Is Anyone Else Tired of “In Your Face” Music?

Originally posted  December 30, 2010

Have you ever noticed the volume difference between a current recording and one from 25 or so years ago? It becomes very obvious if you were to play them back to back. Current pop recordings tend to be “in your face” while older recordings have far more dynamic range. So why is this and how is it affecting the quality of recorded music?

To understand what I’m getting at I will have to first give a brief description of audio compression. I’m not talking about digital data compression here (that is, however, worthy of discussing – but for another time), but analog compression that dates back several decades – long before the invention of the CD and mp3 technology. And for the audio engineers out there, I apologize for the lack of proper technical terminology.

When recording a sound, there is a limit to how loud or “hot” the input signal or source can be. If it’s too much, the recording becomes distorted. So essentially the volume of a recording is limited to the volume of the loudest part. For example, if you were recording a song where most of it was fairly quiet, but then had a passage that was very loud, you are essentially limited to keeping the input at a level relative to the louder section. If you had the input higher in order to get the quieter parts stronger, the louder passage would cause distortion when recorded.

A brilliant solution to the problem was the invention of audio level compression, also known as dynamic range compression. Essentially what happens is that the compressor squeezes down the “peaks” in the volume. As a result, the dynamic range is decreased (the difference between the loudest and quietest parts). Consequently, the overall volume level can be raised before distortion will occur. The more the peaks are squeezed down (compressed), the more the overall level can be increased. Even though compression works by squeezing down the peaks and making them quieter, the general effect is a perceived increase in the overall volume.

From a music producer or audio engineer’s point of view, this is an excellent tool. It can be used very effectively to “smooth” out a recording, enabling a much better and consistent mix to be created. For example, if a bass guitar player perhaps played a few notes too quietly, but otherwise played the perfect “take,” compression can be used to “smooth” it out rather than re-doing the take. Essentially, by “squeezing” the louder notes down, the quieter ones seem louder, thus creating a much smoother and consistent sounding recording. Compression works great on recording vocals for the same reason – to smooth the track out and make it easier to mix. Cymbals also sound great with compression, as the decay of a cymbal crash can be drawn out to increase the length of the trail – a nice effect. And not only is compression used on individual tracks of a recording, but is also used on the final overall mix (mastering) to help smooth out the overall sound.

So what’s the problem then? Well, as always seems to be the case, great tools eventually get used for the wrong reason. In the 1960s, competition was fierce between radio stations on the AM band. Each station wanted to “stand out” as a listener tuned the radio dial. Compression was used in the studio to keep the “peaks” down in order to increase the overall volume. Once one station did it, they all had to do it simply to keep up. A tell-tale sign that lots of compression is being used is if the breaths of a speaker or singer are way out of proportion (much louder than normal). TV commercials are notorious for this – I’m sure you’ve noticed how loud and “in your face” they can sound during a break in a movie.

But as time has gone on, compression has been used more and more in the music recording studio, and then is compounded on the airwaves by the radio and television stations that apply their own compression. As a result, everything tends to sound “in your face.”

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