The Loudness Wars

The Loudness Wars

July 26, 2017 — We surveyed 71 mastering experts to get their very best mastering tips… and the result was awesome!

Many of the experts gave us their philosophies on the loudness wars… so we decided to gather all of their thoughts here, for easy reference.

So here are thoughts on the loudness wars from 62 mastering experts. (Warning: heated discussion ahead!)

Cheers!
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Scott Hawksworth
Founder, AudioSkills

Click here to view the entire list of our expert contributors, including links to their social media profiles.

We asked the experts: What is your personal opinion on the loudness wars?

Paul AbbottPaul Abbott, Zen Mastering

I think they’re over, now that volume compensation meta data exists. And I think/hope people realize how bad they were. My experience has been that if you get an album/recording competitively loud and it still sounds great, the artist is happy.

Cory AllenCory Allen, Altered Ear

Not a fan of loudness wars. This is why we have volume controls on playback devices. I think the natural quality of a song guides it’s correct volume. To force over-compression and limiting only damages the soul of the music.

Patrick AndersonPatrick Anderson, ThePatrickAnderson.com

The loudness wars are being ended for us, thanks to major outlets like Spotify, Apple, and Google. They all have been introducing some form of loudness normalization that is engaged by default in most apps (such as Sound Check in iTunes, or Spotify’s “same volume for all songs” setting). If your song doesn’t have dynamic range, it’s going to get turned down by these programs on playback due to its higher average loudness level. A song that peaks at the same level, but has greater dynamics will have a lower average loudness, and will remain untouched by the app on playback. The result is that the more dynamic song will sound louder and punchier to most end listeners than the one that got leveled a 0 dBFS in mastering. This is a really good thing!

Maor AppelbaumMaor Appelbaum, Maor Appelbaum Mastering

Its great to have dynamics in music for sure but Its also cool to have something compressed if it fits the desired sound. I can go both ways – whatever fits the music, the styling, the client needs and the recordings. Nowadays we can get so loud that it can be hard to listen to a whole album without getting our ears fatigued, so finding a middle ground is a challenge and I see that as a priority in finding a nice balance when possible. I want the client to be happy and the listeners to enjoy it. Its not as easy as it might seem to be and you can’t win them all

Mathieu BedwaniMathieu Bedwani, MathieuBedwani.com

I think the loudness war is already a bit behind us, but really I don’t think there is such a thing. For me there are only good and bad mastering engineers, there are a perfect range of dynamic for every genres, every albums, every songs, going too far from that sweet spot at the expense of music for that first “wow” factor is simply foolish. On the long run when it is too loud the music gets tiring but also uninteresting because dynamic is as important as harmony, melody or rhythm in a composition.

Steven BersonSteven Berson, Total Sonic Media

I’ve been blessed to have mainly independent artists and labels as my clients that for the past 5 years at least have not been that focused on the so called “loudness war” that much. In contrast to some “audiophile purists” in these matters – in general I find that many (if not most) mixes received can benefit from some “juice” by using various tools (such as digital peak limiters) to increase their average levels – however for any specific mix there is indeed a “loudness potential” that when attempted to push past it results in noticeable artifacts being imparted into the audio (generally either a trade off between losing transient impact, i.e. less punch and snap – or increased audible distortion). Sadly many mainstream and underground releases cross that threshold and result in a mushy and harsh master all in the service of having it seem initially “louder” in comparison to other tracks (before someone adjusts their volume knob that is). Again – most of the clients I work with try to find a “sensible” and good sounding compromise to give a decent level to the audio (one which allows even low level details to be heard even on under powered systems, or above background noise) but without introducing negative artifacts into their tracks.

Chris BlaneyChris Blaney, Inner Creative Sound

Louder does not mean better in my opinion, especially if it’s reached distortion. If it’s too loud most people will turn it down. Why not mix and master to proper levels that help listeners hear the dynamics. Loud kicks and snares seem to be a trend which I’m okay with but atleast make them sound pleasant.

Joe CaithnessJoe Caithness, Subsequent Mastering

I do what the client asks. I appreciate some mastering engineers get involved in the audio market and its standards but I don’t. You tell me what you need and I will do it to the highest quality possible.

Kenneth CandelasKenneth Candelas, KCandelas.com

Loudness is relative. I prefer a quieter master with more dynamics. It should be loud enough that you don’t have to drastically change the volume.

Zach CaraherZach Caraher, Big Z Mixing & Mastering Services

It all depends on the kind of music you are trying to make. If you’re making dance or pop music then you don’t have much of a choice – you have to make your tracks sound as loud as everyone else or you’ll sound unprofessional and stick out like a sore thumb. If you’re making indie rock, folk music, etc. then this isn’t nearly as important and you can preserve your dynamics more.

Chris CarvalhoChris Carvalho, Unlock Your Sound

Fulfill the loudness potential of the material and go no further. It’s always managed down the line whether that’s radio, DJ, streaming platforms, or end-user anyway.

Dan CoutantDan Coutant, Sun Room Audio

I think that loudness is an artistic choice that is made by the client. Most clients understand the compromise involved with going for extreme loudness nowadays so in my experience, a majority of the artists just want strive for the best sounding result at any volume. With loudness normalization making it’s way into so many streaming platforms it’s becoming more understood that compromising on sonic integrity in the name of a couple of DB will reveal itself now more than ever.

Michael CurtisMichael Curtis, Movement Mastering

Be aware of the story people tell themselves about why things need to be loud. Is that their perception of what the mastering process is? Are they afraid of their music not being able to compete? Changing that narrative is the hard work worth doing, but logic alone (explaining level matching algorithms in streaming, the Orban processor, harping on dynamics) can’t change the tide.

Hans DeKlineHans DeKline, Sound Bites Dog

Some albums really sound terrible because of “the loudness wars” but we’re starting to see a significant shift away from “louder is better” thanks to streaming and Mfit. My personal opinion, the customer is always right, and I see no reason why you can’t have loud and good at the same time.

Doug DiamondDoug Diamond, Diamondisc Audio

It’s a drag, but I get it. It’s one of the few things that people who know nothing about the art of mastering can ACTUALLY control. The volume. Making it “louder” usually compensates for a really crappy mix, or not-that-great mastering. I have a certain threshold that I like to use based on my software and metering and rarely ever get people telling me that my mastering projects are too quiet. I try to run right up to the edge of what works industry wide – and not go past it. Some clients purposely avoid the loudness war and ask me to give them the most dynamic mastering I can and they don’t really care about how loud the end result is. That’s a pretty good approach in general, but it depends on where the song’s going to end up – like in a TV show or film, it won’t matter as much because your tune is blended to picture and may have dialog over it, etc., but if it’s going in a system where their song will be played up against other artist’s music – like Spotify playlists for instance, sometimes you still have to encourage people to forego a little dynamic range for volume – just because you don’t want your song to sound *small* compared to other people’s. It’s a trade-off for sure.

Mark DownieMark Downie, Western Mastering

They are finally headed in the right direction. The biggest pop hits of the last few years (Can’t Fight The Feeling, Uptown Funk, Happy, Blurred Lines, Get Lucky) were not mastered as loudly. This proves you don’t need it for success. Done right, you can improve the sound with added gain from compression / limiting. The key is to stop before it reduces the sound quality. Going beyond that point for the sake of loudness is foolish. Especially since leading playback formats like iTunes Radio, YouTube, Spotify and more are level matching. A song that is mastered for the best quality compared to the same song mastered for the maximum volume will always sound better played side by side, level-matched.

Denis EmeryDenis Emery, Mastering.lt

The need for loudness usually depends on the style of the music. Big dance-floor tracks need it, labels and artists ask for it. For easy listening music or vinyl there is no need to push the limiter. It better to keep it more dynamic. All depends on the target.

Tom FramptonTom Frampton, Mastering The Mix

Dynamic is better. The loudness wars is a thing of the past with streaming services normalising music. My advice is to level match before you compare your mixes to other mixes!

Gabriel Alvarez FranchiGabriel Alvarez Franchi, GabrielAlvarezFranchi.com

It’s okay to use a lot compression and limiting for some stuff, but definitely some music styles deserve respect. Dynamic is essential!

Nick GarciaNick Garcia, Nick Garcia Tunes

It’s over… loudness won. Of course I’m always delighted when a client asks for a dynamic master, but that happens maybe one time out of twenty, and even those ‘dynamic’ masters would probably be considered too loud by older standards. So I do my best to give my clients what they want (loud, punchy masters) without absurd amounts of compression. Sometimes it’s a really fine line.

Loz GillLoz Gill, Fat as Funk

I think public opinion has shifted against it recently. 5 years ago I had lots of clients asking for me to boost the intrinsic volume to the sky, now I’m noticing more clients ask me to avoid the loudness war. I give the client what they want, as ultimately it’s their music.

David GlasserDavid Glasser, Airshow Mastering

I am agnostic. My name is in much smaller type than the artist’s. I have a loudness “comfort zone” for many genres, but if a client wants more, that’s his or her decision, and my job is to deliver it and still have it sound good, which can be challenging sometimes.

Chris GrahamChris Graham, Chris Graham Mastering

The loudness wars are over for most genres, but they rage on in a few. Very few people are still only concerned about loudness.

Don GrossingerDon Grossinger, DonGrossinger.com

I don’t like over compressing. I like dynamic range. I like my masters to peak at digital -.1 dB.

Dave HarrisDave Harris, Studio B Mastering

If possible just make things as dynamic as you prefer. Unfortunately if you are running a business you may have to do what the client wants. You can try to educate them about the downside of making things so loud. Some clients will listen to your advice and some won’t. It’s a fear game.

Janne HatulaJanne Hatula, Fanu Music

It doesn’t make any sense making those songs loud that don’t benefit from it (jazz etc.), but in certain genres (D&B for example), a good engineer can tastefully add to the charm of the song by taking it to its limit. Still, too loud is too loud, and if you want to push it, you really have to have the skills to pull it off.

Brian HazardBrian Hazard, Resonance Mastering

The loudness wars are coming to an end, thanks to volume matching on streaming services like Spotify. There’s no reason to sacrifice fidelity for volume, with the possible exception of club play.

Bill HendersonBill Henderson, Azimuth Mastering

To some extent, I feel like some people end up throwing the term around without entirely understanding the idea – particularly since technology has come such a long way to allow modern masters to still sound very clean at high volume. Having said that, I’m still always going to err on the side of less-loud and more dynamic on the first pass that I send to a client. I’ll hope they’re on board with that and make them be the ones to bring up loudness (and have to listen to my spiel about dynamics) before we make any changes to turn up the master.

Lewis HopkinLewis Hopkin, Stardelta Audio Mastering

All music is now so dynamically compromised that there is no single genre or style of music that would not benefit from being much, Much less loud. Loudness is getting in the way of audio quality and has ruined most music beyond any point of rescue. Mastering engineers don’t want this loudness. Clients do! We get the blame. We are all trying to educate our clients that loud = less good than it could be.

Scott HullScott Hull, Masterdisk

(gawd!) – are we still talking about Loudness wars ? Hasn’t it be over 20 years now ? What would the Ramones have said about being too loud? Or Sid Vicious. ? Or Lou Reed, or Frank Zappa ? Maybe a different response from Miles Davis ? Maybe not. It’s your art – Make it as loud as you want – Just don’t forget to notice what you are loosing in the process. Let someone explain the technical issues to you and listen … If you still love it – then it’s not too loud. 🙂

Bob KatzBob Katz, Digital Domain

Normalized streaming services are going to make the loudness wars obsolete within a very short time. Try to educate your clients that their masters will sound wimpy and uninvolving and actually lower when played on a streaming service if the loudness of your master is higher than the target level of the streaming service.

Steve KitchSteve Kitch, Audiomaster Mastering Studio

The loudness war has taken an interesting twist over the past 1-2 years now that streaming services such as Spotify and Apple Music are starting to dominate the way we listen to music. By default these services level match each song in order to create a consistent listening volume. Dynamic masters will now sound louder and more punchy compared to masters that have been smashed.

Brent LambertBrent Lambert, The Kitchen Mastering

Over it! I think that the somewhat standardized streaming media reference levels are a godsend. I am as guilty of making loud masters at the request of clients in the past but I highly advise against doing so, and typically advise supplying multiple versions of the master for specific delivery channels.

Joe LambertJoe Lambert, Joe Lambert Mastering

It’s nothing new. It’s like shouting in a crowded room, we all just want to be heard. The easiest thing someone can say when they aren’t hearing exactly what they want is to make it louder. Loud records can sound great but it’s the combination of the proper balance dynamics and volume that make things sounds loud and magical.

Drew LavyneDrew Lavyne, All Digital Mastering

Loudness…why deep fry the music you’ve spent so long to create? Unbridled gain can (and will) destroy all the dynamics you’ve spent so much time creating in the studio. I will always lean towards and appropriate, “competitive” amount of gain, and then add more energy if the client really feels it will serve the album. But coming out of the gate with Phasers set to destroy just isn’t doing anything for the album at all.

Ed LittmanEd Littman, Ed Littman Mastering

I don’t think there is much discussion on this topic any more..it’s kind of old news. Now that streaming services have a standard for playback levels there is no need to make your music louder than the rest. Masters will sound flat & small compared to a master that has dynamics. Some standards are listed below measured in LUFS (Loudness Units Full Scale)

Apple Music *Soundcheck On* – 16 LUFS
YouTube – 14 LUFS
Spotify – 14 LUFS

David A. LopezDavid A. Lopez, DavidALopez.com

I’m not a fan. Sonically things get lost when you start smashing what was meant to be dynamic. I don’t think it’s going anywhere, though. As long as music remains competitive professionals will try to one-up the other guys. That’s just the nature of business.

Bob MacciochiBob Macciochi, Subvert Central Mastering

Couldn’t care less. It’s absolutely all over the map these days, it’s in a state of flux. I’ll provide whatever people want, and make it sound as good as possible at their desired level. If that’s beyond the point where sonic compromises have to be made, I’ll tell them.

Karl MachatKarl Machat, Mister’s Mastering House

I hate them. There are still clients that want it LOUD. I’ll always offer my view, but the final choice is theirs. Now that services like Spotify and iTunes are setting maximum loudness, loudness doesn’t matter anymore. Loudness as exemplified in the loudness wars only robs the music and the listener of the dynamics – the life-blood – of music.

Stephan MathieuStephan Mathieu, Schwebung Mastering

Excessive loudness today is more stupid than it ever was. It’s a bad relict of the 90s, just like mp3 as an “all you need” .

Dave McNairDave McNair, Dave McNair Mastering

I am fairly dispassionate about how loud a client wants their project to be. My job is too make it as loud as they want, while still sounding great. Every once in a while I might speak up and say I think their desired level is too much of a sonic sacrifice, but it’s rare that I’ll chime in about it.

Randy MerrillRandy Merrill, Randy Merrill Mastering

I think there are certain kinds of recordings that sound good when the loudness is pushed in order to create excitement and generate a physical reaction. On the other side, there are plenty of times when recordings are pushed beyond what is necessary and musical. Ultimately though, mastering is a service business and engineers have to go with what the clients want in terms of loudness for their productions. Communication, however, is key with regards to this.

Noah MintzNoah Mintz, Lacquer Channel Mastering

Leave the loudness to mastering. Many mixed come in already loud and there is little a mastering engineer can do at that point to get dynamics back. Beyond that, I don’t think too much about the loudness wars. Some material sounds great super loud while others don’t. It’s totally program dependent.

Sam MosesSam Moses, Moses Mastering

If it sounds good its good. Some music sounds great smashed, some sounds better with lots of dynamics. But overall we need a universal loudness standard for digital streaming so we can all make one master instead of 4 different versions… one for iTunes, Spotify, Soundcloud, YouTube… the list goes on and they all have different playback levels and normalization.

Kevin NixKevin Nix, L. Nix Mastering

Louder is not always better. I believe in a song having dynamics.

Martin OlmosMartin Olmos, Allmostt Mastering

My opinion is if the Artist’s happy then thats how he wants to present his artwork to the world. Loud, squished, quiet, dynamic. There’re no rules in art!

Justin PerkinsJustin Perkins, Mystery Room Mastering

The loudness war still exists and will always exist, it’s just changing strategies at the moment. As loudness normalization takes over the streaming services, there is no need to create high RMS or LUFS level digital masters anymore. The CD loudness war is becoming irrelevant in the age of digital streaming.

There is currently not a standard but as you go louder than roughly -14 or -12 LUFS (it depends on the streaming service), you reach a point where the material is just turned down or “loudness normalized”. This is so that the listener can have an enjoyable listening experience in a playlist or shuffle mode situation without the levels of songs going all over the place. Going any louder than whatever the streaming service normalizes to ends up working against you.

James PlotkinJames Plotkin, Plotkinworks

I don’t know a single engineer or producer that thinks it’s a good thing. You can have a master that is just right, perfectly set dynamics, stereo field, and EQ, and it can be completely ruined just by pushing the levels. Most people don’t understand that the loudness potential of a recording is determined more during recording and mixing than during mastering – record and mix your music well and you’ll end up with a perfectly loud master without having to crush the hell out of it.

Jake ReidJake Reid, Machine Drift

The loudness war mattered when CD/MP3 were still king, now streaming is. Spotify, iTunes, YouTube, etc are ending the discussion because they’ll take a song mastered too loud and bring it down to a specific level with their software. What this means for mastering engineers is we get to focus more on dynamics which we should’ve been doing all along!

Ryan SchwabeRyan Schwabe, RyanSchwabe.com

The loudness wars are over. The only place they are still happening is on Soundcloud. All streaming services normalize to roughly -14LUFS, -1dBTP. With that said, I believe a small level of squeeze can help a mix, but there is a clear point of diminishing returns.

Julian SilvaJulian Silva, On Air Mastering

It’s over since every outlet is normalizing now, I would go back to the meters, if you know your meters, you will realize exactly what you’re doing regarding loudness. I urge my clients to not want it loud, since there’s no point anymore.

Camilo Silva F.Camilo Silva F., CamiloSilvaF.com

Not over. Still not over. There’s many, many places in the world where people still use CD’s and other non-loudness normalised playback mediums a lot so competitive volume is still around and will be for some time. I’m not afraid of volume as long as i’m not distorting and not choking and killing the snare….And yes, hardware is key to me for achieving that (i simply cannot get loud and clean ITB as my gainstaging on my analog gear and A/D is a key part of that). But at the end, it’s the client’s call and the vast majority of them want it LOUD. Try to educate them on the subject…Excruciating !

Ian StewartIan Stewart, Ian Stewart Music

IMO the loudness wars are over. Loudness normalization has been implemented on nearly all the major streaming platforms and the rest are sure to follow. The result is that even a fairly dynamic pop/rock/hip-hop/EDM master will get turned down, so there’s really no reason to go so loud that it damages the music anymore. If a client still really wants loudness I’ll give it to them, but not before doing my all to educate them about why it’s not necessary and how the music gets damaged in the process.

Timothy StollenwerkTimothy Stollenwerk, Stereophonic Mastering

I think the loudness wars have peaked. Many of my clients are more concerned quality over loudness. Both are possible of course! That’s what separates a professional mastering engineer from and amateur.

Katie TaviniKatie Tavini, KatieTavini.co.uk

Dynamics are sexy!

Mark TrewellaMark Trewella, Full Circle Mastering

Thankfully the “loudness war” has been dying down over the years. Still predominant in certain genres but in my experience it’s more or less about those artists wanting their tracks “hot” (sometimes pushing things further than I’d like) as opposed to trying to be louder than some other album that is already slammed. Most now seem to understand the limitations and drawbacks of pushing loudness too far, which is great!

Jerry TubbJerry Tubb, Terra Nova Mastering

It would be great if everyone could dial it down 3-6dB and live in a more natural dynamic musical environment. But in the real world that’s not happening, so learning to make loud but clean as possible masters is paramount. Making the correct decision about loud vs clean, a good balance between the two. Recently I mastered a project twice, upon next-day listening the first pass I felt was just too hot & compromised the quality, so I redid it 2dB lower, and everyone loved it, including me.

Arie van den VeldenArie van den Velden, Redial Studio

My opinion is that the loudness war has gone on for too long now and last year finally we are beginning to see the war end. With most streaming services using loudness normalisation of -14LUFS you start to see more dynamic masters.

JP VillemureJP Villemure, Villemure.net

I try to get as lound as I can without sacrificing any sonic quality. I think it is still important to develop skills for transparent loundness even with the new playback standards on streaming platforms. A lot of clients still want loud album because their influences / references albums sounds overly loud. Maybe it will change for better someday but it will have to start by the influence generated by the artist on the top of the food chain. 🙂 But I don’t see problem with loudness when it’s done correctly.

Matthew WolkMatthew Wolk, Matthew Wolk Mastering

I hate it! Loudness does not matter anymore. Most artists are releasing music for streaming and those streaming sites implement loudness normalization, which keeps a consistent level between songs. loud songs are turned down and quiet songs are turned up what more do you need. P.S. there is a reason volume knobs are adjustable…if it is too quiet, turn it up.

Jonathan WynerJonathan Wyner, M Works

It’s very very very old news. We’re done with it. Unless all you are doing is mastering EDM for club playback, If you play that game, you and your artists lose.

Nick ZampielloNick Zampiello, New Alliance East Mastering

It’s baffling. Music should be GREAT!~ I don’t mind making things loud either. The trick is to have mixes that are put together to work well when mastered loud! This is why I started offering Mixing again as well as Mastering ( I originally started out tracking and mixing actually ). I know how to mix the music so that it can get loud without sounding totally broken and fatiguing.