The Loudness Wars

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Back in December of 2010, OTM reported on the passage of “CALM,” the Commercial Advertising Loudness Mitigation Act, by the U.S. Congress. The act requires broadcasters to measure and regulate the loudness of the commercials they air in very particular ways so that a program with dramatic whispered dialogue isn’t interrupted suddenly by blaring advertisements. It’s been more than a year since CALM was approved, and that means there’s not much time left before the FCC begins enforcing a new set of loudness rules on broadcasters. If all goes well, by December 13th, 2012, audiences will be spared harsh and jarring transitions into and out of commercial breaks. But is there no one who will speak up in defense of blaring “Sunday, Sunday, Sunday!” advertisements before they’re muffled?

The CALM Act marks a possible turning point in what some audio specialists have termed, rather melodramatically, “The Loudness Wars.” Using a process called “dynamic range compression,” audio producers can “compress” the range between the softest and loudest sounds in any given signal.  The technical details are pretty dry and boring to most people, but the upshot is this: “Compression” can take a signal with very very quiet and very very loud sounds and return a signal that ranges from sounds that are somewhat loud to pretty loud. As a result, your ear tracks sounds across a narrower range of volumes, and what you hear seems at once louder and more consistent in volume. Over decades as broadcasters and record producers battled for the listener’s attention (waging “loudness war”), there’s been a trend towards compressing signals more narrowly and severely over time.  To put it bluntly, everything you’ve heard from every stereo system and television has generally increased in relative loudness over the course of your life. Most people hardly notice or care, but critics of heavy compression point out that this process wrings the distinctive, defining characteristics out of sounds and leaves them sounding distorted and flavorless.

(A YouTube video compares the ultra-compressed CD release of Metallica's Death Magnetic and the less compressed version that appeared in the video game Guitar Hero)

 The CALM Act, then, might be regarded as just one recent manifestation among many of a nostalgic backlash against compressed sounds. For instance, today vinyl albums are often mastered with broader dynamic range than their CD and MP3 counterparts. This isn’t because of some physical limitation of the medium, as you might expect. Instead, record producers bet that the kind of listener who buys vinyl is the same kind of listener who hates the way other audio media have been increasingly compressed. In other words, compression doesn’t appeal to everybody the same way.  Different kinds and degrees of compression and loudness can be used to appeal subtly to different tastes and, significantly, different audiences.

Consider, for instance, the kind of compression used on Tori Amos’s vocal performance in the song "Sister Janet".

Notice how you can hear with peculiar clarity the softest breath sounds and unvoiced mouth noises one instant, and singing at what seems like full-volume the next. Imagine trying to hear the same range of sounds from a live singer with nothing but your ear. If you were close enough to hear her breathing, you’d be wincing a moment later as she bellowed into your ear. Compression, in this case, lends a sense of remarkable intimacy to the recording, establishing a virtual proximity to the singer that could never actually exist in a real physical space.

But that’s a fairly restrained use of compression, and a very far cry indeed from the kind of compression that is used when crafting the sort of commercials targeted by the CALM Act. Those sorts of ads use compression to produce a relentless, nerve-fraying signal that cuts through any distraction, overpowers every other voice in the room and tries to take your attention by force. Who could possibly find anything attractive about an acoustic aesthetic of hypercompressed, nuance-flattening sound?

Enter Rush Limbaugh.

Several times over the last few years — here, here, and here. for instance — the talk show host has told listeners about why he loves and uses a specific kind of compression in peculiar detail, down to the make, model and factory preset. Here’s one iteration of this story.

Limbaugh: How old are you, Don?

Caller: I'm 57.

Limbaugh: All right, then, you remember back in the sixties driving around in your car when all there was AM radio, and you're listening to Top 40 music and the Motown stuff and how little bass just thumped at you, and the songs didn't fade out because the compression kept them as loud as ever right to the very end and it sounded like the music was literally being sucked up to get to the loud volume? That's what compression does. I only listen to music compressed, I loved it so much -- and you can tell the difference, and the reason AM radio stations did it was there were a lot of convertibles back then and it makes the music louder and every radio station wanted to be the loudest on the dial. As people were punching buttons and turning the dial, the loudest stations are the ones you tend to stick with, and certain kind of music doesn't lend itself to being compressed because as a purist engineer will tell you, it's pure distortion, but that's rotgut. I went out and bought a compressor like are in radio stations. It's called the Aphex, right? The Aphex 2020, and the high setting is called "flamethrower." So I put everything through the flamethrower setting and listen to music that way. When you buy a CD at the store or download it or whatever, it's just flat. There's no compression added to it at all. I wish I could do a side-by-side comparison to show you.

That Limbaugh claims to have always favored flattened loudness to subtlety and range should surprise no one. What is worth noting is that, according to Limbaugh, he isn’t using a “flamethrower” on his broadcast signal for the sake of loudness or clarity or anything about the sound in itself at all. Instead, Limbaugh accounts for his taste in compression by nostalgically casting back to a particular time and a particular place that particular people might remember. It’s not just a sound from anybody’s youth, it’s a sound from a specific generation’s youth. And it doesn’t just sound like any AM radio, it sounds like when you were in a convertible in the 1960s turning up the volume over the wind and the noise so you could hear a Top 40 or a Motown station. If you’re the right kind of person from the right generation, you’ll remember the way things used to sound, the way things ought to sound, the way things would sound if things hadn’t changed. And they just happen to sound that way on Limbaugh’s show.

Loudness, in this sense, isn’t just a blunt instrument for outshouting competing voices. It can be an ironically subtle means of establishing feelings of closeness, community and belonging with audiences. So even if CALM succeeds, don’t be surprised if one day someone finds a way to appeal to your memories of blaring TV commercials, of overdriven voices promising spectacular monster truck mayhem, or toll free telephone phone numbers repeated so loudly they echo relentlessly in your ears for days. Don’t be surprised if somebody someday tries to remind you of the days when you were on a subway turning up the volume on your iPod, not because you wanted to hear the music better, but because you were trying to drown out the rest of the world during your commute. Because no matter how uncomfortable those experiences might seem now, they’ll probably be worth something to advertisers and broadcasters in a few years.