The so called ‘war’ over digital audio levels is a constant topic of discussion. With no real guidelines over levels, such as those that benefit film and TV, many would agree that audio levels have increased so aggressively in recent years to sometimes beyond good taste, a high profile example being Metallica’s ‘Death Magnetic’,

At Blue Pro Mastering our guiding philosophy is to achieve the optimum ‘environment’ for any audio. This means applying the right choice and amount of processing to achieve the best results for each project as suited. However many artists and their labels succumb to their perception of market forces and may request to take their audio beyond this optimum in search of extra volume.

Why? The way we listen to music has changed completely in the last 20 years. We rarely listen to an album in sequence or even two songs by the same artist in sequence. This creates a modern listening practice that continually puts audio in an immediate, although somewhat subconscious comparison to other audio, as opposed to being heralded on its individual merits. Many of us now also enjoy the bulk of our music on lower quality systems than 20 years ago since everything has gone mobile, with compression such as MP3 and AAC accentuating this quality drop further. Our listening hours are mainly on low powered devices that can handle much less of a frequency range e.g. TVs, iPods & iPhones. These factors combine to create a market where artists and labels sometimes feel that they have to ‘fight’ to be heard. Simply put they don’t want to be the quiet or dull song that you skip on your iPod and would sooner be the one that jumps you out of your seat! This is usually achieved through heavier limiting, level clipping and/or introducing more aggressive high end.

Is it all bad, are we doomed? No. There are techniques to achieve a higher ‘perceived’ volume from your masters and this has become an art unto itself if in the hands of an experienced engineer, but everything has a breaking point. Some music may actually be at its ‘optimum’ when processed very aggressively but some definitely is not. This is the heart of the argument. Everything should be mastered with respect to the music concerned in an ideal world.

What should I do about it? This is a matter of preference but we would advise against being caught up in the ‘loudness war’. The mastering engineer should always look for the optimum loudness and will also consider the genre in this decision. In our experience the requests we have had to go for more loudness and aggression than advised has not benefitted the product at all and can be at the expense of clarity. Other negative artifacts can also result such as distortion and listener ‘fatigue’ from extensive exposure to audio at prolonged high levels with little dynamic range and aggressive high end. If you have a preference then dialogue with your engineer is important from the outset so do let us know when submitting your music if you have any comments.

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