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The volume level wars really began way back in the vinyl era of the '50s, when it was discovered that if a record played louder than the others on the radio, the listeners will perceive it to be better sounding and make it easier to become a hit as a result. Since then, it's been the job of the mastering engineer to make any song intended for distribution medium like radio as loud as the competition and of course this also applies to situations other than the radio as well, take the iPod, CD changer, or digital music stream. Most artist, producers, and labels certainly don't want one of their releases to play softer than their competitors, because of the perception that it doesn't sound as good if it's not as loud, which is not necessarily the truth. Take a listen to these two song examples.
(music playing) Your ear naturally gravitates to the louder one. Now all the listener has to do is turn the volume control up to make them sound the same, but that usually doesn't happen, that's why it's up to the mastering engineer to at least get the level in the same ballpark. Take a listen now.
(music playing) Competitive level is important if your songs are going to be played against other mastered songs.
Trying to squeeze every ounce of level out of a track to make it as loud as the next one is a lot harder than it seems, and that's where the art of mastering comes in. That said, sometimes all you have to do is get it in the ballpark.
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