Tell me if this sounds familiar: You're hanging out with friends — say, in the awesome Perry Mansfield cabins in Steamboat Springs — and you're streaming Spotify from your phone to the big Bluetooth speaker that someone brought. All of a sudden, a McDonalds advertisement explodes through the air like the peal of a screaming demon, and it makes everyone jump and at least one person spill a beer. And then the baby starts crying.
Between the thumping background music and the maximized voiceover, you wonder if the volume of the ad is really necessary. Why was that ad so much louder than the music that was just playing a minute ago?
Here's another scenario. You're flipping through the stations quietly in your car, and when passing the contemporary and popular music stations, you get the gist of each song quickly because you can hear enough of the music to make a judgement. Then you reach your target, the classical station, and can barely hear it so you reach for the volume dial.
What I've described are symptoms of two prevalent problems with the way modern music is recorded and produced. I'm talking about the "loudness wars" and the effect of technological advancements on the quality of recorded music over the last two decades. Fortunately for us, these loudness wars are slowly ending.
To break it down, the two issues I'm pinpointing are both the relative loudness and the internal loudness of music and other entertainment mediums.
In the 1950s, jukebox owners noticed that records that were recorded at a higher average volume were chosen more often than the quieter records. It didn't take much research to locate a direct correlation between loudness and listener approval.
This has become a well-established principle in all realms of audio. For example, reviewers of stereo equipment fastidiously match the volume levels of competing products so that they aren't biased in their opinion.
Music is a mature industry, and we are at a point now where engineers and producers have taken advantage of this human brain trick for the last 20 or so years and nearly everything that was produced in that time in most genres was affected by it.
Mastering engineers would apply what's called "limiting" to the finished music from the mix engineer, making the quiet parts louder (or the loud parts quieter) so that the overall perceived volume can be raised.
Think about it. One engineer discovers that louder is "better," and others start to follow, if only to keep up. Pretty soon, every mastering engineer is applying judicious limiting so that their client's tracks can compete on the airwaves.
Speaking of air, radio stations limit the music further, making the volume so squished and consistent that you can hear the whole thing at low volume levels. Hence the difference between the classical station and the pop stations — classical houses have long eschewed this practice.
The main problem with this limiting? The music always suffers. Turn it up loud, and it's awful. Music is dynamic by nature, but we've been force-fed dynamically compressed music for too long.