There is a scourge infesting your music with its awfulness, and you probably don't even know. It's called compression, and it's compacting your music into a muddled mess.
What started as a useful tool has become an epidemic contributing to the disappearance of decent-sounding music.
From the biggest pop stars to the beloved indie rockers, music from nearly every artist is affected.
Dynamic range compression vs. data compression
While the atrocities committed converting music to MP3s is not to be undersold, what we're talking about here is dynamic range compression (DRC). This is done, most often, during the mastering stage of making an album (the very end) and is done before an audio file gets converted to MP3. Resident audiophile Steve Guttenberg has an article on the difference here.
The easiest way to think of dynamic range compression is making loud stuff quieter, and quiet stuff louder. It's like putting a speed limiter on a car, making sure no car can go faster than 65 mph, but no slower than 45.
The problem is, in an effort to make music as loud as possible, this speed limiter is being set with a max of 65, and a minimum of 64. While this might be a good thing for traffic, it wreaks havoc on 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.
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.
If everything is loud, there's no such thing as "louder." Or as one engineer put it: "When there is no quiet, there can be no loud." There's a level of emotion removed from such de-enhanced recordings. They're that much more artificial, less like musicians playing music.
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.
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.
Loud. Sorry, I meant LOUD!!!
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)
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.
In the early days of CD, maybe just a few rim shots or cymbal crashes would approach max volume. The rest of the audio would sit comfortably below, its intensity following that of the performance, the way the artist intended. In the past 10 years, though, even the quiet passages of any given song would be compressed upward so that the average level was LOUD.
No, really. Why?
The question is, why? Radio stations have long applied their own compression to music, both DRC and time compression (the latter is why songs are higher in pitch on the radio). This started because of the volume differences between albums (similar to the classical music example mentioned above). The problem is, it's gotten out of hand. Once a song is compressed within an inch of its life, you can't compress it more without drastic audio problems like distortion and clipping. Record producers --and even some artists--keep pushing for a little more volume, at the expense of everything else.
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.
And let's be clear; if you're downloading the latest Bieber craptanza, you don't need the artistic crescendos akin to classical music. Nor am I advocating that, but is there a reason why Arcade Fire's Grammy-winning "The Suburbs" has to be mush? Surely it wouldn't hurt for that album to have sound quality as good as the music quality. Dynamic range compression is a lossy compression. You can't get back the dynamic range once it's gone. An album would have to be remastered to get the range back.
The best way to demonstrate the evils of DRC is to hear it. I was going to put some tracks together, but these guys on YouTube have done a far better job than I.
Horrible spelling aside, this video is pretty good, too. Check out the difference in the impact of the drums.
DRC has been around for a long time, and while the practice is as bad as it has ever been, the past few years have seen the beginnings of a backlash by those who notice how bad the music sounds from artists they love.
What are your thoughts? Do you care about compression? Would you be interested in better-recorded music from your favorite artists? With digital distribution the norm, it wouldn't be overly difficult to offer a lesser-compressed version of tracks for fans in the know. Forget high-resolution audio, better-mastered audio might be a nice first step. Who knows, maybe this is one of the reasons why there has been a resurgence of vinyl.