With the pop music business having become very competitive, a myth arose among producers and record companies that the way to get one’s record to stand out (in the competition for airplay) was to make it as loud as possible. Since the loudness of a LP or single is subject to a the physical limitations of the medium, the way to make a record, especially a 45 rpm single, louder was to compress it heavily, much as commercial radio stations do to sound loud on the air. Some rock may not sound bad heavily compressed — the Beatles and their producer George Martin were able to use compression artistically.
First, let’s backtrack a bit. Vinyl LPs have a number of physical limitations, owing to the actual mechanics of making records. An LP is literally cut from a master disk, usually made of lacquer, or sometimes of metal. Cutting an LP is a constant compromise between level (volume), playing time, trackability and residual surface noise. Too much level and grooves will overlap and cause a skip. The more playing time per side, the lower the maximum available level. A really good mastering engineer, whose job it was actually to cut the master disk, would develop a reputation for the ability to take a master tape and translate that into the best compromise the physics of an LP would permit. Sometimes that would mean using a “compressor” to reduce the dynamic range, bringing down the loudest peaks and raising the volume of softer passages. Mastering engineers also would prepare the master tape for cassette duplication, usually fixing the level and equalization of the master, and often also adding some compression to make up for a cassette’s limited dynamic range.
So in the hope someone takes notice, I’ll continue to complain whenever good music on CD is degraded by excessive compression.
So in my own small way, I’ll add my voice to those in the professional audio business who are starting to complain about this sonic cheapening of music. With 20-bit bit-mapping technologies and ultimately the 24-bit potential of the DVD medium, the future dynamic range potential of CD is very bright. Why then, is the record business throwing away 95% of the potential of even today’s 16-bit technology in the loudness fallacy?
The fallacy that seems to have become pervasive among many people in the pop music recording field, especially among record companies, is that if a CD is pushing the absolute digital max it will somehow be louder or better on the air and presumably win more airplay, and thus sell more copies to the public. This is not true at all. Compressing a CD will contribute to on-air loudness almost unnoticeably. Radio people have the brains to turn up a CD that’s recorded at a normal level, and broadcast stations’ existing compressors will even everything out anyway. The only thing that is accomplished is messing up the dynamic range for those who pay their good money for CDs, “squashing” the life out of any acoustic instruments in the mix, and increasing listener fatigue.
(c) Copyright 1997, 1999 George D. Graham All rights reseved.
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One would think with the ability of the CD to deliver an accurate representation of the master tape, that mastering engineers would become an endangered species. However the skills of mastering engineers can be invaluable in taking a master that might consist of different songs recorded in different studios putting them together into a sonically consistent continuum. Also, experienced mastering engineers can “tweak” masters tapes to improve the sound to play well in a variety of listening situations.
My CD player has a digital level display, and I am also able to take the digital output of a CD and run it into a computer editing system allowing statistical study of audio levels, and I am constantly appalled at how many CDs spent most of their time in the top 3-4 db of the 90 db available, with absolute digital maximum level being reached very frequently — sometimes on every beat. Sophisticated digital compressors alleviate the all the horrible distortion that would normally happen from hitting the digital “brick wall,” but nuances and the “airy” quality of the recording are murdered.
In the audio business, there is something of a chasm between broadcast audio engineers and recording engineers. Folks from one camp don’t seem to know a lot about the practices and mindset of the other. I guess I’m lucky to work on both sides of the fence — making music recordings for broadcast and then hearing just how they sound on the air. Every broadcast station already uses compression on the air. There is a legal limit, as regulated and monitored by the FCC, to the loudness of sound on the air. So to keep a signal loud enough not to be lost in fading, and static, compression, which varies by station and format, is inevitably used.
Compre cd In my album reviews, I often complain about audio compression on compact discs. Here’s an explanation of what I am talking about and why I think it’s bad. First of all, let me
Since the early days of music media, “loud” has equated to “sells more,” at least in the minds of many record executives and artists. They always wanted their album to be a little louder, in the hopes that it would sell better. After all, louder is better, right? (Turns out, it is; check out this article for more)
On a more modern scale, musicians have used the volume of different instruments as one of the ways to separate them in the song. The crack of a rimshot, or the sudden blast from a guitar is almost entirely missing from modern recordings. Instead, most modern recordings are a muddled mush of sound.
Once the CD took hold as the definitive music medium, engineers realized that even though there was a hard maximum volume level of digital, it wasn’t difficult to push the average level of the music closer to this maximum.
There are places for dynamic range compression. During the recording process, compressing individual instruments can be a powerful way to alter its sound toward what the artist/producer wants. But that’s per instrument. What we’re talking about is full-track DRC.
Most people listen to music on their iPods and computers. If a song is slightly quieter, what do you do? You turn it up, right? Have you ever thought a song was too quiet? I never have.
Dynamic range compression is ruining music.
For centuries, dynamic range has been one of the many tools used by musicians to evoke emotion: from the subtle volume swell to build tension to the powerful climatic fortissimo that brings down the house.
From the biggest pop stars to the beloved indie rockers, music from nearly every artist is affected.
Take, for example, if you listen to a classical CD or radio station in your car, you’ll constantly adjust the volume knob. This is because there are quiet passages, and loud passages. To be honest, it’s kinda annoying. Even given the steering-wheel-based volume controls of many cars, it’s still a hassle to constantly adjust the radio. So a mild amount of DRC can be helpful. Most music doesn’t have classical’s huge dynamic range, though, so large amounts of DRC aren’t really necessary. And that’s the problem.
Dynamic range compression is ruining music.