The Future of Music

Tearing down the wall of noise

11 min read
Photo of woman singing.
Photo by Rainer Holz/Zefa/Corbis

You’re listening to your favorite Pink Floyd CD on your home stereo when you accidentally hit the “change CD” button on the control panel. All goes quiet for a bit as your CD player urgently shifts to play whatever is in the next tray. With dread, you desperately reach for the volume knob, but it’s too late—your speakers blast the latest Green Day album. Reacting like you were just pricked by a pin, your hand jolts to the volume knob and turns it down. You breathe a sigh of relief. But that’s not the end of it. Ten minutes later you feel that something isn’t right. Even though you love this album, you can’t listen to it anymore. You shut it off, tired, puzzled, and confused. This always seems to happen when you switch from a classic album to a modern one. What you’ve just experienced is something called overcompression of the dynamic range. Welcome to the loudness war.

The loudness war, what many audiophiles refer to as an assault on music (and ears), has been an open secret of the recording industry for nearly the past two decades and has garnered more attention in recent years as CDs have pushed the limits of loudness thanks to advances in digital technology. The “war” refers to the competition among record companies to make louder and louder albums. But the loudness war could be doing more than simply pumping up the volume and angering aficionados—it could be responsible for halting technological advances in sound quality for years to come.

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