As recording mediums have evolved, so have the techniques to record on them.
Back in the 1940s, with the 45-RPM single, record companies had to find ways to make an individual song stand out. With jukeboxes and radio stations using a constant volume, some records were recorded louder, making them “jump out” more to listeners.
This was the first salvo in the loudness war.
The problem with making music louder is that there’s a limit to how loud you can make it. The louder a piece of music is recorded, the less room there is for you, as a listener, to increase the volume yourself before the music becomes distorted.
When vinyl was the medium of choice, there was little wiggle room to play with the loudness of a recording. When the CD came along, it raised the ceiling for how loud a recording could be. A CD was a digital music file, a flawless recording that had no hissing, static or distortion that could be manipulated in a number of ways that vinyl couldn’t.
The first CD recordings were recorded in much the same way as vinyl recordings. They were recorded low to allow the listener to increase the volume at home as they wanted to.
But, with the realization that there was more room to increase the initial recording’s volume without distortion, CDs became louder and louder over the years.
In the early 2000s, computer-based techniques has pushed CD volumes so loud that they were clipping digitally, meaning the loudest parts couldn’t be heard, making the music sound distorted.
Compression and digital manipulation in mastering music has become commonplace, and finding a CD recording that hasn’t been digitally manipulated to increase its volume is rare, especially in rock and pop.
One of the reasons why vinyl has become more popular lately is because of the loudness war.
Most vinyl is mastered at a lower level than CDs, meaning you can raise the volume louder at home more than a standard CD without encountering distortion or clipping, resulting in a cleaner sound, despite being on a “dirtier” and more noise-plagued recording medium.
In 2010, a pushback on modern recordings began with Dynamic Range Day, a movement encouraging using the CD medium to its intended use, for lower volumes to use the superior dynamic range of volume on digital recordings.
Since then, volume of recordings in rock and pop music has dropped, but lack of dynamic range in popular music still plagues modern recordings.
While record companies need to do everything they can to get their music noticed, unless lowering the volume of music becomes an industry accepted standard, we’re bound to see volume to still be used as a tactic in promotion.
Steve Marlow is the program co-ordinator at CFBX, an independent radio station in Kamloops. Tune in at 92.5 FM on the dial or go online to thex.ca.