They covered a lot of ground in the hour-long show, and presented a pretty balanced view of the topic overall, covering both the problems and the appeal of “loudness”. You can ‘Listen Again’ to the show for the next week here, or read my live-tweeting of the show as it happened here.
Sadly though, the program muddled a few key issues, and completely missed other crucial points, in my opinion.
“Loud, moi ?”
The show began strongly, talking about the “loudness” of recorded music, with a sterling contribution from Masterdisc‘s Scott Hull clearly explaining that “loud” is pointless.
I couldn’t help notice the irony that other Masterdisc engineers have been responsible for some of the most badly crushed loudness war casualties over the years… but in this case Scott was talking absolute sense. And I’m sure he’d use the “customer is always right” defence in those cases, anyway.
The next 5-10 minutes featured many people explaining the problems of “loudness” – before taking a slightly bizarre twist. Rob Swire from Knife Party spoke very clearly about the disadvantages of relentless loudness, saying “After about ten minutes your ears start to go numb” . But when host Zane Lowe commented that Knife Party’s songs are some of the loudest tunes out there, Rob claimed that it’s all just clever trickery and they’re not really that loud !
You could have fooled me…
(Actually, I’m being snarky. Knife Party’s music measures a very low “dynamic range” on the TT Meter, and so will beat many other acts in terms of absolute level on the CD. But like Skrillex and other EDM artists, Knife Party use mainly sampled sounds and complex side-chaining techniques which avoid damaging the sonics too much. Personally I still think they’d do better to focus their talents elsewhere, since no-one will ever hear the difference, though!)
This section of the show also featured Jack White talking about a White Stripes gig where the sound guy measured 130 dB SPL in the audience. Again, this was a slightly bizarre match of soundbite-from-a-person, because White scored a number 1 chart hit last year with one of the most not-loud albums of last year – in fact he won the Dynamic Range Day Award for it.
But things were about to get even more confusing…
The program now moved straight on to discuss other aspects of “loud” music – but sadly without taking the time to point out that there are crucial differences between the various different issues that were being mentioned.
The key point they didn’t explain was – the user controls the volume. Until now, the show had been talking entirely about “loud” sound on recordings – meaning, high recording levels. The only way to achieve these high levels is to crush the music, and this has a permanent effect on what we hear – it still sounds squashed and distorted, even when you turn it down.
Whereas in all the next list of examples, it’s irrelevant how high the level recorded in the CD or mp3 is. You can turn a smashed-to-bits loudness war “casualty” down, and you can turn a lively, dynamic recording up. The effects of listening loud have very little to do with the loudness war that the program had been talking about until now.
So in quick succession, the show mentioned:
- The idea that music “needs” to be loud in clubs
- Who are/were the loudest band in the world ? (Manowar, apparently)
- The idea of using loud music for torture, or as a weapon
- Hearing damage and tinnitus (An important issue, but one that doesn’t have much to do with the “war”, just listening levels)
- Loudness regulation at gigs
- Onstage levels for musicians
- Does music sound right if it’s not listened to loud enough ?
All of these are interesting topics, but sadly none of them were clearly enough explained, or covered in enough depth, to make a valuable point – although at least the over-riding conclusion was that the pleasures of listening loud aren’t worth damaging your hearing for.
Sound and Silence
Next up the show took time to offer some welcome alternatives to “loudness” – using Alt J and Daughter as examples of bands who use space and contrast in their music – asking the question “Can silence be more powerful than loudness ?”.
This was one of my favourite sections of the show, clearly making the point that louder isn’t always (ever ?) better, especially in recorded music. “Intensity comes in so many forms”…
These welcome points were immediately followed by presenter Zane being shut inside an anechoic chamber and experiencing true, deep silence for the first time – an experience he seemed to enjoy immensely.
This could have been the quietest moment on Radio 1 in the last 15 years – but sadly even here the background hiss was boosted to thunderous levels, for some bizarre reason !
This might just have been Radio 1’s aggressive broadcast processing, intended to achieve acceptable reception in low signal areas, of course. The same processing actually means that loudness has always been irrelevant on the radio, of course. And it’s entirely un-necessary in an online stream… but I digress.
Ah well, the show was about loudness, after all.
So Radio 1’s verdict is…
After a brief “mini-mix” on the theme of “loudness” (cue relentless “pump up the volume” samples – oh, how original) it was time to wrap up. After a final flurry of soundbites, the show’s (heavily paraphrased) conclusions were:
- Music can’t get any “louder”
- Many people think it’s competing with our loud, modern world
- Has it made music sound worse ? It depends who you ask
- Playback levels will be controlled, so loudness will be pointless
Not too bad, right ?
Well, maybe – it was just such a shame the final quote chosen was:
“No-one wants to be the first person to make their music quieter – it’s human nature”
At the last minute, the show decided to sit right on the middle of the fence.
No-one’s opinion will have been challenged by that damp squib ! For a show about loudness, this was a real whimper to go out on.
This was a slick, entertaining show that only just missed the mark of being great.
Listeners new to the subject will probably come away confused about the different types of “loud” being discussed – a few words to explain that the topics in the muddled middle section were about several different kinds of “loud wars” would have gone a long way to making things clearer.
And the program missed several key points in the story, in my opinion.
- The difference between recorded loudness and playback volume
- The backlash against “loudness”, and initiatives like TurnMeUp, Dynamic Range Day and the Music Loudness Alliance
- The new research which shows that listeners don’t prefer loud music, and it doesn’t sell more records
But that final quote is the saddest thing, I think – the choice to end on such a passive, defeatist note – as if there’s nothing that can be done, and “that’s just the way it is”.
Because the truth is, artists like Daft Punk and Jack White have already taken the leap to be “the first person to [record] their music quieter” – along with Bjork, Ben Harper, Steven Wilson, My Bloody Valentine, Mumford & Sons, Bon Iver and Field Music and many more.
It’s not human nature – it’s just a current trend. And the tide is slowly turning.
The show would have had so much more punch and impact impact if Radio 1 had chosen to end on a positive, dynamic note, encouraging the many up-and-coming artists listening to seize the opportunity and get a competitive advantage in the loudness wars.
All in all, the program was over-compressed – in terms of information as well as audio !
Ah well, that’s the “loud wars” for you…