May 12, 2021

Why Your Station Needs to Lose the Loudness Wars

Part three in a series “How to prepare your station to appeal to a new generation.”

Did you ever work with an engineer who clearly yearned to be the program director?

Well, I have a confession.

I was a program director who secretly yearned to be the engineer.

So, while the Integr8 Research blog normally focuses on helping you pick the right new music, please indulge my passion for the tech side of radio to discuss how that new music sounds on your station.

Recently while watching This Week In Radio Tech, a video blog devoted to everything from the studio mic to the tower lights, a guest had an observation that directly impacts how your station should sound: Today’s younger listeners are growing up listening to music on Spotify with more dynamic range and without as much compression and clipping than on yesterday’s heavily mastered CDs. They’re also hearing spoken word programming on podcasts, which typically present the human voice in its full natural dynamic range.

Teenage Girl with Headphones

What happens when those younger listeners, accustomed to hearing today’s digital audio on smartphones and Bluetooth earbuds, turn on the FM radio in their cars? They’re greeted with audio that’s had every ounce of dynamic range compressed and clipped out of it.

To the ears of these digital natives, the music sounds shrill and distorted. The personalities’ voices sound unnaturally boomy, lacking intimacy and impeding relatability. Several tech consultants are therefore now recommending stations targeting younger listeners minimize their on-air audio processing.

It reminded me of another aspect of the next generation of listeners we discussed in our Generational Music Cycle series, which shows how music tastes change predictably when a new generation becomes the primary consumer or creator of popular music: The Homelander Generation—one name for the generation after the millennials—is about to take over the role of determining what music is popular. They’re slated to bring more sensitivity, inclusion, introspection, and intimacy to popular music.

The base-thumping energy that made Honda Civics sound like dance floors made sense for Pitbull and DJ Snake, but not so much for the next Olivia Rodrigo.

“But wait,” those tech-savvy programmers among you note, “Radio needs to transmit the highest possible audio level to maximize signal coverage and minimize interference noise!”

Correct: The physics of FM and AM radio do not change. Over the last half century, however, we’ve gone far beyond maximizing modulation to engaging in a war for which station sounds loudest on the dial.

Analog AM/FM radio in a 1980 Datsun 200SX

Back when radios still had dials, listeners spinning that dial were most likely to stop on stations that sounded the loudest. encouraging stations to consistently one up one another for the loudest sound on the dial.

By the 1980s, the Loudness Wars were in full force, with Z100 New York’s engineer Frank Foti famously firing the first shot by sculpting a sound some coined The Voice of God.

Meanwhile, music buyers wondered why songs sounded different on the record then they sounded on the radio. When CDs replaced LPs, record labels used radio’s tricks to make CDs sound louder and louder.

The loudness warm came to a head with the 2008 release of Metalica’s “Death Magnetic” CD.

“The CD version on the bottom has been heavily compressed, limited and/or clipped, and sounds massively distorted as a result,” notes mastering engineer Ian Shepherd in Wired Magazine, “For the first time, however, listeners also could hear the album on Guitar Hero, which used audio without the final mastering compression. “The CD is 10 dB louder than the Guitar Hero version, which sounds about twice as loud to the ear. That’s some wicked compression.”

Death Magnetic CD loudness

Visualization of Metalica’s Death Magnetic showing extreme dynamic range compression and heavy clipping (bottom) compared to the more natural sounding version on Guitar Hero (top).

Record companies—once again noting customer preferences—reversed course: They began backing off aggressive loudness, Today, producers master music for the best experience of streaming audio, not to emulate highly compressed FM radio’s sound.

Somehow, radio missed the memo.

Touchscreen HD Radio in car

Most stations with formats targeting younger listeners still squeeze and clip every decibel of dynamic range out of their audio to achieve loudness supremacy, even though its been decades since digitally tuned radios eliminated the competitive advantage of being the loudest sounding station on the dial.

It doesn’t have to be this way: Today’s smart digital audio processing can maximize modulation for the greatest signal coverage and least noise, while also sounding more natural and giving music and voice the dynamic range to breathe.

Omnia SST Audio Processing Software

Modern audio processing, such as the Omnia SST software-based audio processor, can maximize modulation without the crunchy distorted sound of overly compressed audio. (Courtesy of The Telos Alliance)

But don’t take my engineering wannabe word for it.

Telos Alliance President and maker of Omnia audio processors Frank Foti offers expert advice on how stations can back off aggressive processing to avoid clipping treble frequencies and to reduce the bass clipping that distorts the entire sound.

Yes, that’s the same Frank Foti who used his tools to launch The Loudness Wars of the 1980s. He’s now advising you how to use his tools to call a truce.


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