Bob Katz on The Loudness Wars

Bob Katz is a mastering engineer with an impressively long CV. Here, he explains what “The Loudness War” is, how it came about and why, and what it’s going to take to get out of this aural mess we’ve been dumped into.

Check it out — Loudness War: Peace is Almost Here!

The upshot? Overcompressed masters sound wimpy, small and distorted. In short, they suck.

Music tracks are generally recorded with over 20 dB of “naturally available headroom”. That is, the loudest and quietest passages in any given track can vary plus/minus 20dB (this is a LOT, as every 6dB difference represents about 2x increase or decrease in apparent volume). This “natural” sounding music then has the living crap compressed out of it (kind of like cooking your steak until it’s 200 degrees — it’s dry and tough, with all traces of natural juicy flavor completely removed).

Why? Well, lots of reasons. Mainly, most current music is mastered (processed post-recording) so that it sounds “good” on an iPod or car stereo — that is, in an environment where “naturally quiet” passages would be totally lost. Everything is therefore compressed so that the differences between the loudest and the quietest passages get reduced. It’s then easier to hear the entirety of the track in less than pristine conditions. That’s good, right? So, if a little is good, a lot is … well … a lot. Two tracks, played side by side — the louder one might sound a bit better. Whoops. Now we’ve got a race. And in that race, dynamic swings, acoustic build up and explosive impact have all been sacrificed so that the entire track becomes louder … and of course it’s even easier to hear on your crappy iPod earbuds as you walk through an airport or on your daily drive through a stop-and-go rush hour.

Interestingly, this is also exactly what advertisers have done to the audio track on their commercials, which is why cutting away from the football game to a commercial causes the volume to jump up a lot (PAY ATTENTION!).

Now, 10 years after the iPod, louder is better and compression is king. Clients (of a mastering engineer) routinely request their music be made to sound “louder” — louder on the radio, louder on the iPod, louder in the car — so that it “pops” more and gets noticed more. And, presumably, it’ll get bought more.

Whatever. The resulting sound quality of the average audio track these days is a hash of the original music. If you want to hear music with good sound quality, apparently, you have to hear it live — before the “artist” and their producer forces an audio mastering engineer to commit sonic murder on their work.

Just as a recap — recorded music starts with a 20dB of headroom. What we are hearing these days — like the latest from Tom Waits, for example — has less than 6dB. Every track sounds pretty much like every other: loud.

It’s not your imagination. Music today sucks. I blame Steve Jobs.

What? Too soon?