Popular Music

Articles

Imperfect sound forever: loudness wars, listening formations and the history of sound reproduction

Kyle Devine

ERC Music and Digitisation Research Group, Faculty of Music, University of Oxford, Suite 5, Littlegate House, 16/17 St Ebbes, OX1 1PT, UK E-mail: kyle.devine@music.ox.ac.uk

Abstract

The purpose of this paper is to provide some historical perspective on the so-called loudness war. Critics of the loudness war maintain that the average volume level of popular music recordings has increased dramatically since the proliferation of digital technology in the 1980s, and that this increase has had detrimental effects on sound quality and the listening experience. My point is not to weigh in on this debate, but to suggest that the issue of loudness in sound recording and playback can be traced back much earlier than the 1980s. In fact, loudness has been a source of pleasure, a target of criticism, and an engine of technological change since the very earliest days of commercial sound reproduction. Looking at the period between the turn-of-the-century format feud and the arrival of electrical amplification in the 1920s, I situate the loudness war within a longer historical trajectory, and demonstrate a variety of ways in which loudness and volume have been controversial issues in – and constitutive elements of – the history of sound reproduction. I suggest that the loudness war can be understood in relation to a broader cultural history of volume.

Kyle Devine is project administrator for the ERC Music and Digitisation Research Group and a teaching tutor at the University of Oxford. His work on popular music, music sociology and sound studies has appeared in places such as the Scottish Music Review, the Canadian Journal of Sociology and the Grove Dictionary of American Music (2nd edition). With Paul Théberge and Tom Everrett, he is writing and editing a book on the history and cultural significance of stereophonic sound.