The Loudness War




It has nearly been a decade since people starting complaining about loudness in modern music. While this was popularized (and possibly created) by ponytailed engineers and musicians in the 90's - consumers can still hear it today - EVERYTHING IS GETTING LOUDERRR.......But why? and who is to blame? The voice in your head says nickelback, but we know it just aint true. It certainly wasn't video games.

I am writing this after watching a bad movie at a bad theatre. The quiet-to-loud jump was physically painful and every smash, crash or explosion seemed like an excuse to push the limits of our human sonic threshhold. On top of this, the movie was just really poor, so we got up and walked into the next door showing of The Bourne Legacy... it was much better. Not just the perceived volume levels, but the movie. Anyway, the entire experience made me think about the countless ways produced sound invades our daily lives at 11 and beyond. You can bring earplugs to a loud concert, but what about earbud headphones? Should others be able to take control of our chosen listening volumes? The war of loudness looms large, but most are oblivious to the tactics.

The first and most notorious example would have to be Commercials. You can easily hear this by listening to a traditional TV or radio station, but also right on your smartphone with Pandora, etc. The commericals aggressively come in louder than the previous song/show, forcing you to turn the volume down, or just accept the sonic pummeling. It's usually the ladder and I wont even get into the content here (Geico lizards, annoying jingles, questions, etc.). Was it modern album releases that started the whole loudness war and if so, who's to blame? While there are scores of bands and artists we would love to blame, there's a much more important battle going on here - The battle for control and personal space. We can look away from that horrific commercial when it plays for the umpteenth time, but its the audio that permeates each couch cushion, bounces off the walls and/or around in the skull.

loudThe FCC passed a law requiring broadcasters and cable and satellite TV systems to maintain constant volume levels. The order, which went into effect, says commercials must have the same average volume as the programs they accompany. The article also states that "while normal listening levels average about 70 decibels for a typical TV broadcast — 60 is equivalent to a restaurant conversation; 80 to a garbage disposal — levels on a TV channel can vary by as much as 20 db."


While the law being passed is great news, I wonder if Pandora will follow suit? What about Hulu and other services in the grey area of streaming and gaming. One thing is for sure, the record industry will soldier on with loud records until people wake up. Heck, even Heavy-Metal Fans Complain that today's music is too loud. This news alone, should be enough to turn the tides, but in a world of info-overload, it's easy to overlook such red flags.

What does any of this have to do with game audio? The video game industry has done a great job of controlling game volume levels, but as bandwidth increases for mobile, we will start seeing full video ads and more advergame development. Let's hope this new law increases the public sensitivity to sound and leads to greater awareness of audio volumes. Even bars are culprits of volume abuse. If you have to shout "What is your name?" more than once, and extremely close...then, tell them to turn it down. We can hear the music thank you, just turn it down a few notches. If they say no, then you should either start a fight, or quietly leave.

In the meantime, protect your hearing with some quality earplugs. I've had good luck with these for general use (no jet-engine work). They are custom molded to fit all ear sizes and work great when attending loud events. Who would have ever thought that Custom Earplugs are the first line of defense in the war on loudness?