Death to the Loudness Wars?

Over at The Quietus, Nick Southall speaks with mastering engineer Bob Katz about how iTunes Radio may soon put an end to The Loudness Wars. I direct your attention to the article partly because it's a good read and partly because, in hi-fi circles, we tend to think that young people don't care enough about sound quality; this article is a small bit of proof that there are in fact young people who know how to listen. Nick Southall, clearly as obsessed with music and sound as anyone, is two years younger than me. (And, in hi-fi years, I'm a child.)

Here's an especially good bit from Southall's article, Bob Katz speaking:

I just see a gradual opening up of sound quality with new releases, for the better, as soon as producers become aware that iTunes Radio is ‘the great leveler.' It took us 33 years after the invention of the Compact Disc to arrive at a very fucked up point. I think it will only take us five years to return back to sanity, now that iTunes Radio points the way of the future.

For more Southall, click here.

Axiom05's picture

Sound Check/iTunes Radio will only adjust the relative volume levels between recordings. Recordings that are highly compressed will still be highly compressed. Recordings with hard clipping will still have hard clipping. I agree with BK that this leveling of fields, volume-wise, may lead to better mastering as there will be no advantage to making the tracks sound louder. Time will tell...

Glotz's picture

With companies like Sony offering hi-rez with new components available, I think there will be a slow upward tick to industry-wide improvements.  

There will be better backing from equpiment makers, but consumers will invariably demand better over the next few years, as the availability of better recordings (and their outlets) increase.  

Many are affording better headphones, and the rest of the chain won't be ignored forever.  As people purchase better headphones, the appreciation of better recordings will impress them enough to duplicate musical bliss with the rest of their recordings, or at least strive to. It is the same search as audiophiles, just on another level of intensity.  Strangely, we can thank Dr. Dre for that.  

Because coverage of online channels (and the OEM's for equipment) for hi-rez will improve, engineers will invariably have better tools for reproduction, and the propensity to maximize sound quality will benefit as a result. 

The need to compress and louden will die out as more consumers demand better.  The whole of the music-purchasing consumer base tends move as their needs dictate; where we as audiophiles are much smaller catalysts for change.  

dalethorn's picture

I see where yet again Dr. Dre is given credit for something positive. I disagree. I've been using hi-fi headphones longer than Dre or his customers, and I can tell you precisely - to the atom and molecule - what Dre has brought to headphones: A bassier, darker sound across the board that even Sennheiser, Beyerdynamic, Shure, and most (or all) well-known headphone makers are subscribing to. It's as if someone decided that the 1950-1960's "console stereo" sound was the key to bliss and every listening-room-oriented gear maker began tuning for that sound. Dre is about fashion and popularity, like heaps of sugar on breakfast cereals ("...oh the pops are sweeter and the taste is new, they're shot with sugar through and through..."), and just as it took decades for people to get beyond their sugar and tobacco addictions (to name just two egregious examples), it will take a long, long time for the world to recover from the disaster known as 'Beats' and the incalculable damage it has done to high fidelity (as if that concept even survives today).

corrective_unconscious's picture

As a group; there might be some statistical outliers.

The vinyl revival for young people - to the extent it exists - is about a fascination with retro. They aren't playing that vinyl on systems that would reveal any quality difference from even a fairly decent CD, on the whole.

But keep dreaming.

hollowman's picture

Some suggested resources (Katz on loudness ... from the horse's mouth)...

Making reissues (of older releases) louder (and less dynamic) -- as in the case of many recent Greatest Hits CDs, and other "remasters"  -- is something the consumer should be well aware of. In that case, you usually have the orig CD or Lp to fall back on. Or MFSL or Audio Fidelity or other, better mastering-house might remaster w/o loudness.

Loudness in certain modern pop/rock -- as has been often noted (see this YouTube video with Katz) -- is a stylistic choice by the artist/producer. Reminds me of similar stylistic compression used in pop/rock releases of late 60s and early 70s (yes, like modern stuff, back then it was very much loudness envy, or compression vogue, the "in thing" ... analog equip back then was capable of excellent DR, as contained in the classical and jazz titles of the same period).

As JA and others have noted ... loudness war not really an issue with classical and jazz and "audiophile" titles. 

Bottom line: if you like classic rock/pop ... hold on to your old CDs and LPs. The popular forum has  1000s of posts/threads on this issue ... with folks who have done extensive cross comparisons of remasters-vs.orig ... and report their results in their posts. Definitely, check out that forum!

deckeda's picture

1) Vinyl, for new pop/rock titles. They can't be as dynamically compressed as the digital media versions. And so, they aren't. Weird irony, eh?

2) When all hit songs are compressed, iTunes' Sound Check can't do anything "clever" to them to subvert a Loudness War. 

3) Yes Dre deserves credit, because his line opened the floodgates to competitors' showing how headphones should, and could sound. That's how the consumer market works; it's not everyone else's fault Beats sound like crap.


...many AAC masters sound better than the CD because the AAC preserves more of the depth and space from the 24-bit original than the 16-bit CD

-- B. Katz

Wait. What? Aren't CDs also originally sourced from 24-bit masters?

dalethorn's picture

Giving Dre credit is like giving an arsonist credit for urban renewal, just because he targeted a blighted neighborhood.

Recklinghausen's picture

Dalethorm is proposing that urban minority taste in sound reproduction is crass and unrefined. Favoring heavy low end from cheap boom boxes blasting that dark bassy race music. . We all know middle aged white men dictate audio standards. Dale the "urban renewal, arsonists, metaphor is problematic to say to say the least...