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Rolling Stone has an interesting article on a transformation within recording industry: louder music and the resulting loss of fidelity.
In a nutshell, here is what’s going on. As personal computers and portable audio players become more popular, more people listen to music on tiny (low fidelity) speakers. And more people are also listening to music from MP3 and other digital file formats, which compress music and further removes detail. Because people more often listen to music at lower fidelity, record labels are compensating by making music louder… so it catches your ear. This has resulted in an industry phenomenon: louder music begets louder music. It’s a loudness war of sorts, where some record labels are fearful of releasing music that’s not loud enough, or not competitive enough. Gotta be competitive, right?
But this loudness war causes problems. When music is made louder, it actually becomes compressed and you lose significant detail. Instead of a song having loud and quiet parts, it’s all loud. What follows are two diagrams. The first diagram is of a song that is relatively quiet and what I consider not compressed. The second song is significantly louder and this is loudness is achieved through compression.
This is U2: “With or Without You” (Original)
Notice how this song’s waveform has peaks and valleys. There are loud parts of the song, and there are quiet parts. The song is not compressed and you can see how it starts out quietly (on the left) and gradually builds in loudness (as you move to the right). Given a reasonably high-quality sound system, and a reasonably quiet listening environment, your ear will perceive the subtle details in this song. In essence, this song has clear detail and fidelity.
Now, lets look at Arctic Monkeys: “I Bet You Look Good on the Dancefloor”
Looking at the waveform, this song is pretty dang loud the whole time. This loudness is achieved by compressing the peaks and valleys (i.e. details) until everything is one constant peak. This song’s sound is all about constant loudness, and forsakes subtle detail and fidelity. It’s mastered to be an assault on your ears. Which is fine, if that’s what you are looking for.
But, to my ears (and eyes) louder is not better. I much prefer music to have more detail (fidelity), and I think loudness should not be overdone. At least that’s my take. If you are interested how your music sounds, check out: The Death of High Fidelity