On the transformation of everyday culture in an era of liquid modernity

I fought a loudness war

In aesthetics, art, everyday life, media ecology, music, philosophy on October 5, 2009 at 9:17 pm

One of the most striking features of popular music in the last decade has been the “loudness war”. The music we listen to has become increasingly louder in the last 20 years, as it is now music industry standard to try and make the soundwaves contained within a sound file as maximised as possible, in terms of loudness.

By a combination of extreme compression of the dynamic range and make-up gain, the sound range is boosted to a more uniform level, removing the peaks and troughs that would normally separate a quieter verse from a pumping chorus. (Read more about it here and here.)

As this is the normative aesthetic nowadays – “it has to sound like this” – the sociology of music should really sharpen its ears and point them in this direction. It is extremely interesting in terms its philosophical implications. So, let us delve deeper into the aesthetic implications of loudness below!

Aesthetics, to me, is a field of fertile tension between subjective understanding and simple design principles that are mathematical and in that sense, objective. One example is the golden section, another one is the principle of symmetry, and the principle of maximised complexity by the simplest axioms available (fractals).

A bastardised misunderstanding of relativism is still quite common today, even in cultural studies departments. Given the poststructuralist insight that subjective values and even truths are contingent on context (the intertextual relations that enable the subject to come into being) many people seem to think that this means that “anything goes”, that no actor is better than any other. This is a grave misunderstanding which effectively amounts to nihilism. As the American literary theorist Stanley Fish once remarked, such a value judgment can only be made in a position which would place itself outside, over and above all other relations.

No. As all humans are equal while some are more equal than others, some girls are also bigger than others, and some artworks are better than others. Poststructuralism simply forces us to argue better in favour of whichever artwork we are praising; it postulates that no intrinsic value, immune to relativity or immune to criticism, exists.

It is, however, my belief that in this relational tangle, this knot of associations, there are some actors that wield significant power. Music teaches us that mathematical axioms is one such actor – or condition, rather – which prescribes certain tactics and decisions in terms of both making and listening to the stuff.

I fully believe that if we are to approach “objective” values in aesthetics, this is one of the points of entry.

Naturally, the more complex our creations, the more the potential intersections multiply, and soon become overwhelming and innumerable. To create a bow is one thing, to create a gothic cathedral another. But somewhere – everyone who has produced a song or built a building knows this – there are guiding principles, underpinning even the most baroque, preposterous of works. (Once again, fractals!)

Software designer Paul Graham gives a beautifully comprehensible, insightful introduction to all this.

Here, the loudness war comes in as a joker, a paradox of sorts. Sound engineers are normally the most painstaking stickler-type personalities you could think of. They value mathematically provable design principles, I promise you that.

Why is it, then, that they are culprits in this loudness war which so clearly decreases dynamic range and thereby decapitates the expressive potentials in music? If we all would be drawn to the ancient principles of simple beauty if given the choice, how come we are nevertheless mass-induced into this illusion of louder sound?

There are several possible answers. (1) We are not given the choice. As with many phenomena in today’s globalised world, we find ourself in the midst of aggregated mass effects that have no original originator or grand plan (other than the divine, perhaps). Like ants in an ant-hill, we are at the mercy of these emergent effects of non-intentional accumulation. Many a mickle makes for subsequent, incremental increases in loudness – largely because some technical boundaries have been removed which used to restrict further increases. Vinyl as a carrier had certain limits for loudness and, more importantly, before digital studios there did not exist compressors, equalizers and limiters that were precise enough to facilitate today’s levels.

(2) We are animals of habit, and habit has a generational time-span. For those growing up in today’s aural environment, no predecessor exists, as for point of reference. If you grow up with Pink and Red Hot Chili Peppers, you would obviously take for granted that this, indeed, was “the sound of music” and not just noise. And since the forms of music which are most criminally supercompressed these days are those forms that target very young audiences, we are already in the middle of a feedback system. We have to remember “wall of sound”, though – always remember “wall of sound”! – since that was a similarly dead end in the early sixties, largely explained by the prevalence of portable mono transistor radios. As the baby-boomers came of age and invested in hi-fi stereo sets, the regime of “wall of sound” came to pass, and was soon replaced by the audiophilia that lasted well into the CD age, only to get superseded by 128 kbps mp3s, tinny computer loudspeakers and white, overpriced crappy earplugs.

We have, however, already seen a miniature shift in mp3 preferences, from that dreaded turn-of-the-century aesthetic of 128 kbps to 320 kbps, FLAC, OGG Vorbis, lossless and beyond…

(3) Aesthetics are more than maths, they are down to style as well. Mannerism is always a central part to human affairs, at least in the cultural realm. Mathematically induced notions of beauty might carry weight, but the societal emphasis appears to shift in complex ways, too. Some of the preferences that might appear objective can be contingent on human affairs; one culture might prefer one form of symmetry (e.g. gaussian normal distribution) over another (e.g. exponential function). Entire societies can be hell-bent on a particular style that later generations will find outright baroque. Platform shoes, powdered whigs, pierced noses and ears, who knows what future generations will label baroque in our present era? We are currently seeing entire music styles parading supercompression as their instant sonic hallmark, taking this aesthetic to its necessary boundary, potentially draining its creative potential to the cusp. Rinse the FM.

If we were all engineers, we might not have ended up in full-on “loudness war”. But we are humans, prone to fail, prone to fall for easy seduction. Prone to do like everyone else does, prone to follow the herd and not risk looking weak. A track produced by old loudness standards certainly sounds weak next to any contemporary mastered track. If you are a music producer today, you don’t want to risk having that position in a radio, iTunes or MySpace playlist.

  1. […] a sign of music technology having reached a plateau where everything is digitally enhanced and rigidly compressed; maybe it’s a sign of true risk-taking and idiosyncrasy having gone out of […]

  2. […] of the CD single, the rebirth of the individual song, an increase in the sheer loudness of music (“loudness war,” effectively decreasing the dynamic range of music), and the birth of new, Internet-based music […]

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