Viewpoint: Loudness, The Unwinnable War

February 1, 2015

As audio processing technology has continued to advance, we’ve found many new ways to manipulate the “sound” of our product on the air. Modern processors can go from a whisper to a roar and beyond, but are listeners really tuning to your station simply because it’s louder than the competition? This is a topic that is almost as old as audio processing technology itself, but despite many years of talking about it and a number of recent discussions about moving in the opposite direction, loudness still seems to be the ultimate goal among many broadcasters.

I remember listening to radio growing up in the ’80s and very early ’90s. The radio stations in my relatively rural area of the country all had a very particular “sound” to them. None of them really “jumped” off the dial, and if anything most had a somewhat “warm and subdued” quality to them. Very clean, within the limitations of FM and AM transmission; and no one station was particularly louder than another. I suspect part of this was due to the audio processing technology available at the time (Prisms and 8100s, Compellors and Dominators, or perhaps a CRL chain) but it may also have been due to the fact that the processing for the most part had been installed and adjusted by the same group of engineers. The managers and programming staff of those stations were more than happy to trust the engineers’ judgment, perhaps with a few small tweaks, but there was no “loudness war” in my part of the country.

At some point during this time period, one station in particular (a country format) really started to jump off the dial. It was much louder and very “crisp.” They started promoting that they were now “digital.” I had to wonder exactly what that meant … Digital playback from CDs had started to become more common, and digital audio processors were just barely starting to hit the marketplace, but actual digital broadcast transmission was not even on the horizon at the time. I tried to reach their engineer to ask some questions (as a curious teenager) but never found out exactly what they had changed. Regardless, it sounded extremely good … and was in fact very loud compared to the other stations on the dial. This was the beginning of my exposure to the “loudness war.”

Later in my radio career, I found myself in a major metropolitan area. Stations there were loud and proud of it. I, on the other hand, worked for a classical station that had to hold its own on the dial among the flamethrowers while still appeasing the “golden ears.” Ultimately, I did manage to find a good compromise but I was not about to try competing in terms of loudness on a classical music format by simply “cranking it to 11.”

With the increasing number of media options available to listeners, does being “louder” on the dial still make sense or is it time to revisit your approach to processing? When it comes to loudness, eventually you reach a point of diminishing returns (and the ultimate limits of modulation and audio levels). Processing is a tool, like anything else, and can be used to “shape” your sound, but it ultimately comes down (as always) to the content.

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