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Taylor Swift vs the loudness wars

Jon Chapple 5 May 2015
Taylor Swift, David Shankbone

By Ian Shepherd

In the last week, a meme I made for Dynamic Range Day went viral, and I ended up being interviewed by Billboard and The Times about it. The title of the post was:

So Taylor Swift is louder than Motorhead, AC/DC and the Sex Pistols… – wait, WHAT?

So – is Taylor REALLY louder than all these acts?

I’ve added a selection of songs from the albums in my infographic to the YouTube playlist below so you can hear the loudness wars in action for yourself. Take a listen!

What do you think?

Not much, probably. There are some differences from song to song, but nothing as dramatic as the infographic might suggest, right? The supposedly really ‘loud’ songs at the start don’t actually play back with a significantly higher volume than the ‘quieter’ ones later on, listening on YouTube. So…

What’s going on?
Well, the number one cause of complaints from listeners to audio everywhere is frequent jumps in replay volume – we hate having to adjust the volume control.

Replay volume is “normalised” almost everywhere, to give us a better user experience.

It’s like having your own personal DJ, keeping a consistent playback volume – and it happens on YouTube, on iTunes Radio, on Spotify, on radio, on TV…

It’s not perfect, but the bottom line is – the measured “loudness” of the audio in a technical sense is pretty much irrelevant – it has no predictable influence on the volume we actually hear.

The “super-loud” songs at the start of the playlist don’t get played any louder than the more dynamic ones, in the real world.

So why do I make such a big deal about it?
Because the audio quality of the music suffers during the process. The first few songs in the playlist all have that thick, mushy “loudness war” sound. They were crushed in an attempt to make them “loud”, and the music feels claustrophobic and stifled as a result. It doesn’t have enough room to breathe. Shake It Off is also pushed harder than necessary, in my opinion, although it isn’t the end of the world.

Whereas the later, more dynamic songs have more life, more space, more punch, more power. Several of them even sound louder, to me!

So we have to ask:

What’s the point?
If squashing music to be as “loud” as possible doesn’t work, what should you be doing to make your music sound great, and stand out? Am I saying all music should be at the most dynamic end of the scale, closer to the end of the playlist?

Not necessarily, no.

I actually think some of the best-sounding songs are near the middle of the playlist. There are so many other factors that contribute to great sound – performance, arrangement, EQ – we shouldn’t pretend that more dynamics are always better. The key is balance – finding the loudness “sweet spot”.

I’ll tell you one thing – the place you don’t want to be is near the top of the playlist.

Your music won’t sound as good as it could have, it will probably suffer in the attempt to make it “loud”, and it won’t end up being played back at higher volume anyway.

But sadly, that’s exactly where the majority of the music we listen to these days is.

The times they are a-changin’
Looking for the positive in all this, some of the songs in the middle of that playlist are also some of the biggest sellers of recent years.

They weren’t horribly squashed, they sound great and they were hugely successful to boot.

And that’s my recommended approach for you if you want your music to stand out in the 21st century.

Hopefully, in another year or two everyone else will be following our example!

www.productionadvice.co.uk
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www.dynamicrangeday.co.uk

(Image: David Shankbone)

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