With each passing year since the advent of CDs and mp3s, artists have turned up the volume. Digital recording now allows sound to be louder overall without introducing audible background static and tape hiss, so audio engineers often elevate the volume of a song to the recordable limit through a handful of brute-force methods—dynamic range compression, limiting, brickwall limiting, and clipping—that sacrifice quality and fidelity for loudness.
This escalation over time has come to be known as the “loudness wars.” Most audiophiles hate it. Numerous petitions and online campaigns have pleaded for artists and engineers to avoid techniques that destroy the dynamic range of sound, saying it denudes music of its impact and emotion. When everything is loud, nothing is loud, the argument goes, and the results exhaust and agitate listeners. Bob Dylan referred to it as the dissolution of music into static.
At the Audio Engineering Society Convention in New York last month, the mastering engineer Bob Katz declared that iTunes’s new SoundCheck technology would put an end to the loudness wars once and for all. SoundCheck algorithmically adjusts excessively loud tracks to a more reasonable level based on average volume. While software like this has existed for some time, having iTunes enable it by default since version 11.1.1 ostensibly is a huge step towards eliminating the perceived benefits of compression across the industry. The market incentive towards loudness would be gone.