The last thing that comes to mind when you think “audiophiile” is compressed, streaming internet music services like Pandora, Spotify, and Apple’s new iTunes Radio, but as my buddy Steve Guttenberg points out in a new post at his Audiophiliac blog, the latter could very well put the kibosh on a nasty industry practice that we fussier listeners have been complaining about for years: heavy-handed dynamic range compression. The so-called Loudness Wars have plagued popular music releases for the past few decades, resulting in a disastrous Red Queen’s race in which every new recording is mixed louder than the one before it, and where everything is the loudest thing in the mix, in an attempt to stand out in the crowded music market. Because of these Loudness Wars, modern recordings have a mere fraction of the dynamic range of their classic forebears, and it’s the reason that most CDs sound crappy compared to their equivalent LP releases, despite the fact that the Compact Disc format has more resolution, less noise, and yes, vastly more potential dynamic range.
So how on earth could iTunes Radio reverse this trend? As Steve points out in his piece, Apple’s Sound Check level normalizing technology is turned on by default in iTunes Radio, and unlike the songs saved in your library, it can’t be turned off. According to recording engineer Bob Katz, that could (and should) encourage engineers to lay off the draconian dynamic range compression.
Why? Because with Sound Check engaged, those songs that are dynamically compressed to sound louder than the competition don’t actually sound any louder. If anything, they just sound flatter, less punchy, less lifelike. In other words, even the most casual listeners will hear all of the deleterious effects that we audiophiles have been bitching about for some time now.
Ian Shepherd explains in this video how Spotify’s volume normalization technology has the same effect.
Of course, iTunes Radio’s ability to have such an impact on the recording industry depends entirely upon its popularity, but if the numbers thus far are any indication, the service stands to be quite influential, indeed.
From Steve’s piece:
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.”