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Monday, June 18, 2012

Top 10 Reasons Why Music Is Compressed

audio compression image from Bobby Owsinski's Big Picture production blog
Here's a list I love from Steve Guttenberg, the audio reporter over on the CNET blog. It's the top 10 reasons why music is compressed today. As you'll see, there are a lot of things in the list that makes sense.

With all the talk about hypercompression (over-compression), we tend to forget that people really do like the sound of compression. It's just when it's used to excess that engineers and listeners alike take offense. That said, take a look at the top 10 list.

No. 10: Compression is part of the sound of contemporary music. Completely uncompressed music would sound lifeless and boring to most listeners. They crave more energy than unprocessed sound offers.
No. 9: Louder music, even if it's just slightly louder, almost always sounds better than quieter music.
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.
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.
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.
No. 5: Engineers like using different types of compression to create new sounds to catch the ear. There's nothing wrong with that.
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.
No. 3: If people really didn't like compression, they would stop buying/listening to compressed music (see No. 1).
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.
No. 1: Audiophiles like to complain about compressed music, but they actually prefer it.

What do you think? Did he miss any? Is he off the mark?


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Unknown said...

Hey Bobby, I know that a several folks would take issue with a number of these assertions, and especially #1 (which is contrary to recent opinion). For a good counterpoint on the issue of compression and its over-use, check out mastering engineer Ian Shepherd (one of the founders of Dynamic Range Day) at Production Advice:

Gary Cable
AuraTone Productions
Kelowna, CANADA

Jef Knight said...

The only one you left out was from an engineers pov: compression helps instruments fit together better in the mix.

I think with audiophiles the dream of greater dynamic range in songs that often don't have much of that inherent in them. Like most radio music. But I think they also dream of a $450 Volume Knob that gives off better "transparency" in the music. ;)


Bobby Owsinski said...

If you take notice, it's not my list, and I didn't say that I personally agreed with all of them either. I just found it interesting enough to repost.

synthetic said...

Thriller used very little compression and it was pretty popular at the time.

Clark Sorley said...

When I started recording we had no compressors. Nor was there anything like mastering as it’s known today. What got mixed to ¼ inch tape was pretty much it. When I went to the cutting rooms at Abbey Road and Trident in London to “master” it was only in a supervisory role as nothing much was done to the work beyond a little EQ. That was how our records went on to the market and of course they do sound quiet compared to current standards.

Yes they would have used some compression on Thriller though probably not much on the overall mix thus it was a quiet record relatively speaking. So were all Quincy’s masterpieces from the period. Same with Earth Wind and Fire’s releases. But you go forward and lift the speakers a notch or two and there, in all their majesty, you hear some of the greatest productions ever made low level or not. Today I was listening to “Any Love” - the Q. with Chaka Khan - full throttle on the studio monitors and wondered if a finer produced record would ever be made again.

Still, alongside contemporary recordings the old music can appear a bit lame. And although we’re only talking relative volumes, none of us wants our work to come across weak in any circumstance. Like it or not we have to participate in the quest for loudness to some extent. Loudness has that commanding quality as has been said. Compressors are the tools that help create the illusion.

Personally I like them in their myriad forms and wouldn’t fancy going back to the days when we worked without them. It was a real challenge then to get everything sitting forward in the mix, riding faders virtually ever bar of the way sometimes, without automation, hence the legendary many hands on the deck almost a performance in its own right.

Anonymous said...

Compression is flattering to less competent players.

A skilled musician can play with very even dynamics - without unintentional loud or soft notes. Weak players often face difficulty in achieving an even, consistent volume,particularly in repeated, exposed passages.

Compression can also compensate for instruments with inconsistent voicing - particularly basses, which can have "dead" or unduly resonant notes.

So on individual tracks, compression makes musicians sound more competent and reduces anomalies in their equipment.

raphael said...

I think he's completely wrong. Compression (meaning downward compression) means making loud passages softer. This means LESS impact, LESS kick, not more.
Sounds jump at you if contrasted enough.
The over-eagerness to please, to make your music hearable under any circumstance, is what commoditised music. If people have to siot down and be quiet to listen, they'd value music more.
I think you we use compression because everybody else does and it sounds current and cool.
If it would be about sonics or impact we'll back way off on those threshold pots.

Anonymous said...

Im off to go buy a compressor pedal! Lol

Mahendran said...

Thanks for sharing.

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