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Tuesday, November 12, 2013

The Beginning Of The End Of The Loudness Wars

Loudness Wars image
One of the cooler aspects of iTunes Radio is that it very well may be the beginning of the end to the loudness wars. For those of you too young to remember, the loudness wars started back in the 60s when producers began to perceive that if a song played on a radio was louder than the one before or after it, it seemed to sound better and people responded more. As a result, they kept on asking the mastering engineer to make their records as loud as possible (check out this post on hypercompression).

In the vinyl world, there was a physical limitation on how loud a record could be cut. Cut it too loud and the stylus would jump out of the record groove and the customer would return it. That all changed with music's entry into digital and the then-new look ahead digital limiters, which were capable of loudness levels that were unheard of just a few years before.

Now we've gotten to the point were some clients don't even care if there are overloads and distortion on the mastered track, as long as it's as loud as possible. Mastering engineers and mix engineers hate this, of course, but producers and record labels demand it, so the search for more perceived level has continued unabated. Until now.

iTunes Radio now includes a new Sound Check algorithm, which limits the volume level of all tracks. In other words, it lifts the level of the quiet tracks and lowers the level of louder ones so they're all the same. What makes this a threat to hypercompression is the fact that Sound Check can't be defeated by the listener, the mastering engineer, the producer or the record label. What's more, if a song is dynamically crushed, Sound Check might turn in down in a not exactly pleasing way, causing all parties involved to possibly rethink about going for so much level in the first place.

That said, iTunes Radio hasn't taken over the streaming world yet, and there are dozens of other services that don't use a similar level regulating algorithm. In many ways, it's still business as usual for mastering engineers everywhere, but at least we're seeing progress on this front for the first time. Here's to non-crushed, better sounding dynamic masters everywhere!

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Gian Nicola Beraldo said...

Hi Bobby,
thank you for your post!
I have bought you Mastering with tRacks, and I have used TRackS in the past. What I really liked was the "perceived loudness". Now, what Sound Check does? Does it normalize the track? Does it consider the perceived loudness? Really sorry Bobby, I didn't understand how does this algoithm works and how it could be stop the loudness war.
I am wondering how it could level those two songs:
beautiful day by Bublè

and Blurred Lines

The only way to make them play loud similarly, is lowering the Bublè song by nomalizing it.
I hope I am clear enough.
All your advices is most welcome!
Gian Nicola

Jef Knight said...

I've suspected for some time now that Youtube is also doing something like this. My rescent vids are all slightly different volumes, but not on Youtube. I've also noticed that most vids are pretty even in volume, with the exception of "pro" vids which are noticably louder.

I think it'll take a while for mix engineers to stop over-compressing tracks, however because of client-driven desires for big, squashed loudness.

Personally, I dislike the sound of compression, mostly. Dynamics!

Bobby Owsinski said...

No one except Apple knows exactly how it works since it's a proprietary algorithm, Gian. An Apple rep showed it to me a few months ago and it does indeed work well on a wide range of song levels.

It works in the background of iTunes Radio and is not something that you can tweak. There may be very small differences between songs, but not something that the average person is aware of for the most part.

Sound Check is also available on iTunes in the preferences under Playback.

Rain San Martin said...

Please let this be! I made a conscious choice to release my last album at the same compression levels used in the 1980's, as I believed in my gut that highly compressed tracks were only a fad.

Unknown said...

Let's hope more artists and engineers will release two versions like NIN Hesitation Marks! I think it gives you the chance to hear both versions and select which one is appropriate for the environment you listen in.

Cheers! Great Post!

Peter Saverman said...

Spotty dies this as well. Love that feature!

BigBreakMusic said...

Awesome! It would be great if this carried over into LIVE sound as well. As a producer you know that that most important part of vocal song IS the vocal. Yet that is the one thing you can't hear most live sound performances.


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