...in which we explain how Celine Dion is louder than AC/DC, and your head subsequently explodes.
First of all, take a look at these. Don't worry if you're not quite sure what you're looking at.
These are the raw waveforms of three fairly recognizeable songs. Notice that somehow the ballad and then the tv jingle take up more audio space than the rock track. That's pretty odd, huh? Well get a load of this:
Seriously, look at that mess. Again, this is an unmodified audio wave from a recognizeable song. Any guess to what this song is? HINT: It was released in 1999.
It isn't Korn or Rammstein or even any sort of industrial or nu-metal track. It isn't a track from the late-90s punk revival. It isn't techno, either.
Give up? It's LIVIN' LA VIDA LOCA BY RICKY MARTIN, still recognized as one of the "loudest" recorded songs ever.
Just to give some perspective on the whole thing, here's a track by pioneer noise musician Merzbow:
If you couldn't get through that, I don't blame you. It's not for everybody and was only presented as an example. This is the raw waveform of the track in the video-
Notice how similar it looks to the Ricky Martin track? Wrap your head around that for a second...
Chances are pretty good that most of you didn't go to audio engineering school. Chances are also pretty good, however, that you've been on the internet a few times. So let's talk for a moment about internet etiquette and proper grammar.
(I promise this has a point).
We all have this friend on Facebook. You know the one:
Seriously, this exact conversation goes on every couple hours on Facebook.
The ones that TYPE IN ALL CAPS NO MATTER WHAT IS GOING ON AND SOMETIMES THEY DONT EVEN USE PUNCTUATIONOREVENRUNWORDSTOGETHER okay I'll stop now. When they type something out like OMY GOD I'M GONNA DIE, you're never sure whether they got bad news from the doctor or their favorite show got cancelled.
But enough about Facebook, let's go back to that AC/DC waveform again.
The line through the middle of that is zero. Silence. Think of it as the space between words. The little green peaks that go outwards from the center to the halfway point, that's where all the guitar and vocals and melody usually hang out. You can think of them as lowercase letters, and they make up the most of the area of the waveform the same way lowercase letters make up most of the area of this sentence. Those stacatto peaks that go all the way out are the kick drum and cymbals, the genuinely loud stuff that keeps the rhythm going. The capital letters in the paragraph, if you will.
All that area in the black is the dynamic range, also called headroom.
And this is Max Headroom. Thanks Wikipedia Disambiguation!
All that headroom is how you wind up with the punchy, iconic AC/DC intro you're probably involuntarily humming as we speak. As the studio increases the loudness of the track, however, all of a sudden the whole thing is in all caps. The guitar, the vocals, the drums, the Satanic backwards messages, they're all the exact same volume. In short, songs are being engineered to sound like your most annoying internet acquaintances, and the truth is, it works out to the record labels' advantage.
Technically, it's for the same reason you constantly have to scramble to turn down the volume when the dickhead in the cowboy hat and sock puppet comes on hollering about used car deals in the middle of your intense crime drama. The television show has an entire team devoted to sound production, making careful buildups and sound cues to intensify the drama, wheras the car commercial was engineered by the lot owners cousin fresh out of tech school on rented equipment.
In the case of the car commercial, the dynamic range is shot because it's poorly recorded. In the case of the phenomenon people are now referring to as the Loudness War, the dynamic range is being decreased intentionally.
It goes back to the days of jukeboxes, when record companies started noticing that people paid more attention to the louder records than the quieter ones. The same thought process is applied to platforms like radio where songs compete head to head. That car commercial might have been obnoxious, but for good or bad it caught your attention.
And since so much music is played over shitty speakers and earbuds, producers are taking into consideration making sure their tracks sound good over them.
The saddest (or funniest, depending on how you look at it) aspect of this is when artists re-release tracks now, they get a similar treatment. Audiophiles everywhere are pulling at their beards in frustration as record companies take classic tracks, ruin them (clipping off irreplaceable chunks of the recording's audio spectrum) and then resell them as the REMASTERED version.