Ian Shephard runs a website out of the UK called production advice. He’s a skilled mastering engineer and a strong voice in the anti-loudness effort that’s been growing over the past few years. He’s written articles in the past proclaiming the “loudness wars” dead and did so again a couple of days ago. Here’s the link to his article. The title of the article is, “YouTube just put the final nail in the Loudness War’s coffin.” Not so fast, Ian. The reality is that absolutely nothing changes if you merely level out the amplitudes of a playlist of songs. Normalizing doesn’t change the effect of crazy mastering.
What are the loudness wars? We’ve talked about this in the past but here’s a brief explanation. Every artist wants their music to be noticed when played on the radio, on a portable player, or streamed through the Internet at YouTube. Mastering engineers are considered successful if they can bring the amplitude of tracks up to very near (and sometimes over) the maximum level of the targeted delivery format. That means using up all 16-bits of a CD…AND making sure that every moment of the track stays loud from start to finish. Many engineers wear it as a badge of honor to have the loudest record currently in circulation. There are many easy to use digital processors that will crank up the volume on any piece of music.
I find it curious that on the same webpage as the article, Ian promotes his book “Home Mastering Masterclass” with the the statement, “Move Your Masters from Puny to Powerful”. Isn’t that exactly the opposite of maximizing dynamic range and musicality in commercial music?
The news is not good for musical dynamics and despite Ian’s claim that “This is HUGE”, he’s completely mistaken. He confusing overall levels with the internal dynamic variations that make music pleasant to listen to. Just because YT (and others) have decided to output playlists at a common level (which is lower than normal) doesn’t mean that the loudness contour of the tunes are any better than they were before. In fact, the mastering engineers and plugin makers are still killing the tracks that end up on the radio and on YouTube. What’s to stop the end user from cranking up the overall volume of the playlist? How is this any different than YT cranking the levels up before you do? There is no difference.
The problem of the “loudness wars” has not diminished and will likely be a major part of music delivery forever. That’s the bad news. The good news is that there is technology that can move the heavy-handed processing from the mastering rooms to the delivery devices. That’s actually terrific news but sadly the people making and releasing the commercial recordings that we all want aren’t providing anything with any real dynamic range. It’s a chicken and egg problem. If the labels see success with loud tracks, then why should they bother to change things. Having technology and systems that have the potential to deliver fantastic music productions is completely and utterly dependent on artists, producers, and engineers releasing great recordings. And not just ones that are quieter as Ian reports about YT videos but tracks that actually have dynamic range.
Ian’s post got a lot of views and his expertise is well-regarded by myself and many others. But he missed the boat on this issue. He’s a mastering engineer…which means he’s part of the problem and not part of the solution. Record labels should be making the final mixes (the artist’s intended sound) available to music lovers and not submitting them to “perception plugins” or any mastering.