I love recorded music – when it works it’s just magic. But let’s back up for a minute – I want to give this some historical context. It’s important to remember that the invention of the first devices capable of recording an audible event and then playing it back were in the latter half of the 19th century. For all of human history prior to that, the only way to hear music was if someone performed it live right in front of you. So the very idea of recording sound and being able to play it back on command is a very recent construct in human history.
Now mind you, the fidelity of recorded music started out pretty awful – but it allowed us to listen to early 20th century geniuses like Louis Armstrong. Those records can still send shivers down your spine… Things really started to escalate somewhere in the late 1950’s with the advent of Mercury Records “Living Presence” recordings of the Chicago Symphony, or Columbia Records recording of Miles Davis’ “Milestones” album. These recordings still sound thrilling and amazing. Then, in 1963 a producer named George Martin and his engineer Norman Smith at EMI records in London began recording the Beatles, ushering in a whole new era of innovation in pop music recording. Recorded music more or less continued to expand in possibilities until something catastrophic happened around 1995. An existential threat that would change the course of recorded music for the next 22 years or so.
Legend has it that ground zero for this event was the release of Oasis’ “(What’s the Story) Morning Glory” album in 1995. What am I talking about? The “loudness wars” of course. Whoever mastered said record discovered digital limiting and wielded it’s unleashed destructive power on music with full impunity. From that point on, the frenzied race had begun to make each new release louder than the last, music be damned. And oh, my friends, music was indeed damned. When you take all of the dynamics out of it, it just becomes this brick of aural sludge, a lifeless annoying turd of noise. I can remember buying my last CD when I knew the music on it was great, but the recording was unlistenable. It was just maddening. Gee, I wonder if this might have had anything to do with declining sales?
Fast forward to 2017 – and every music streaming service except SoundCloud now features something called “loudness normalization.” This is an algorithm that essentially makes all music play back at the same volume. Oops! So now what happens when you play a recording made in the last 20 years next to one made prior to the “loudness wars?” The modern “loud” one ends up sounding thin and wimpy next to the older one that had dynamics. I don’t mean “you need to listen close to hear the difference” worse – I mean embarrassingly, cringe-worthy, pathetically worse. So, to everybody who had a hand in this mess, who helped ruin the last 20 years of recorded music, here’s a tip of the hat.
The loudness wars – well, well, well. The fucking jokes on you, and you can’t take it back.