There's been lots written about the loudness war over the course of time, so I won't go into too much detail here.
The loudness war began with the introduction of brickwall limiting and equipment like the TC Electronic Finalazer . This technology allowed people to reduce the dynamic range of their music to the limit and not in a good way. It meant that music could reach extreme levels with no chance of clipping due to the 'brick wall' nature of these limiters creating a hard 'ceiling'. This type of so called 'hyper-compression' ultimately results in music with less depth, contrast, detail and low end.
This led to a race to see who could crush their music onto a CD at the highest possible level in order to be 'competitive'. Many mastering engineers talk of being forced to push tracks louder and louder against their will, by record labels. This lasted from around 1996/97 until relatively recently when streaming platforms began normalising. There have been numerous studies into loudness and the effect it has on things like record sales, however they've usually proven either inconclusive or that there is no benefit. What can be proven, however is the significant degradation of audio quality which is inherent with hyper-compression.
I've included below some short clips from songs which have audible distortion and artefacts from hyper-compression. In the following section on commercial releases, I will analyse these tracks and and compare them to music which have not been compressed in this way.
For the purposes of this demonstration, all tracks have been meta normalised in Wavelab, so as not to be fooled by level differences. These tracks are also all taken from original CD .WAV files.
The table below shows a study by Sound on Sound on 4500 tracks across a 40 year period covering the height of the loudness war, which clearly demonstrates the dramatic rise in RMS and LUFS level between 1990 and 2010 alongside decreasing crest factor (dynamic range). Looking broadly there was on average a 4dB difference in level between most music in 1990 and 2010.
Given more time for this project, and the budget to acquire the required number of CD releases, I'd like to do a similar study breaking music down into genres and analysing where 'loudness' is being used as an aesthetic and where it is just simply a competitive thing. The main question is "Why is this lack of dynamic range a bad thing?" and this is what I intent do demonstrate in the next article.
Deruty, E., 2011. 'Dynamic Range' & The Loudness War. Sound on Sound, [online] Available at: <https://www.soundonsound.com/sound-advice/dynamic-range-loudness-war> [Accessed 4 April 2021].