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The Loudness War: When Will it End and Will Quality Win Out?

How the rise of tablets and mobile devices transform the way music is heard.

“Turn that music down!” is no longer a phrase reserved for grumpy grandparents and other curmudgeons. It turns out the music being released today really is louder than ever, a phenomenon sparking a cultural debate known as the Loudness War.

An estimated 42 percent of American adults now own tablets, 58 percent own smartphones and roughly half of those owners report that they use their devices to listen to music.

With consumers able to access more songs than ever thanks to this widespread use of handheld devices, modern recording mixers and engineers feel pressure to differentiate their files from the multitude of others.

“Given the fact that it is easy for people to compare one audio file to another, you always want your product to stand out,” said acclaimed record producer Mark J. Feist, who has worked with such pop titans as Beyoncé, Celine Dion and Mary J Blige.

“All gadgets have speakers nowadays, from cell phones to watches to computers to headphones to Bluetooth speakers that are small and monophonic,”” he said. “It is important that records are competitive, clean and loud on any reference speaker they are played.”

To achieve that loudness, engineers turn to audio compression. By condensing digital music files to fit within predetermined aural ranges — making the quiet parts louder and the loud parts quieter — sound engineers are able to increase each track’s overall volume.

In the process of doing so, however, they risk sacrificing the clarity and nuances of the original file.

Unfortunately, many of today’s younger music fans have spent their whole lives listening to compressed music files. Therefore, they don’t even know that there is a battle being waged over audio compression or understand exactly what is being debated with the loudness war.

As Snoop Dogg says in “The Distortion of Sound,” a 2014 documentary on the subject of audio compression, “The listener doesn’t know, so he doesn’t care. He doesn’t even know that [the music] could sound better.”

Feist agrees that consumers aren’t fully aware of what’s going on with audio compression. “The consumer doesn’t understand how or why something is louder than the other, but they do notice when something is softer than the other, and most of the time, that makes people think the softer audio file is not as good a song as the louder one.”

The music industry is aware, however, and thus several solutions have recently emerged to combat this problem of rampant audio compression.

In September 2013, Nine Inch Nails released two versions of the album “Hesitation Marks”: a standard loud version and an audiophile-mastered version.

“The audiophile mastered version highlights the mixes as they are without compromising the dynamics and low end, and not being concerned about how ‘loud’ the album would be,” Mastering Engineer Tom Baker stated.

“The goal was to simply allow the mixes to retain the spatial relationship between instruments and the robust, grandiose sound.”

As iQ reported earlier this summer, Neil Young launched a very successful Kickstarter campaign this year to fund his PonoPlayer. The FLAC (Free Lossless Audio Codec) files played by this portable music player are still compressed, but unlike MP3 or AAC files, FLAC files retain all of a recording’s original data.

This allows consumers to experience studio master-quality digital music at the highest audio fidelity possible, with the same convenience offered by standard portable MP3 players.

The first of these triangular-prism-shaped PonoPlayers are set to ship in October, but if you’re a music fan looking for a superior listening experience right now, there’s also Clari-Fi.

Created by global audio and technology group Harman (the company behind “The Distortion of Sound” documentary) and currently featured exclusively in Sprint’s HTC One M8 smartphone and JBL Authentics Series wireless home entertainment sound systems, Clari-Fi software analyzes and improves the audio quality of compressed music sources in real time.

As a result, the artistic details lost via MP3, AAC, satellite radio or playback and streaming music services are restored. Unwanted effects, such as echo and distortion, are removed, while high-frequency sounds like cymbals return to their original crispness.

Harman isn’t the only company attempting to combat overly compressed audio files using software. In an interview with CNET last fall, mastering and recording engineer Bob Katz hailed Apple’s Sound Check as “the beginning of the end” of the loudness war.

This setting for iTunes Radio, iPods and iTunes on phones and computers provides listeners with a more consistent volume level from one track to the next, regardless of the song’s level of compression.

If the ability to capture listeners’ attention via volume is taken away from mixers and engineers, Katz posits that record labels will once again begin releasing songs with their original dynamics intact.

Of course, not everyone owns JBL Authentics or listens to music primarily via iTunes, so Clari-Fi and Sound Check are currently only remedying the problem of excessive audio compression for a limited set of consumers.

According to Feist, the overall solution to the problem posed by the loudness war is changing the bit rates of final audio files to a higher format than 16 bit.

“We have amazing digital technology to record the masters, using multi-track programs like Avid Pro-Tools, and record most of the finished product in 32 bit at 48k, yet because of the CD format, we dither our final master down to 16 bit,” he said. “This is eliminating so much of the headroom, which would make compression cleaner and ultimately make the audio sound ever better and even louder. I’m all about pushing records to very loud sonic levels but without compression that destroys the depth, fidelity and width of the final mastered stereo file.”

Hopefully documentaries like “The Distortion of Sound,” and innovations like “Hesitation Marks,” Clari-Fi, the Pono Player, and Sound Check will shed further light on the issue of audio compression, which is the first step to finding an ultimate solution.

After all, before the loudness war can be won, consumers need to open their ears and decide if higher-quality audio is worth fighting for.

Images courtesy of Harman.

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