Introduction to the Loudness War

The two images below show the waveform analysis of the same song, Nirvana’s “Smells Like Teen Spirit”.

“Smells Like Teen Spirit” from Nirvana’s 1994 Nevermind. MFSL.

“Smells Like Teen Spirit” from Nirvana’s 2002 eponymous compilation album. Geffen.
2002 Nirvana Compilation

The top image shows a properly mastered track. The loud parts are noticeably louder, the quiet parts are noticeably quieter. Even on the loudest parts of the song, the waveform never hits the maximum limit of the dynamic range. This analysis is from MFSL’s pressing of the album.

The bottom image shows the result of 8 years and a loudness war. Nearly every bit of the song is loud. There is no dynamic range and thus, the instruments, particularly the drums, sound very compressed. There is little diference in volume between the instruments and the vocals. The waveform constantly hits the dynamic range ceiling and there is audible clipping on the recording. Clipping is when the signal is being amplified beyond it’s maximum limit, chopping off the top and bottom of the waveform. On a recording, this can sound like distortion or clicking.

Hear the difference yourself by listening to the two 30 second samples below:

“Smells Like Teen Spirit” from 1994′s Nevermind. MFSL. (Properly Mastered)
“Smells Like Teen Spirit” from 2002′s Nirvana. Geffen. (Loud)

The 2002 version is quite a bit louder than the ’94 pressing, and there is very obvious clipping and distortion present. Keep in mind these tracks were both ripped from the original compact discs in Apple Lossless format and then edited and re-saved as 320kbps CBR MP3s. There is no chance that either of them are simply “bad rips”.

So now that you know what to listen for, keep your ears peeled for all of the poorly mastered, overproduced junk out there and most importantly, don’t buy it! We need to send a message to the artists and to the recording industry that this practice is simply unacceptable and that if we want loud music, we can turn it up ourselves.