The Loudness Problem

Jan 28 2022

This is a short article about a problem I only recently encountered, even though it has quite an impact and I think every musician should know this.

No, it’s not about the “Loudness Wars”. It’s about the fact that (bad) speakers distort the sound when nearing maximum volume

Even more surprising, this happens both when nearing maximum volume of the speakers, and when the song itself is close to 0 dB. So, even if you listen at a low volume (on your laptop, for example, which doesn’t have great speakers), if the song itself constantly reaches close to 0 dB, it will create artifacts and perhaps distortion all over the place.

How did I come to know about this? When I just started learning how to record/mix, I was constantly disappointed by how it sounded. Even a simple guitar recording would sound “digital” and “hissy” on my laptop!

But, when I was recording (and listening through my headphones), it sounded awesome and not like that at all. Were my laptop speakers broken? No, the same happened on my (admittedly bad and old) smartphone speakers. And I could watch other stuff on my laptop without hearing this.

So I just accepted it and focussed myself on how it sounded on speakers/devices in which I had more trust.

Fast forward a few albums, and I’ve learned that I recorded stuff way too loud (“hot”) before. I recorded guitars as loud as possible, thinking that was obviously the best way to go, as it eliminated outside noise, and louder is more professional right?

Nope. I finally learned that I can record stuff way softer, and it’s actually extremely useful when mixing, as you’re not constantly clipping or fighting your volume meters. And, as this article states, it actually leads to better recordings in most (cheap) audio hardware, as they introduce fewer artifacts at lower volumes!

So I listened to my new stuff on my laptop again … and guess what, the digital-sounding artifacts were gone! Simply because the track wasn’t hitting close to 0 dB all the time, it actually sounded like it was supposed to sound. Both on my laptop and phone.

After finishing those tracks and mastering them (to the proper “loudness”), the artifacts appeared again.

Now that I knew what was happening, or thought so, I started searching for it. And I quickly found out I was right.

When you measure the response from audio interfaces based on volume, they always start to distort and create artifacts when you get closer to maximum volume. You can find all sorts of graphs online (probably also for your specific hardware). The cheaper the model, the more this is true, usually.

Sometimes, I listen to live streams for sporting events, and the commentators usually have their voice extremely compressed and as loud as possible. (For the good reason that they need to be constantly audible over any other noise, and you don’t want the voice to suddenly drop in volume when the commentator as much as moves their head a centimeter.) Guess what? The same artifacts appear all over the place in those streams!

So that’s the clue of this article: don’t trust how a song sounds on bad/underpowered speakers when close to 0 dB, both in the track itself or the device

Record stuff at a comfortable medium level, nowhere near maximum. Master it using a good set of speakers, and even then, watch out you’re not making it too loud.

(This is also, by the way, why many pop songs sound so digital and “crunchy” in the high-end. It’s simply because they are so damn loud that most consumer audio hardware is going to distort it a little like that.)

Onto better mixes! Tiamo