I caught up with my old friend, mastering and recording engineer Bob Katz at the Audio Engineering Society convention held last week in NYC. He was there to proclaim an end to the "Loudness Wars," which refers to the overuse of dynamic range compression to flatten the soft-to-loud volume changes that naturally occur in music. Katz was way ahead of the pack in decrying the overzealous use of compression in mastering recordings, he has been in the trenches, fighting the good fight for more than 20 years.
Katz is thrilled that Apple's new streaming music service, iTunes Radio, has Sound Check as the default setting (and cannot be turned off), and he thinks iTunes Radio sounds wonderful. As we asked Katz clarified his stance, he thinks the latest version of iTunes' Sound Check, version 11.1.1, on iTunes Radio, phones, computers and iPods marks the beginning of the end of the loudness wars. Mastering engineers will no longer have to overcompress because Sound Check maintains a more consistent volume level for a Miley Cyrus, Wilco or a Metallica tune on iTunes. You can turn off Sound Check on your computer or phone, but if you turn it on, Sound Check will provide a more consistent volume level from one tune to the next, even if one is maximally compressed, and the next tune has wide, soft-to-loud dynamic range. Sound Check doesn't compress dynamics, it automatically adjusts the volume level from one song to the next.
With iTunes Radio gaining in popularity, Katz hopes record companies will no longer feel a need to squash (compress) dynamics to ensure consistent volume level, which makes it more likely that labels will start to release recordings with their dynamics intact. Which is, after all, the way music sounds in real life. The iTunes Radio/Sound Check "breakthrough" is just the beginning; recordings that are already over compressed will still be over compressed, but on iTunes with Sound Check the heavily compressed songs won't be any louder than the more natural sounding ones. So the payoff, Katz hopes, will come when the engineers start to take full advantage of the technology.
Katz went on to say, "There will be still some skirmishes (in the Loudness Wars), but the main battle has just been won. Producers, engineers and musicians will ultimately discover this news themselves, but journalists and producers can hasten the close of the war, starting right now."
When I reminded Katz that a lot of listeners don't use iTunes, so the Loudness War may still have a few battles yet to be fought, he said, "There's going to be a transition period. We can never fully predict what's going to happen, that's why I set up a forum on my Web site where people can discuss the issue."