InSession: An Open Letter to Steve Jobs

Grammy-winning engineer Nathaniel Kunkel Writes a Fictional Article to Apple's Steve Jobs About Using iTunes Sound Check music application

Steve Jobs
Apple Inc.
1 Infinite Loop
Cupertino, CA 95014

Dear Steve,

Word has it that you are extremely into music (and that you even have a pretty cool stereo setup). You must have noticed one of the most troublesome trends we music lovers are dealing with: the current practice of compressing the living daylights out of our music. The justification used to come from a combination of our competitive nature and the multidisc CD changer, but now it seems it is just a bad habit. Apple has even implemented a feature in iTunes called Sound Check to address the vast average-dynamic-range window of most users' libraries. The feature is almost a necessity given today's musical landscape. Indeed, I use it all the time.

However, the method that is implemented with the current version of iTunes penalizes the dynamic recordings by adding gain and limiting them to match the overly compressed ones. In other words, it normalizes them.

I have an idea that would level the playing field in a super-hi-fi way and end these level wars once and for all. I think you should have iTunes turn down the loud tracks to match the average level of the dynamic ones. I also think the average output level of the application should be dictated by the average level of the quietest song in the library, and that louder recordings should be turned down to match. It should be a suboption of Sound Check and have a maximum adjustment amount. It could be implemented as shown here.

I do not think it should be a compressor/expander like Dolby AC3 can implement. Rather, it should be a straight level offset, more akin to a DTS dialog normalization parameter. The level information of individual songs is already stored in the iTunes library, so it would be really easy to implement, and the software could be dynamically tailored for each user. For instance, if you had a lot of classical music in your library, the level of a compressed rock record could be dropped by as much as 20 dB. Conversely, a user with nothing but speed metal in their library would notice no difference. Either way, the music's dynamic range would be unaltered.

It would be such a service to all of us who love to listen to — and make — big, dynamic albums. With the Apple Lossless Audio Codec and more storage, an iPod is now a high-fidelity music-playback solution. I, for one, sure would love the convenience of Sound Check with an unaltered presentation of my dynamic catalog.

I hope this letter finds you well.

Nathaniel Kunkel
Studio Without Walls, Inc.

Nathaniel Kunkel ( is a Grammy and Emmy Award-winning producer, engineer, and mixer who has worked with Sting, James Taylor, B.B. King, Insane Clown Posse, Lyle Lovett, I-Nine, and comedian Robin Williams.