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The METAlliance Report: Modern Loudness

By George Massenburg. The multi Grammy-winning METAlliance co-founder explores the perils and pitfalls of modern loudness and explains why mastering engineers and artists who ignore its downsides do so at their own peril.

The stakes are high in the production of popular music. The difference between a God and a Cod is one tiny stroke, but one of them is venerated and the other is eaten. Music production is often about a plethora of subtle differences—some profoundly important, some not—and a dB or two (or 10 … or more) in the final mix of the song often has seemed to mean a lot.

The potential for possible improvements to an artist’s mix has made mastering essential—a process that often makes the difference in how music mixes are judged.

In the early 2000s, we started hearing about “the loudness wars”—a nickname that emerged to describe the threatening pervasiveness of overly-loud, distorted, “flattened” recorded music—a form that was evaporating subtlety or fine detail. I don’t remember exactly when it was—maybe it was 2008—but I recall hearing whispers that the loudness wars were nearly over, influenced by an unlikely source: broadcast television.

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In 2008, legislation was proposed for new controls on loudness for consumer broadcast television sound. Yes, that meant government-mandated “loudness normalization” for television—a process where the loudness of a mix would be measured by a loudness meter, often calibrated in dB LUFS, and then raised or lowered as required by law.

When loudness became a de facto standard in television broadcast in the United States (A85) and in Europe (BS1770), and control measures over it were slowly implemented for TV, I again remember hearing that it meant the loudness wars in music production and delivery were soon to be over.

The war isn’t over.

Today, the FCC officially supervises loudness in television broadcasts—and it is working, for the most part—but it is not at all clear how the music distribution business could be policed so that it would be obligated by law to limit loudness. The concept of loudness normalization applies to music production and mastering; a mastering engineer evaluates loudness on a meter (there are many) and mastering is the last opportunity to hit that mark.

A number of large companies, notably Apple and Spotify, have voluntarily signed on to do their part in ending the loudness wars, but each with their own measurement standards and loudness targets; Apple’s “Sound Check” and “Mastered for iTunes” specs call for -16.5 dB LUFS, while Spotify calls for -14 dB LUFS. Similarly, even more corporate entities have piled on, but again, each with its own standards.

Apparently this isn’t enough.

In pop music production and delivery, there’s been a broad and unanticipated range of responses to—and limited acceptance of—loudness normalization standards and their implementation on commercial music for streaming and download. The most experienced mastering engineers “got it” right away; many proceeded to educate and inform their clients and to implement basic loudness controls. Some mastering pros have deepened their understanding of pop music production methodologies and workflow so as to better explain and demonstrate the importance and impact of loudness normalization to their clients.

But to many others, loudness normalization seemed to imply an arbitrary external control over one’s work from disorganized, detached, uninformed, disinterested, remote players. At the same time, there’s also deep suspicion of all music delivery services. In the West, two of the most popular platforms for listening to music online, Spotify and YouTube, have implemented their own loudness measurements and loudness targets. There are more and more download and streaming services, and most appear to have inconsistent standards in their deployment of loudness normalization, notably in the measurement of loudness standards and the implementation of loudness controls of music files. Basically, no one knows what to do except to “turn it up!”

The least predictable (but not entirely surprising) resistance to externally mandated loudness controls seems to come from new, emerging “producers” and “mastering engineers.” In this new production paradigm/workflow—one mostly lacking a traditional professional infrastructure of managers or “gatekeepers”—these new “mastering” practitioners interact only with their respective artists. Many decisions in these relationships are invariably one-sided.

And that’s the disconnect: It’s not an overreach to say that artists are preternaturally insecure. After all, their job, if you will, is to absorb the heartbeat of the current culture … to translate this matrix of influences, not limited to affairs of the heart and politics, and blend in ideas, often abstract and ephemeral, then render it all musically. Does “accountability” have a place in the artistic zeitgeist? Does actual technical competence? What about an artist doing technical advocacy?

This is what happens: An artist is reviewing their ref mix just back from a “mastering engineer,” and listens to a first pass of mastering. Then, comparing it to a favorite CD, the artist wonders aloud to their mastering and/or mix person(s), “Why is my track so much … quieter?”

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The loudness wars have left artists and especially producers terrified of losing the gig, but when they ask a question like that, the mixing/mastering cabal’s response must not be to simply turn it up. It must be to insist on conclusive, collaborative loudness measurements—and to provide the artist with the opportunity to hear their work as measured against others that they might use as a loudness reference.

In fact, this is really our only choice: We ourselves are responsible for understanding and supervising all of the issues in the loudness discussion. No one else is going to do it.

And just one more thing while you’re at it: Wouldja PLEASE stop crushing digital mix busses? Absolutely nothing is gained by it.

Grammy and TEC Award-winner George Massenburg is a producer, recording engineer and designer of audio equipment who has participated in the creation of more than 400 albums. He has won Grammys as both a producer and as an engineer, and in 1998, was awarded a Grammy for Technical Achievement for a lifetime of contributions to the art and science of recording. Massenburg’s discography includes seven Little Feat albums; seven Earth, Wind & Fire albums; 13 Linda Ronstadt albums; and albums with Journey, James Taylor, Jennifer Warnes, Herbie Hancock and Ricky Skaggs, among others. He also created that mainstay of the recording process, the Parametric Equalizer.

METAlliance •

The METAlliance—Al Schmitt, Chuck Ainlay, Ed Cherney, Elliot Scheiner, Frank Filipetti and George Massenburg, along with the late Phil Ramone—has the dual goals of mentoring through our “In Session” events, and conveying to audio professionals and semi-professionals our choices for the highest quality hardware and software by shining a light on products worthy of consideration through a certification process and product reviews in this column. Our mission is to promote the highest quality in the art and science of recording music.