Jun 21, 2012
This post is a reply to an article on CNET by Steve Guttenberg, claiming to list the “Top 10 reasons why music is compressed”. Frankly, Steve should know better.
The article was brought to my attention by Bobby Owsinski on his blog, who although he says he doesn’t necessarily agree with all the points, does say he “loves” the list, and that “there are a lot of things in the list that makes sense”.
Actually, there aren’t really that many – Bobby, you should know better, too : )
Let’s look at what Steve says are the Top 10 Reasons Music is Compressed:
No. 10: Compression is part of the sound of contemporary music.
Yup, couldn’t agree more. I’ve said so myself, often – so far so good.
No. 9: Louder music, even if it’s just slightly louder, almost always sounds better than quieter music
Well yes… if you have enough headroom. The Fletcher-Munsen effect tells us that we’ll hear something slightly louder as having a little more bass and treble, and think it sounds better as a result.
This only works until you hit the limits of the headroom in your replay system, though.
When you run out of headroom, you get clipping. In analogue circuits mild clipping can often have a harmless or even positive effect on the music – in digital systems mild clipping can be hard to hear.
But heavier clipping soon starts sounding nasty – especially in digital – and speaker clipping is routinely used as an aggressive technique for interrogating prisoners. ‘Nuf said.
There’s a difference between simply turning something up using the volume control, and compressing it more and more heavily to boost the level on the CD in the mistaken belief that this will make it sound better.
This misconception is what got us into the current mess in the first place !
No. 8: Most music is listened to in the background to accompany some other activity like working, reading exercising, driving, or cooking. When you’re doing something else, uncompressed music’s constantly shifting volume level would be an annoyance.
Yes. But of course the question is, how far do you take this ?
I tried to mow my lawn while listening to my iPod last week, and it didn’t work out so well. Should music be compressed for mowing lawns to, just for the few fools who want to do it ? No, they should wear inner-ear earbuds that block out the noise instead !
There’s a limit to how far we want to take this “compensating for crappy listening environments” stuff, and personally I think that sweet spot was left behind long ago – somewhere back around 1994.
No. 7: When listening in shuffle mode, there’s a good chance you’ll skip over the quieter songs to get to the next tune. Record producers live in fear of a mix that’s too quiet.
Well, actually producers do live in fear of the “skip” button, but it’s a completely misguided and un-necessary fear.
Jack White’s “Blunderbuss” got to Number 1 in the Billboard charts, despite being (by today’s standards) very dynamic. And it hasn’t affected the success of recent albums by Bjork, Elbow, Bon Iver, Laura Marling, Massive Attack, Neil Young, Mumford & Sons and more…
All of this is going away soon, anyway. Playback volumes are becoming more and more standardised – in broadcast, on mp3 players, online (eg. Spotify) and elsewhere. It won’t be long before the “squashedness” of your music will be completely inaudible to the average listener – if it isn’t already !
No. 6: In the days before CD mastering, engineers needed to boost the quietest sounds to keep them above the LP’s noise floor, and reduce the loudest sounds volume level to keep the “needle” in the groove. Digital didn’t have those problems, but we still wound up with CDs that have less soft-to-loud dynamic range than LPs.
Ooh, interesting. That paragraph has changed since I originally read it. It used to say that CDs have less dynamic range than vinyl, which is just plain wrong. It’s been corrected, now – fair enough.
But now all it says is “we still wound up with CDs that have less soft-to-loud dynamic range than LPs” – proving what, exactly ? We “ended up” with them because the whole insanity of the loudness wars, not because people like compression.
Most people who’ve heard comparisons like this one of CD versus more dynamic vinyl masters either can’t tell the difference or prefer the bigger range of the masters-for-vinyl. Neither group can reasonably be said to prefer the squashed versions.
No. 5: Engineers like using different types of compression to create new sounds to catch the ear. There’s nothing wrong with that.
Very true ! But that’s not why massive compression is being used in the vast majority of cases these days - it’s because of fear and “keeping-up-with-the-Joneses” syndrome, not in order to be creative or different.
No. 4: People so rarely listen to music in quiet surroundings, they need compression to keep music loud enough to be heard over the noise.
Yes, but this is just repeating No. 8, and the answer is the same, too – some compression is necessary and A Good Thing. There’s a sweet spot, though, and Too Much is Worse.
We were all happy listening to music on a Walkman back in the 80s, and both players and headphones are better these days – why do we sudddenly need way more compression than we did back then to mask the background noise ?
No. 3: If people really didn’t like compression, they would stop buying/listening to compressed music (see No. 1)
That’s like saying “because people put up with all that ridiculous reverb in the 80s, they must have liked it.” People buy music, not production techniques – those just enhance or diminish our enjoyment of it.
Over 20,000 people complained about the sound of Metallica’s uber-squashed “Death Magnetic”, but fans loved the tunes all the same, so very few people took it back. (Although many created their own, less compressed versions to listen to because they hated the sound so much.)
The desire to hear new, good music is stronger than the annoyance factor of modern production trends.
No. 2: People mistake compression for dynamics; when all the sounds are loud and “punchy,” it’s called “dynamic.” Naturally dynamic music lacks the kick of a compressed mix.
The first sentence is true – it happens all the time in mastering sessions. The second sentence is a massive over-simplification, though. Compression can be used to add punch, warmth and power to a mix – or it can end up sucking the life out of it.
The trick is to find the sweet spot – the perfect balancing line of dynamics and compression control to give the best sound.
But these days most music is so far over that line that – to quote Joey from Friends – “the line is just a dot to you !”
No. 1: Audiophiles like to complain about compressed music, but they actually prefer it
Oh, really ? Which audiophiles are those, then ?
This is just flame-bait, but there’s a serious point to be made.
Compression isn’t a one-off thing – it comes in infinite varieties !
You can have lots of compression, or a little compression, or limiting (which is a special type of compression); you can have clean, transparent compression or heavy, saturated, distorted compression; you can have upwards and downwards compression, analogue or digital, parallel or serial…
Bottom line ?
These are excuses, not reasons – and most of them are fatally flawed.
Five of Steve’s points have some truth in them, but only one of those tells the whole story. The others quickly fall apart under closer inspection.
Yes, compression is an essential production tool, and a vital part of most modern music production.
Yes, people like the sound of compression, done well, creatively, in the sweet spot for the material.
But none of this means that people want the current squashed-flat-as-a-pancake, one-size-fits-all distorted-mush-sound that so much music these days is forced into.
If you’d like a great introduction to using compression to make your music sound better, I highly recommend Joe Gilder’s excellent Understanding Compression videos – which you can get for free this week if you decide to sign up for his Production Club, by the way !