This goes to ele—augh, no, aside from over-compressing, we need to stop overusing that joke. Photo (CC-BY) Orin Zebest.

You’ve heard the gripes, and heard and seen the somewhat unscientific demos. Now it’s time to examine the over-compression of music with – science! Earl Vickers of STMicroelectronics examines the Loudness Wars in an academic paper, as noted to us by reader photohounds.

The Loudness War: Background,
Speculation and Recommendations
[PDF Link,]

The paper comes from last November, but it’s as relevant as ever. It’s not just the usual take, either. Its history begins with Phil Spector and vinyl, considering the impact of broadcast TV and not just the music industry. It notes the evolution of compression technologies, particularly multiband technologies.

Most importantly, though – and I’ve spoken regularly to mastering engineers about this – the paper turns to the issue of listening fatigue. Here’s one whithering criticism of the industry on that: some engineers even believe that thoughtless over-compression could be to blame for the decline of the entire industry.

Mastering engineer Bob Ludwig stated, “People talk about downloads hurting record sales. I and some other people would submit that another thing that is hurting record sales these days is the fact that they are so compressed that the ear just gets tired of it. When you’re through listening to a whole album of this highly compressed music, your ear is fatigued. You may have enjoyed the music but you don’t really feel like going back and listening to it again.”

2008 Metallica, unsurprisingly, more apocalyptically-loud than a 1909 Edison cylinder … for what it’s worth.

You’ve seen much of this before, but rarely in such well-annotated, comprehensive form.

Best of all? The conclusion applies lessons from Game Theory to work on making the loudness wars come to a conclusion.

Here’s another thought, too: with artists increasingly self-releasing or releasing through more specialized labels, greater access to music online, direct-to-consumer distribution, and online replacements for conventional terrestrial radio, many of the factors that produced some of the oddest hyper-compression at the top of the charts are fading into the background.

Pax Musica for the loudness wars, anyone?