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About this Article
Written by: James Bunning
Written on: December 7th, 2016
Tags: lifestyle, computer engineering, music, sound engineering
Thumbnail by: London Guitar Academy/London Guitar Academy
About the Author
James Bunning was a student at the University of Southern California at the time this article was written.
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Volume XVIII Issue II > The Battle of Sound
From the time of vinyl records to modern portable music capabilities on phones, music producers have been fighting for the best (read: the loudest) music releases. Sound engineers have been the primary weapons in this war. Compressing the dynamic range, or the gap between the loudest and softest moments in a song, has armed the music industry with the ability to increase the volume of a song–perhaps at the expense of quality. Even with modern music streaming companies combatting loudness efforts, these “Loudness Wars” are still far from over.

Introduction

Have you ever been scanning the radio or listening to your iPod on shuffle when suddenly you need to crank down the volume because the next song sounds deafening compared to the previous one? Have your ears ever tired after rocking out to your favorite artist’s latest album? If so, you have been caught in the crossfires of the loudness wars, an auditory arms race that has been waging within the music industry for the past 60 years, all in the name of who can make their recordings sound the loudest.
Ever since the early days of audio recording, record companies and sound engineers have tried to create louder-sounding recordings to grab people’s attention and compete commercially with other songs. During the 1950s and 1960s, record labels started releasing louder 7-inch vinyl singles to stand out from records played on public jukeboxes and auditioned for in front of top-40 radio program directors [1]. However, this rather innocuous, sonic shouting match did not escalate into an all-out war until the advent of the compact disc (CD) in the 1980s. Digital recording technology gave music producers the unprecedented power to make songs sound louder than ever before, and as a result, record companies took full advantage of their shiny new toy. Looking at the audio signals of 4,500 best-selling or most well-received songs recorded and produced between 1969 and 2010 (Fig. 1), the average level of recorded music has consistently grown from 1982 to 2005 [2].
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Figure 1: The average audio levels of 4,500 best-selling or well-received pop songs recorded and produced between 1969 and 2010. The red line tracks the average level for each year. Rectangles indicate distribution: the darker the rectangle, the higher density of songs recorded at that level.