Taylor Swift is the corn syrup of the music world. Overly sweet, bland, and just plain unhealthy for you. Before a horde of Taylor Swift fans chastise me with cute, cliché phrases like “Music taste is subjective!” Swift’s music suffers from a very real audio problem: It’s too damn loud.
Don’t get me wrong: Swift’s music isn’t insufferable to the trained ear because it’s pop. The quality of her songs have nothing to do with its genre. Red Hot Chili Pepper’s Californication suffers from the same issue. Same with Oasis’sWhat’s The Story (Morning Glory).
As Bob Dylan famously said in a 2006 interview with Rolling Stone magazine: “You listen to these modern records, they’re atrocious, they have sound all over them. There’s no definition of nothing, no vocal, no nothing, just like… static.”
Okay, so after reading that sentence, you can imagine a befuddled Bob Dylan screaming at you to get off his lawn. Get with the times, Bob. Jeez.
But he isn’t wrong nor is he stuck in the past. There is something different about today’s music—or, at least, mainstream music. It sucks.
The Loudness Wars
As Reddit user Consti mentioned in Reddit’s Today I Learned Community: “The audio levels in recorded music have increased since the early 1990s with many experts saying it leads to reduced sound quality and listener enjoyment. This is known as the ‘Loudness War.’”
In fact, record companies believe that “louder” songs will attract more consumers and bring in more profits.
“The Loudness Wars refers to the competition in audio mastering to get the loudest end product. Because the ear is typically drawn to the loudest thing it hears, it became popular to try to win out for listeners attention by being perceived as being louder,” Patrick Brown, audio producer, mixer, and owner at San Francisco’s Different Fur Studios, tells Upvoted.
How does loud music degrade the listening experience?
After all, ear drum splitting heavy metal of the 1970s is considered classic, refined, and even elegant by music snobs. The opposite of commercial. In fact, rock music in general is synonymous with being loud. Just think of respected bands like Led Zeppelin, the Rolling Stones, or Nirvana.
Here’s the thing: In spite of Kurt Cobain’s screaming vocals and wailing guitar, Nirvana’s music isn’t compressed at one consistent loud music level.
Instead, the music is dynamic. Some parts are soft. Some parts are loud. The music builds to a crescendo. You can hear the nuances and details of the instruments as specific sounds grow to fill up more space. This creates a very raw composition.
Listen to the same dramatic fall and rise in classical music.
And the Pixies:
Now listen to how different “Smells Like Teen Spirit” sounds without those dynamics, when it’s compressed at one, loud level.
It’s flat and lifeless. The music is muddled and detail is lost. You can’t even hear the individual instruments clearly, instead, it all just blends together in a jarring—but not punk-rock-jarring—way.
“Music isn’t meant to be at a consistent volume and flat frequency. It’s meant to be dynamic, to move, to fall and rise and to take you with it, physically and emotionally. Otherwise it literally is just background noise,” says mastering engineer Bob Katz in an interview with the Quietus.
And as engineer Patrick Brown says, “Absolutely everything you hear on the radio is compressed. I would say that it has become the norm.”
And this is regardless of musical genre. In the following infographic, you’ll notice that Metallica’s older albums are less compressed than their newer albums.
I guess record companies are desperately chasing profits. Here’s the funny thing: Studies have shown that there is no connection between volume and sales. In other words, compressing albums to a uniform loud level, doesn’t seduce buyers. It may even turn them off, according to Brown. He says it can even cause “ear fatigue.”
“There was a period of time before I became an engineer where, as a listener, I noticed that 2Pac’s later records were significantly louder and I liked it. I also noticed that after a while my ears would get tired and I would need to turn it off,” Brown explains.
“It may grab your attention more effectively at the start, but it’s ultimately easier to ignore too. All music becomes background music if it’s at one flat level, no matter how loud. And flat, hypnotic background music is a form of social control:
“By the time you’ve listened closely (or tried to) to a whole album that’s heavily compressed, you end up feeling like Alex at the end of A Clockwork Orange—battered, fatigued by, and disgusted with the music you love.”
Heavily compressing songs will corrupt its sound quality. It’s almost like microwaving a filet mignon—no matter how good the song is, shoddy production values will ruin it. Of course, I’m not comparing Taylor Swift to a filet mignon. Her music will always be on par with McDonald’s. (Yep. I said it.)
Julian Ludwig é diretor do Pro Áudio Clube, produtora de áudio Jacarandá, Loc On Demand e Jacarandá Licensing. Trabalhou para empresas como: Guaraná Antartica, TV Gazeta, NET, Chivas Regal, FNAC, Prefeitura de São Paulo, Mukeca Filmes, Agência LEW’LARA TBWA, Agencia MPM, Agência Content House entre outras. Fez trilhas para programas de TV como: Internet-se (Rede TV), Você Bonita (TV Gazeta), Mix Mulher (TV Gazeta), Os Impedidos (TV Gazeta), Estação Pet (TV Gazeta), CQC (TV Band) Vinheta Oficial TV Gazeta, entre outras. Também atuou em vários longas e curtas metragens, incluindo mixagem em 5.1 e serviços de pós-produção.