can watch the video above.
So does it sound horrific ?
No. It sounds OK.
But could it have sounded better ? Absolutely yes !
The song is one giant crescendo, building thoughout it’s length – but the loudness reaches a plateau very early on. That’s a wasted opportunity – the performance and the arrangement subside and then continue to build, giving the impression of dynamics, but the actual loudness never gets any higher.
Is that really a problem ?
If it sounds OK, and seems to get louder even though it doesn’t – isn’t that OK ? Why shouldn’t Radiohead make it sound that way ?
Well it’s their music, so they’re entitled to. But what’s the point ?
They’ve ditched the dynamics in pursuit of loudness – but YouTube’s loudness management system will turn it right back down again, in the next couple of days. By at least 5 dB, if not more. It may already have happened by the time you read this. On Spotify it already has.
The high level of “Witch”, while superficially impressive, is rendered useless – on Spotify, and YouTube, and Pandora, and radio and TV… almost everywhere.
And what we’re left with is a song that sounds “held in” and restrained, when it could (and should) explode into your ears like their classic “Creep” does. (It’s odd really – Radiohead make “progressive” music, but the way this has been mixed and mastered is about ten years out of date…)
Whereas Drake and Beyonce are taking the first tentative steps towards realising that, in the future, dynamic is the new loud.
So. Is the loudness war REALLY over ?
As predicted, YouTube’s loudness management software has turned “Burn The Witch” down by a whopping 5.6 dB. So now, you can hear what this post is talking about in acton.
I’ve added a live Radiohead clip to the YouTube player above right after “Burn The Witch”, so you can experience the benefit of the extra dynamics for yourself. If you’re impatient, skip ahead to 4:35 and listen to the extra punch and weight in the drums of “15 Step” in comparison to “Witch”, or the power and intensity of the end of “Paranoid Android” at 22’50”, especially in comparison to the subtle introduction of “Everything In It’s Right Place” immediately afterwards.
That’s an extra 4dB of micro-dynamics being put to great use – in the transients, in the punch of the drums and the subtle contrasts between instruments in the mix.
And that’s what’s missing from “Burn The Witch”, sadly – replaced by limp drums, pointless compression pumping and a crescendo that goes no-where.
Maybe they’ll think again for the final album release…