The Loudness War

From 1992 to 1995, I worked in the music store on the upper level of the Savannah Mall. Disc Jockey was the other music store, on the lower level and the opposite end. Our respective locations affected our clientele; we were next to the upscale department store, and they were next to the parking lot.

Of course there was a rivalry.

Despite what you might think, it was friendly. We all ate in the same food court, and used the same deposit chute. If a customer stumped our staff, we’d begrudgingly call downstairs and ask their staff. Sometimes one store knew something the other didn’t. Upcoming trends in music, promotions, closings, and firings within the busy mall.

And since we were the two music anchors, we had the finest stereo equipment.

Come closing time, once every last fucker had been chased out and the metal gate was pulled down and locked, we still had one more hour of work before we could leave. Newer employees swept and cleaned, while management (me) counted down the register (poorly). During this time, the customers were all gone; mall security made sure of this.

So our two music stores, at opposite ends of a mid-size shopping mall, would blast obnoxious music at the most deafening volume possible. Pretty much just to fuck with each other.

It took me a few nights to get the hang of it. I became Dennis Hopper in Apocalypse Now. Depending on whom I was working with, the music could be new jack swing, horrorcore, or Brazilian murder-metal. The goal was to vibrate the competing team’s load-bearing struts, clabber their reproductive tissues, or at least cause the escalator to malfunction. A full-scale riot could break out in front of the box sets, and I’d still be blithely counting bills and licking my thumb as it did.

What I’m trying to say here is you think you know loud: YOU DON’T KNOW LOUD! YOU DON’T KNOW LOUD!!! THREE EXCLAMATION POINTS!!!

It turns out, we were far from alone.

With digital compact discs, higher levels of loudness were achievable. This is why you need a volume “normalizer” on your “iTunes”, unless you’re a dolt who only listens to pop from the last five years. Then everything is equally, oppressively loud. But then, why would you be here reading this?

In 1997, I purchased Iggy Pop’s Raw Power reissue. This is held up as a major example of the “loudness war”; Iggy himself notes on the back cover that “everything’s in the red”. At some points it gets up to −4 dBFS. It’s one of the loudest CDs I own. I still regret an incident where a former girlfriend asked me to turn down “Search and Destroy”, and I replied “look at my hand on the volume knob. Look! It’s either LOUD or OFF.”

I wasn’t being facetious; turning down the volume pot on the Raw Power reissue made it go “zheeoop” and fall silent. Go buy yourself a copy if you don’t believe me. It cannot be listened to at a muted level. Don’t play it around girls unless you want them to roller-derby.

I’ve always detested Oasis, and I never fully understood why; Once again, it’s a casualty of the loudness war.

While the increase in CD loudness was gradual throughout the 1990s, some opted to push the format to the limit, such as on Oasis’s widely popular album (What’s the Story) Morning Glory?, which averaged −8 dBFS on many of its tracks—a rare occurrence, especially in the year it was released (1995). [Wikipedia]

Working at Media Play, I had to endure these squalling Cockney nanny-goats all day, at a more massive audio presence than anything I actually enjoyed. That’s why I hate them so intensely. All day, the fucking Eliza Doolittle brothers were braying into my ear canals with a megaphone. It’s a miracle I didn’t cause a massacre.

Since the media is corporate-owned, and will lie to you so that its masters can sell you product, you don’t even know you’re a veteran of the loudness war. You’re shell-shocked. I myself am so traumatized that I cannot listen to current pop music without becoming violent. I can’t stand to hear what I love so flagrantly disrespected. I’m not alone, either.

This practice (excessive compression, dynamic range reduction, loudness level enhancement, etc.) has been condemned by several recording industry professionals including Alan Parsons, Geoff Emerick (noted for his work with the Beatles from Revolver to Abbey Road), and mastering engineers Doug Sax, Steve Hoffman, and many others, including music audiophiles, hi-fi enthusiasts, and fans. Musician Bob Dylan has also condemned the practice, saying: “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.” [Wikipedia]

Everywhere you go, you are under attack! Every store, every car, every home! THE SHELLING NEVER ENDS!

For the first time in music history, the new stuff actually sucks. It’s not the previous generation being cunty. You can see for yourself; all the evidence is readily available on YouTube. When I was growing up, the pop music was head and shoulders above what is called pop music right now. That’s a fact. Not my opinion. It can and will be backed up.

Think of the examples that I’m sure you’re coming up with to challenge my point. Are they playing or referencing a style or mode from 20+ years ago? Of course they are, or you’ll forget all about them in five years, like the rest of the world. Nicki Minaj? Blake Shelton? Who?

You can thank yet another war that we were all unwittingly conscripted into; the loudness war. Because why bother with skill or subtlety, when you can simply be louder than anything else. Who needs tone, or presence, unless they’re heavy? Isn’t pop music really about annoying the people you don’t like, since they “don’t understand you”, as though you’re a sullen teenager? When was “pop music” ever about bringing people together, anyway?

My hands are bloody too. That’s why I can tell you, with authority, this is a twenty-year war we all quietly lost.

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