Imperfect Sound Forever

By: Nick Southall

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Posted 05/01/2006 - 11:01:01 AM by :
 Real philosophers don't take acid? Then I suppose Sartre's Being and Nothingness isn't a work of philosophy. He wrote fucking paeans to acid. I highly doubt there are many philosophers who post-1960 can say they've never touched it. There are entire circles of philosophers of consciousness and of the mind who use at as PRAXIS. You seem smarter than statements like this.
Posted 05/01/2006 - 11:01:43 AM by Zarklephaser:
 This is my favorite piece that I have read on Stylus over the years.
Posted 05/01/2006 - 11:04:35 AM by :
 Also, have you heard digitally recorded and mastered music that *doesnt* use compression? Try making even a properly mic'ed drum recorded directly to protools with the best of pre-amps sound even kind of punchy without it. I dare you.
Posted 05/01/2006 - 11:34:51 AM by cwperry:
 Very insightful article, which gave me a point of view from which I hadn't previously thought. This ties in with Neil Young's assertion that recorded music is unlistenable.
Posted 05/01/2006 - 12:48:48 PM by TDutweiller:
 It's best not to crib your examples of compression from a wikipedia article marked "This article or section is in need of attention from an expert on the subject."
Posted 05/01/2006 - 12:54:36 PM by TysonT:
 JessGraves - apparently you didn't read the part where the author talked about necessary compression. Wilco's "a ghost is born" is one of very few modern guitar-based albums to sound "real." It sounds great on good headphones or alone in my room, but in a loud tour van with a struggling stereo, you have to reach over every ten seconds to turn the volume up and down. If someone truly cares about modern music listening, I propose they mix/master two versions of the album - one for shitty little computer speakers/ear buds & one for audiophiles. The two mixes could be on the same CD, with the more highly-compressed one in mp3 format. Vinyl, of course, should be mastered seperately from CD.
Posted 05/01/2006 - 01:05:50 PM by :
 I certainly did read it. But overall, I thought the author's point amounted to a sort of cheesy nostalgia for analog mastering techniques. Of course there are limitations to digital production, but there were to analog. Of course you can use too much compression. But there are two sides to the compression coin, and the author ignores one of them. While compression does smooth out attack (too much if not carefully applied), the digital aesthetic has always leaned more toward the cleaner sound because it *has* to: there's no way to digitally reproduce in a sonically perfect way analog fuzz and warmth. So producers have embraced the limitations of the new means for production and turned it into a conscious aesthetic. Loudness DOES sell, compression is very important on a recording, in that MOST people are not music journalists: they want to hear records sounding good at the kind of dB levels you'd hear in a club, at a party, in a social setting. The author seems to be rallying against music appreciation as anything but a monkish enterprise wherein there are "rules" regarding what is more "perfect" (as opposed to "imperfect") sound are appreciated like one would a sacred text, you know, with fear and trembling. All of this cemented in the aesthetic inherent to earlier analog principles based the limitations of those media. There are often several mixes/masterings of an album, but only the one that will make the most money is released. I would guess most are set to the sort of levels that sound best blared on car stereos. And why not? Even the industry is limited by time and financial constraints in the end.
Posted 05/01/2006 - 01:49:20 PM by EveryoneLaughs:
 So, can anyone give examples of recent albums that aren't compressed to hell? I mean, besides the two listed in the article. It's my unschooled impression that "Illinois" has a more dynamic sound than is currently the norm, which is fun to consider in light of the acclaim it received. Yes... that really is what I call fun.
Posted 05/01/2006 - 02:04:25 PM by idunnowhy:
 wow, amazing article. I was always intensely dissatisfied with the sound of albums from the last 15 or 20 years, but couldn't really understand why. I remember when I first started listening to cds from the 80s whose sound was "dated" and "weak"... (early Cure albums, Love and Rockets, Joy Division, the pixies of course...all this pre-remastering), but then I realized that if you turn up the volume enough they open up and eventually sound much more rich. Even on an imperfect system like the one I use. Thank you so much for helping me understand this ugly recent trend
Posted 05/01/2006 - 03:55:20 PM by brennschluss:
 I greatly enjoyed this article, but it leaves me with a few questions. One, is this compression as common in all genres? I am thinking of much of the new Burzumic/Darkthrone-ish black metal and some of the more experimental doom bands (Whitehorse, OM, Dad They Broke Me, Ufomammut) and wondering if they suffer the same malady. Two, what happens when these compressed "hot" recordings are put to vinyl? I am a newcomer to vinyl, but I definitely prefer EYEHATEGOD and Dozer 7"s and 12"s to their CD counterparts. Three, as someone else has already pointed out, do most people notice or even care? If the compositions and songs are shitty, what matters the sound?
Posted 05/01/2006 - 05:01:16 PM by adentice:
 I enjoyed the article because it has clearly been written with passion by someone who loves music, but I agree with Jess that it is coming from a rather biased and idealised perspective - that of a music nerd. The generalisation that people who listen to music by any means other than curled up in their room with a top range Hi-Fi system aren't "actually listening" is a bit ridiculous. Not everyone is an air-dummer! And not everyone has time to spend hours in a secluded room listening to music. I for one appreciate music that i can listen to on my ipod without having to constantly adjust the volume wheel looking like a bad house DJ. And as for the Arctic Monkeys argument - a bit of a logical leap there I think. Is it possible that the "lack of excitement" stemmed at least to some degree from the fact that people had heard the songs before, or that some rather large expectations had been built? In any event, it may not be solely due to the level of compression on the album... I think the article is an opinion piece on how Nick likes to listen to music, framed as a thesis, but with arguments that don't really stack up. But it was still interesting.
Posted 05/01/2006 - 05:27:56 PM by dannyboy:
 "This is my favorite piece that I have read on Stylus over the years." seconded. although i take this as mainly home listening, where over compressed/loud CDs are difficult to listen to, on a portable system its not as noticable as truly dynamic recording will be dredged out by ambient noise.
Posted 05/01/2006 - 05:40:01 PM by twopuddings:
 I love Nick Southall.
Posted 05/01/2006 - 06:05:15 PM by rgreen83:
 so what of blonde on blonde?
Posted 05/01/2006 - 09:40:10 PM by evanw60:
 Yeah really, that's the only reason why I even clicked to read the article.
Posted 05/01/2006 - 10:06:51 PM by carlamudpie:
 Todd Burns, take note. This column needs to be submitted for Da Capo's Best Music Writing. Seriously. I am NOT an audio nerd whatsoever. & I loved this article. Well-written, informative, thought-provoking.
Posted 05/02/2006 - 08:54:43 AM by whiteboysushi:
 Other than Southall's total misunderstanding of the notion of peak levels and average levels, and his basically ridiculous criticism of Drum's Not Dead (I am 99% certain that the "unrealistic drum sound" that bothers you so is the deliberate result of the bizarre recording and processing techniques used on the drums, not a shitty master), a good article.
Posted 05/02/2006 - 10:04:02 AM by Zoffferinty:
 better than the usual articles but do we really think someone who said "But people are slowly realising that so many modern CDs sound so bad because they're too loud—they may not consciously know the reasons, but subconsciously listeners are shunning overly "hot" music; a swift analysis of album chart sales suggests more people are buying modern easy-listening and AOR types than rock, pop, hip-hop, or dance albums, presumably because people are simply tired of being shouted at." in the same breath that he pointed out five or ten examples of AOR overcompression for da capo? or someone who even uses the phrase "modern music" when he means contemporary? come on people
Posted 05/02/2006 - 10:52:17 AM by Zoffferinty:
 and just because you don't airdrum in public doesn't mean you don't enjoy music. next he's going to write an article about how if you don't like elbow you're not "really listening" to music
Posted 05/02/2006 - 11:28:43 AM by aBearAware:
 "This is my favorite piece that I have read on Stylus over the years" thirded. I have been trying to explain overcompression to people for years, and now Nick's written the perfect article to refer them to. And have the haterz bothered to click any of the links provided at the end of the article? The argument he puts forth isn't taking place in a vacuum.
Posted 05/02/2006 - 01:16:02 PM by sysreq:
 Admitting to audiophilia is a good way to lose all credibility as a music reviewer. (Another way is hyping Embrace, but never mind that.) If you're spending thousands of pounds on "biwired speaker cables and limestone slabs" so you can hear "slightly more sparkle and physical *ping* in the treble," you've clearly lost touch with what most sane people value about music. Stick to audiophile test recordings and spend your money on cables instead of CDs if that's what matters to you most, but know that all you're listening to is sound, not music. And it's no use pretending otherwise, because it's easy to see through.
Posted 05/02/2006 - 03:03:49 PM by :
 Sys, I appreciate the author's effort to justify his preferences with researched facts about sound (didn't we all read Lyotard on the death of science as a legitimating narrative?), but in the end he gives people who do know about audio production a bad name. People who can actually produce music are rarely this dogmatic about "sound" over "music"-- a very important distinction to make, that. lol indie-rock-/classism
Posted 05/02/2006 - 06:30:12 PM by tom1977:
 JessGraves : Sorry but you're wrong. And Nick's right. So many recent records just do not affect - and I feel that the emotional dynamic and decibel dynamic of a record are closely entwined. This is not just a geek argument spilling over from the pages of Compressor Nerd Monthly, this is about why we are untouched by music that we should fall in love with.
Posted 05/02/2006 - 08:17:00 PM by Noel_Diddy:
 What's so bad about "Raw Power" sounding raw . . . and powerful? Maybe the "release" doesn't need to be in the song, or the album, but when you turn off the music itself. If we are all too exhausted of rocking, then maybe we should listen to Enya or a $1.99 classical music cd from bestbuy. I completely disagree with this article.
Posted 05/02/2006 - 11:24:19 PM by shudder:
 to the naysayers: among most pro-ish recording engineers, this problem is very widely known and acknowledged... And JessGraves, the problem is really only with the compression used on the final mastering. I mean, obviously you need to use compressors at various points in the recording and mixing (e.g. vocals). But when you lose a great deal of dynamic range on the final 2mix, you've got a big problem. No matter what you're listening on, or how you're listening to it, ultra-compressed mastering is plain tiring. check out:
Posted 05/03/2006 - 06:23:49 AM by joeyjeremiah:
 Ahhh Stylus. How I missed you after they banned my internet at work. Jess, I disagree with you as well. Nirvana's Nevermind 1991 CD release, or the 1987 CD remaster of Abbey Road do actually sound fantastic, even on Ipod headphones. The loudness wars are a real shame, and as dozens and dozens of experienced mastering engineers point out, music can still be mastered to leap out of a cheap radio without destructive hard-limiting or distortion. I'm happy to see a lot of people realise something that's been subconsciously bugging them for years. Compression is also the reason I hate watching movies on TV.
Posted 05/03/2006 - 10:08:10 AM by :
 Oh right, I keep forgetting--only emoindie acoustic folk ballads are "affecting" enough to be "real" or "good" music. Forget that most people just want to hear Beyonce at Bungalow 8. I mean, a quick glance at record sales, ignoring downloads and broader trends, really DOES prove that everyone's still into the archetype of the minimally produced AOR masterwork. Ahuh. I just spent my Saturday mastering a recording. I don't think some of you know what compression is. It's an automation, or most people apply it that way. I never said there weren't overcompressed albums or music. I said that overcompression alone was not "ruining" music, or dragging it down from some former state of glory. There are so many more elements of digital production that give it that sheen Nick is talking about and hates so much. I spent a good portion of my Saturday mixing a recording where the only way to save the drumming was to use a good amount of compression. (Compression isn't used in "doses", as Nick says--a strangely misleading way to phrase that.) Also, some of us like, say, microhouse or other electronic music, and don't mind digital sheen. He's speaking to a very specific type of music fan and trying to universalize his point. Give me Nelly over Embrace any day of the week. If you ask me Nelly and compression is saving us from the years of canonized acoustic indiefolk that seemed inescapable to me in college. It makes me ears bleed.
Posted 05/03/2006 - 10:28:00 AM by NickSouthall:
 All due respect, Jess, but I passed this article with a professional record producer and three professional mastering engineers before publication, and none of them had a problem with any of the technical details in it at all. Since publication I've had messages of support and thanks from fans, producers, record company executives and musicians alike, all saying pretty much the same thing - that they appreciate the article and agree.

I have no problem with digital production at all, or digital playback at all, or I'd only listen to vinyl records made on analogue tape from the 60s. My problem is with overloud records suffering from clipping and reduced dynamic range. Your trolling of this comments box is not appreciated. That your very first comment takes the only JOKE in the entire article and reads it as some sort of affront to modern philosophy proves to me that you are deliberately and belligerently misreading this article from an aggressive standpoint from the very off.
Posted 05/03/2006 - 12:21:32 PM by :
 Nick--I have no problem with the technical facts about compression you included in your article. It is very informed in that sense, which can only be a positive thing. I was talking to other commentors when I said I didn't think they understood compression. I have no doubt that there are producers that agree with you about overcompression--in fact, I DO IF YOU'LL NOTE. I don't disagree that this exists. What I disagree with is your rather grand and sweeping conclusions about the state of music and its relative "purity" and ability to be affecting despite some of the limitations to contemporary digital recording techniques/technologies versus analog. That is a subjective viewpoint--which again, may very well be shared by some producers--but that is in no way *proven* by the factual information that you provide about compression. I find it a rather silly, purist, rockist point of view, and I don't care how many producers you could name who stand by it. They, too, are rockists, if they do.

So anyone who disagrees vehemently with your point-of-view is "trolling"? I suppose I didn't think it was funny to say something about "proper thinking" in regard to philosophers and a given drug, you're right. I am, if you'll notice, not the only person who disagrees with you, however. So I find it strange that you are only responding to me.

I work with award-winning producers and engineers myself in my MA program. I didn't have to mention that (as you did producers agreeing with you), because I don't see how it would be relevant to the crux of this argument--i.e., whether music as a whole has fallen from a state of sonic purity or "realness" or some other state of glory to a fallen state where it is less real, less pure, because it does not affect *YOU* and you find it too slick.

I'm sure there are plenty of electronic music producers who would agree that the digital aesthetic is not the musical apocalypse.

Posted 05/03/2006 - 01:06:31 PM by tom1977:
 "...They, too, are rockists..." yay lets get into an soft schmindie vs sparklypopper vs hardfucktechno vs metal monkey fourway fidelity fight here. Haven't heard anyone decried as "rockist" since the great Popism wars of '01... i thought we were all genre-hopping dilletants now?
Posted 05/03/2006 - 01:25:50 PM by :
 You'd think, Tom, wouldn't you!?
Posted 05/03/2006 - 01:40:30 PM by deadfriendly:
 Jess, I'm not sure whether you're being obstinate for the sake of it or whether you actually don't understand what the article is about. The latter kind of seems to be the case, though; you keep talking about analog aesthetics versus digital ones, an issue which has practically nothing to do with loudness and overcompression. I'll spare you the details of why and just point you toward the last Depeche Mode album -- a record whose aesthetic is all "digital sheen" from the ground up, right down to the guitars. My guess is that the mix itself sounded fabulously shiny and digitally precise. But I have to say "my guess," because the mastering brought things up to such a level of insupportable loudness that the original mix became unclear -- not just in its grainy clipping, but in the fact that you could no longer hear any of the precise digital detail that had been programmed in there. On the opposite side: go back into the nineties, and you'll find any number of lovely digital productions that maintained clarity and dynamic range. It seems almost like you can't fully wrap your mind around what's being discussed here, and so you're trying to force the issue into a template you're more familiar with -- analog Luddites versus digital futurists. And that has very little to do with anything. There's plenty of talk to be had about how people listen to music and what sorts of mastering suit that -- you're right to bring that up -- but to connect this to genre and digital aesthetics seems seriously off-base; all the digital aesthetic has done is to provide more powerful algorithms with which to over-maximize everything. (P.S.: It's equally pointless and point-missing to explain that compression is a standard part of the recording process. Reverb is a standard part of the recording process as well, but it would still be worth noting if people felt compelled to add cavernous reverb as a global effect on their mastering jobs.)
Posted 05/03/2006 - 01:44:26 PM by :
 I get his point. I really do. I guess I'd just like to say for the record that music is not ruined. Just because Californication was overcompressed doesn't mean there aren't tons of records that use compression properly. I would actually say Liars' latest is an example of that. See, there's a lot of room here for taste to get involved. There's a fine line between "necessary" and over-compression. So let's not be dogmatic about it? It seems pretty dogmatic to say "People are forgetting how to listen." To what? When? I don't think that's true at all. If all you listen to is the kind of music that gets overcompressed, then you probably don't care anyway. You know?
Posted 05/03/2006 - 01:49:08 PM by wmdavidson:
 Great article. I don't necessarily agree with your conclusions, but I learned a lot. Thanks.
Posted 05/03/2006 - 01:58:49 PM by deadfriendly:
 I'm not sure there's a real contention here that all music ever is ruined in a Loudness Apocalypse, Jess -- just that it's an ongoing trend that does not appear to be stopping, and that it probably isn't a positive one. One of the reasons this is worth pointing out is that WITHOUT making a point of it, it's very difficult to even know that that's what's going on. Over-loud albums create ear fatigue, which makes you not want to listen to them. But the average listener doesn't experience it in terms of loudness or compression: the average listener just knows that he or she doesn't really feel like listening to a given record; the average lister just assumes that the record isn't that good or inviting. "Taste" may be involve, but it's not involved as much as you might think -- most people are aiming their tastes straight at the actual music, and not making a whole bunch of distinctions about whether or not the mastering is interfering with the way it's delivered. "If all you listen to is the kind of music that gets overcompressed, then you probably don't care anyway" -- this makes less sense when ALL music is riding pretty high in loudness, across genre and across the board, and it's difficult to sort out exactly where people might "care" about it. Trust me: I've spent a lot of time with a lot of albums I wanted to like but just couldn't -- something about them just seemed grating and tiring and uncomfortable -- only to learn later that this was the problem, this was the thing putting me off.
Posted 05/03/2006 - 02:11:48 PM by :
 That's weird, because most of the albums cited as examples of the overcompression problem were top-selling, some of them double-/triple- platinum albums. There must be some who don't mind listening to them!

Nick is saying people don't know how to listen anymore--if that's true, then why are they, as you claim (but doesn't seem to be the case), shunning these overly compressed albums? I definitely have had negative reactions to the production on a lot of his examples myself. I really relate to that! I'm all for better attention to loudness levels, better production, less compression. I am. I just think it was too much of a leap to go from there, to "here are some of the culprits" (some of whom I disagree with to a certain extent, don't think overcompression makes them that uninviting) to, you know, our current way of "compressed" life (fourth to last paragraph above) is some sort of devolution. He tied in the abuse of compression in final masters to somehow being just another part of our technologically driven way of life, which again, is a stretch. That's what I meant.

Posted 05/03/2006 - 02:30:36 PM by deadfriendly:
 Most of the examples cited are top-selling partly because (duh) they're examples, and examples tend to work better when other people know of them. Even beyond that, though, the question's kind of ridiculous: it assumes people buy albums based on already having listened to them a lot, which is very obviously not the case. These albums sell well because they're major, well-marketed releases by popular bands whose music people like. It makes no difference to the sales numbers if lots of those people wind up finding the album a bit grating and tiring to listen to. (Without even knowing why!) Why aren't people shunning them? Well, what would they shun them for? You can't go buy alternate masters of your favorite songs -- and even if you could, how aware is the average listener going to be about this problem? Average listeners could be plagued by it every day, but never have much more of a sense of the issue than a vague feeling that listening to music makes them tired, and they never feel like sitting through much of even their favorite records. As for the author's more general How We Live Now statements here, I didn't drop in to defend the whole -- just to point out that your attempts to explain the loudness away (and set them up as some kind of genre issue or rockism issue or analog-vs-digital issue) were completely point-missing.
Posted 05/03/2006 - 02:41:09 PM by :
 People LOVE those albums. I have listened to people talk about how Californication CHANGED THEIR LIFE. You're trying to say that these albums are mastered with unlistenable levels of overcompression, yet people didn't stop and tell their friends--hey, that album sucks, it's too harsh and the levels are too flat, don't buy it! Come on. Marketing works to a point, but, say Jessica Simpson albums prove that if something really sucks too badly, it won't sell triple platinum. Also, average listeners are the ones record labels want spending money on their albums. Compression has such a stronghold because it's been a part of so many super-successful recordings. In entertainment, we all know that a winning formula gets used over and over till its ability to generate cash dries up.No excuse to keep on using it, but that's why it is used.

Most of my point concerning apocalyptic sentiments was about the author's "more general How We Live Now statements", which I admitted freely. Who's missing whose point?

Posted 05/03/2006 - 03:06:56 PM by deadfriendly:
 Jess, I'm not sure I've ever heard an "average listener" use the word "levels" when talking about anything ever. People talk about music, not mastering; mastering is an arcane process that mediates fairly silently between the music and the listener. But the mastering is becoming less silent, and in a way that's recognized as problematic by just about everyone with the vocabulary to point to the thing we're talking about. You're tiptoeing across some valid arguments here -- for instance, the way overcompression has become The Sound of modern recording, almost an actual style, to the point where people are responding to it as an indicator of modernity (as opposed to old and quiet things). But half the point is that this has been true, on and off, for decades (louder = newer), and the market hasn't found any way to get off that particular slope; what exactly in the market will pull back? Are people really going to stop listening to the songs they like due to mastering problems? How could a market put brakes on this, apart from people talking about it and becoming aware of it? (And what would those brakes look like -- older people suddenly developing a weird hankering for faux-classical and soft jazz-crooner styles, some kind of music self-consciously genteel enough that they can live with the grating extreme mastering? If that's what they're listening to now, what market force will you put that one on?) Point being it's ridiculous to expect that there's a transparent way for the market to deal with loudness issues, since loudness is so completely superceded by so many more pressing and immediate concerns about what the music offers (and consumers aren't even aware of loudness and its discontents as an issue to factor into their purchases). P.S.: Keep straight here on the difference between "compression" -- a workaday recording tool -- and overloud, overcompressed mastering, which is something rather different.
Posted 05/03/2006 - 03:19:36 PM by :
 Ok, let's say the average listener tells his friend "don't buy Californication, it just doesn't sound that great for some reason. It grates on me, don't know why." They could say that feasibly, right? I know the difference between compression during mixing and compression during mastering. Very aware of that. I was objecting to the sociological/philosophical conclusions the author tries to draw from the industry's troubling use of overcompression.That's all. I don't know if you read what I said, but I don't blame you if you don't care enough to.

Do you think this article or highly educated consumers kvetching is going to make the music industry stop using time-worn formulas for financial success among average listeners? Sadly, I don't.

Posted 05/03/2006 - 03:39:15 PM by deadfriendly:
 No more than you think posting analog-v-digital misdirection in a website comment box will keep me or the author from thinking overcompression is a problem. And honestly, no -- problematic loudness really isn't something people talk about or really register as having to do with the quality of the record. This is largely because the negative effects of problem loudness -- lack of space, clipping, indistinct sound -- are the same problems you get from bad speakers: the worst-offending albums just sound like you're playing them extra-loud through the front speakers of a 14-inch television. People listen THROUGH that; they don't register it as a problem with the content of the disc. Its effects arrive on some other level, and the way it impacts and expresses itself is much more complicated than this comments box is ever going to get its head around. But it's not just a matter of the market, and it's not just a matter of taste, especially when the rising tide of loudness forces EVERYONE to pump their levels up to fit into contemporary playlists -- there's no low-risk opt-out to this one.
Posted 05/03/2006 - 03:40:21 PM by boilingboy:
 Wow. Great article, great discussion afterwards. These production issues are rarely discussed in a commercial website. Both Nick and Jess have valid points here. Not to be a centrist, but this article AND discussion has interested me in reading Stylus again. Perhaps one of you guys could enlighten me as to what home component will help with this production gloop. What do you do when everything is digital, and fixed "automatically"?
Posted 05/03/2006 - 03:50:01 PM by :
 Oh goodness. When did I say overcompression was not a problem? I said repeatedly that I agreed with the author that it was. Repeatedly. Probably more than 10 times. When I mentioned "analog" it was because the author seemed to suggest, by saying that we've "lost" the ability to listen to music "properly" now because of overcompression, that we somehow had it right during analog days, or pre-digital days (because he rightly points out that overcompression has been with us since the introduction of digital production technologies). If you want to continue to misconstrue that, go ahead. Looks like Boilingboy understands what I meant.

Speaking of whom--that's exactly the problem with overcompression, Boilingboy. You can't really fix it with your home computer, by adjusting your EQ. When compression is overused during mastering, its so part of the recording's grain, it effects the digital fiber of the data on such a minute level, that you can't correct it later. You'd have to go back to the mixing stage and remaster it. Sucks, huh?

Personally I think this will self-correct just like every market trend does that gets out of hand. Something will be released that gets super-popular and sells shitloads of records that is very dynamic and avoids overcompression, gets the loudness right without sounding rinky-dink. Then tons of records will come out copping that sound, to cash in on its success.

Posted 05/03/2006 - 04:01:07 PM by NickSouthall:
 My intention is to insinuate that the fact that we don't listen "properly" stops us noticing the negative effects of overcompression- you don't notice it nearly as much via iPod, for instance, as via hi-fi. As for what "proper" listening is, well, I'd just like people to pay attention to music. Which, I hope, is what we all want.
Posted 05/03/2006 - 04:10:36 PM by :
 I hoped that was what you meant. Even so, don't you think it's kind of missing the point of what people love about music to say that iPod listening isn't as valid/valuable as hi-fi, just because you're not able to hear how badly overcompressed most music is on one? I guess iPod earbud listening people are spared what I'm not on my relatively modest Sony MDR7506s.
Posted 05/03/2006 - 04:12:59 PM by NickSouthall:
 I didn't say iPod listening was intrinsically bad - I listen to mine for at least 90 minutes a day on my commute! - just not the best or only way to listen.
Posted 05/03/2006 - 04:17:37 PM by :
 i just don't like heirarchies ;)
Posted 05/03/2006 - 04:20:01 PM by NickSouthall:
 And I don't like monopolies!
Posted 05/03/2006 - 04:24:10 PM by childstarc:
 This distinction between "compression"(good) and "mastering compression"(bad) is quite misleading. Historically, compression at any stage has been resisted by "purists" but has nevertheless become standard usage. I applaud the article for raising awareness of the engineering that goes into creating music, but making a boogeyman out of this may not be the best idea. As always, we should feel free to lament about the state of music. We just shouldn't get offended when people start calling us grandpa.
Posted 05/03/2006 - 05:28:47 PM by deadfriendly:
 I'm not sure anyone's making a distinction between compression (good) and mastering compression (bad). The distinction that's being made is between compression (fine) and OVERcompression (bad). There's no specific type or process that's being accused here -- just final results that sound like shit, no matter how exactly they got there.
Posted 05/04/2006 - 11:13:12 AM by childstarc:
 Still, what seems misleading to me is where certain people have somewhat arbitrarily chosen to define the "over" in over-compression. Viewing this as an abberation of the past ~10 years is only one way to look at it. Another way is to view this trend as simply the next logical step in a continuum. But taste is taste, and whatever way you think about it doesn't change the fact that certain music sounds worse to some people nowadays. And these people have a right to complain. Fine article.
Posted 05/04/2006 - 01:06:00 PM by boilingboy:
 Here's a quote from a new Scott Walker interview, in The Wire: "We're a bit purist in the sense that we don't use a lot of compression on our records, once again, it seems to cramp up the space and everything sounds very flat. There's so much compression on everything today, just to make it loud. Everybody wants to be louder than everybody else. Then when they get it to the radio station, they add more compression on it, the disc jockeys, cos they want to be loud and the station wants to be loud. So you have this flat, cramped, digi-noise. So, when you listen to our records the best thing to do is really crank them up loud, cos then you'll hear everything. You'll hear all the space and it'll be comfortable."
Posted 05/04/2006 - 01:06:30 PM by butanebob:
 Everyone is caught up in a debate about aesthetics and "proper" listening, which is of course difficult to argue. We should not be worried about music attaining some arbitrary level of perfect production. Instead of trying to determine whether compression should be labeled good or bad, we should take a look at the reasons for using it. The real problem, as I see it, is the use of production as a marketing tool rather than an aesthetic tool. I hope that everyone would agree that production (compression or no compression) should be used to make an album sound better and accurately convey the artists' vision, whatever that may be. Instead the production process has been hijacked by the marketing side of the music business in order to make the music stand out more and catch your attention. As competing sides of the loudness war continuously up the ante, there is no trace left of whatever soundspace the artist wanted to convey. If a band wants a flat over-compressed sound, then so be it. This is an approach that does actually work for many bands. It just sucks that other approaches are being swallowed up.
Posted 05/04/2006 - 02:53:39 PM by :
 I agree completely, ButaneBob. I think the way you've expressed it is much better than the way I was. The real problem here is that the proverbial "bottom line" is unfortunately going to be the standard by which many aesthetic judgment calls are made by producers, who in the end are either on the payroll at record labels, or just have/want to make money. Compression sucks (whether you think ANY amount is too much, or whether you think it can be used properly and effectively without being inherently bad), but it sucks more that it could easily be some other form of data-losing, levels-leveling, tasteless sort of production technique that had a stranglelhold on current trends, if the marketability of that sound was guaranteed to make record labels money, or even if it showed some amount of commercial promise. Fucking late-capitalism!!
Posted 05/05/2006 - 07:26:35 AM by raskolnikov:
 Mr. Southall has written a decent piece here, although I must take issue with his central point. The first generation of compact discs were horrendous--and the compression that you assume to be a product (and problem)of the 21st century was in full ugly display on these first CD's. Levels have gradually crept up over the years due to this original mistake. Additionally, the problem is not so much due to compression but rather to the fact that the disc is recorded using digital sound recording. There have been tremendous advances made in digital sound recording over the years, but its basic flaw still haunts recording engineers--namely, that bass frequency sounds are not accurately represented in the sound spectrum by digital media. This flaw has been passed on to mastering engineers, with a post-it note attached saying "fix this". The short-cut approach to fixing this flaw has been to turn everything up and overcompensate for the lack of true bass tonalities, but this overcompensation uses other methods than simple compression. Your piece attempts to make a rather tortured point--that raised mastering levels automatically require massive amounts of compression--and neglects the obvious fact that dynamic fluctuations in music originate from the TRACKS THEMSELVES played by the band. There are plenty of really loud discs that I own and listen to that have full dynamic ranges. Only shitty pop bands fall into this category, and who gives a fuck about them? They and their various crews of engineers are merely taking their ideas from more creative and adventurous bands and engineers anyway. The ultimate point to consider here is that today's discs sound lightyears better than the first generation of discs. Anybody clinging to discs made in 1986 or 1993 is sadly mistaken in terms of their overall sound quality--they don't sound good, and they probably should be remastered. Go listen to the original disc of any MCA/Impulse release and then spin the remastered version behind it. There is no mistaking which version is better.
Posted 05/05/2006 - 10:01:51 AM by :
 Rask, you're so right there. Compression is not the only production technique that's to blame for the loudness problem. And sometimes loudness is just a product of people turning up the volume on certain tracks during mixing/mastering. It really can be as simple as that. Like, Deerhoof comes on at so many decibels higher than even Iggy Pop's The Idiot (maybe not Raw Power) at the same volume setting on your stereo, but most of that's because it's just recorded louder--sounds like the volume was manually pushed up on the master. There are definitely some recordings where compression is necessary just to maintain a professional level of sound quality. This isn't acknowledged. Also, I find it strange that some people here seem to be blaming compression for clipping and distortion. Compression is supposed to prevent recordings from getting digitally distorted at higher decibel levels. Compression may make things sound flat, but it certainly doesn't cause them to distort in and of itself...
Posted 05/05/2006 - 06:17:25 PM by boilingboy:
 Viva, Raskolnikov! I was wondering when Mr. Crime-and-Punishment, himself, would weigh in on this issue. As usual, he cut through the bullshit. One question: Are there any plans to really correct this bass problem at the source? Are the gold discs, or the DVD-A discs any better for this?
Posted 05/05/2006 - 07:28:01 PM by TDutweiller:
 Interesting how much of a 180 this is for the author in terms of what he finds "bearable" to listen to. From his 2005 review of the Can reissues: The original CD versions of Monster Movie and Soundtracks from 1989, like almost all early CDs, was thin and indistinct sounding. Sure, you could tell the music was amazing and extraordinary, because really great music shows its quality even over a shitty transistor radio with a fucked cone (“River Deep Mountain High”!), but there was always a sense that it could become exponentially better if only it had that extra depth and clarity, if only the drums had that little bit more thwack, the bass a touch more weight, the bizarre slips of electronic noise or synthesiser a little more definition. But technology’s come a long way in the last 15 years, and the remastering jobs on classic Miles Davis albums recorded in the 50s, 60s and 70s (and a whole host of other great records from decades past by myriad artists) shows that a good pair of ears and a mixing desk and whatever-the-hell-else filters and compressors and other assorted little electronic boxes with magical sonic powers can work absolute wonders. Which is to say that Monster Movie was always a bloody fantastic record (and Soundtracks a very good one), but now, remastered and re-released by the lovely people at Mute and Spoon, it is an absolutely fucking monumental one. It has voodoo qualities. Listen.
Posted 05/06/2006 - 07:43:34 AM by raskolnikov:
 I am surprised that nobody really mentioned the fact that IPods have also contributed to a decline in the overall fidelity of the music we listen to. Any track that is converted into an IPod file loses fidelity in both the treble and bass areas of the sound spectrum, and this conversion process requires liberal use of compression (perhaps that is the compression Mr. Southall is mistakenly associating with current production of compact discs?). Again, most audiophiles are embarrassed to fess up to owning and using IPods, but there is much to be said for their convenience and storage capabilities. As someone who has always granted a place of honor in my residences to my discs, albums, and stereo, I still like to listen to music the oldfashioned way. The difference in volume levels between IPods and newly minted or remastered CDs is huge, and maybe that's what set Mr. Southall off on his examination of the issue in the first place.
Posted 05/06/2006 - 05:35:39 PM by childstarc:
 "bass frequency sounds are not accurately represented in the sound spectrum by digital media." Raskolnikov, where does this idea come from? Also conversion of CD audio to MP3 does not change RMS levels, so Ipod files are not louder. The compression you speak of is "audio data compression," which is a whole 'nother ballgame (as opposed to "audio level compression"). And uh, Jess, the idea that tracks can just be "recorded louder" without compressing them is news to me!
Posted 05/06/2006 - 07:38:37 PM by :
 Childstarc, if you turn up amps, or volume controls on a recording console, or the volume settings on whatever program you're running your signals to, that will make a recording louder than if you don't. After my production class today, I had a lengthy conversation with my TA ,who worked with the Flaming Lips, REM among others as a sound engineer for the Hit Factory, about this. He definitely didn't think compression was solely responsible for loudness prolbems in a lot of contemporary recordings. He said if someone automates the wrong kind of compression for the instrument or sound they're compressing, that can sound really bad and flatten it, etc. But he seemed a little puzzled that anyone was blaming compression for the lack of dynamics in current recording. He also seemed to respond to "the loudness wars" as a phrase as something that is primarily hip-hop related. I suppose I will send him this article and get his direct reaction.
Posted 05/07/2006 - 07:45:19 AM by maceasy:
 Jess, typical student. So sure your opinions are right, blows off before actually reading the article properly and accuses Nick of stuff he never wrote. I suggest you read the linked articles which are full of backup for Nick's point by professional engineers. Then adopt a little humility and courtesy, whatever your teacher tells you.
Posted 05/07/2006 - 09:44:25 AM by raskolnikov:
 to Childstarc--my point was that analog recording is warmer and more oriented to bass sounds; digital is not as friendly to that part of the spectrum of sound. If you've ever recorded or mixed music using analog recording equipment, then you should know what I mean. If not, then I will not waste anymore of my time with you. And as far as levels on IPods are concerned, I did not mean for anyone to infer that they were louder than 21st century discs, but rather that they were much quieter than compact disc levels are today--and that is due to the fact that certain aspects of the lows and highs within the music are compressed out of existence. You arrived at an opposite conclusion. My overall point was that the surge in overall levels on modern CDs certainly doesn't affect the dynamic range of music made by capable artists. Mr. Southall seems to imply that all compression is bad, and that the use of compression automatically negates an engineer's ability to capture band performances that have a full dynamic range. I strongly disagree with that statement.
Posted 05/07/2006 - 11:04:45 AM by maceasy:
 raskolnikov, the point is not the overall rise in volume levels on CDs but how that is achieved. Nick is not claiming that compressions as such is bad. Read the piece properly, and read the links, especially the last. Engineers would love to imply that mere listeners don't know what they are talking about, but there is plenty of evidence to support Nick. The point is that massive over compression is ruining a lot of recorded music. That certainly chimes with my experience, and I am not an audophile. At the least you ought to argue with what nick is saying, and not attribute a lot of false statements to him.
Posted 05/07/2006 - 12:17:28 PM by Jeffro:
 Boilingboy asked if gold discs, DVD-A will solve the problem. Short answer - yes. I have (an admittedly budget level) universal DVD-A / SACD player and have a few titles of both formats (including the DVD-A versions of Yoshimi and the Soft Bulletin, SACDs of Tago Mago, the Downward spiral, Blonde on Blonde) and can say that they sound better than the CD versions. One of the major selling points of these new formats is the increased dynamic range which most of the remastering / remix engineers take full advantage of, I think in part because they realize who are going to buy into these formats - geeks like us who are dissatisfied with how things "normally" sound. Of course, some titles could continue to be over-compressed in the process of mixing them to DVD-A or SACD but that has not generally been my experience. I'm glad you brought these new formats up because when I first read the article my first response was "Nick should try out SACD or DVD-A to give himself a contrasting listening experience". I think it is ironic that in an increasingly technological age we are capable of making things sound and look so much better but the thing people choose more often is the thing that makes things sound worse (ie, MP3). By the way, my universal SACD, DVD-A, DVD-V player cost about the same as an Ipod nano (and it'll play MP3 discs too).
Posted 05/07/2006 - 07:02:25 PM by :
 Clearly not all professional producers and engineers agree, otherwise this compression problem wouldn't exist. Typical how you clearly didn't read what I said Mac.
Posted 05/07/2006 - 07:15:37 PM by :
 The last thing I'm going to say is that I don't disagree with the factual information about compression that the author presents. Of course I don't. I disagree with the rather grand conclusions about music general that he draws from them. Compression is part of a general trend in loudness that, yes, is rather tiring when heard at home on a hifi system with hifi headphones. Try telling those kids dancing at Crobar that "Crazy in Love" sounds flat and will cause ear fatigue; they don't care, it sounds great at ridiculous dBs on that PA system. Neither does the producer whose pockets were lined by it's massive commercial success. Why *should* anyone care who doesn't sit at home all day obsessing over AOR masterworks?
Posted 05/08/2006 - 03:37:21 AM by NickSouthall:
 Of course, Jess, no one "should" care, but I've always considered caring better than not caring, and that goes for anything.
Posted 05/08/2006 - 06:07:13 AM by maceasy:
 Jess, you give the game away with your little sneering comment at the end of your reply. Haven't you got any, you know, arguments you can use? If you had read the article or the accompanying links, you would know that this is zero to do with the genre of music. Perhaps you can enlighten us where Bob Katz is wrong, or Bob Speer, or Roger Nichols. Or post a link where other engineers disagree with them. But if the kids don't apparenlty care, why should you?
Posted 05/08/2006 - 02:20:30 PM by childstarc:
 (now that the article is off the main page, i'm not sure who'll see this, but well...) raskolnikov: I'm aware of common complaints with recording in a digital environment, but I've NEVER heard of digital bass frequency problems, so I'm just curious where you came up with that. You are also still confused about your compressions. MP3 "data" compression simply does not affect audio (volume) levels. Open up some files in Audition or Soundlab, take an average RMS, and verify this for yourself if you have to. Jess, I'm not sure where your teacher is coming from. In digital recording there is only so much room between -infinity dB (silence) and 0 dB (clipping). If you are recording something peaking near 0dB (which I'm sure you know is basic practice), there is only one way to increase RMS (perceived volume): COMPRESS the signal. Sure if you recorded with peaks at -36 dB or something, you'd have room to "just turn up amps," but recording at such low levels is ridiculously defeating, since it means sacrificing 99% of your input range. OK, done with the grossly off-topic tutorial/diatribe.
Posted 05/08/2006 - 06:21:37 PM by NickSouthall:
 If anyone wanted an example of a record that's not compressed, the new Scott Walker will do very nicely.
Posted 05/09/2006 - 05:46:23 AM by maceasy:
 Thanks for the advice, Nick. I was wondering whether your research had discoverred whether vinyl suffers from this as well. While I am not retro in my wish to revert to vinyl, I wonder if the limited runs are worth considering. I would have thought it is harder to squash the peaks and kill the dynamics, but I don't know for sure.
Posted 05/09/2006 - 11:30:08 AM by NickSouthall:
 Vinyl depends on the label, on the artist, on lots of things. Generally, yes, music will be mastered differently for vinyl, but I know for a fact that some record labels just print them from the CD master, which is pretty distressing.
Posted 05/10/2006 - 04:31:40 PM by :
 there's always gain to adjust, at various stages during the recording process, more depending on whether you run the signal straight into protools (or whichever editing software you're using), and how sophisticated your console is, right? if you adjust the gain to allow for more volume, the signal won't clip until x dB higher than it would have otherwise. you can't get massive amounts of extra volume that way, but definitely some. also, digital music just sounds flatter to begin with, regardless of compression. i think some people who haven't heard a lot of compression could confuse deeper digital data "flatness" issues with compression-caused issues, you know? i think it's far too easy a scapegoat for bad recordings. there are TONS of reasons why most recordings are bad. like the songwriting sucks. there's not enough/too much reverb. the guitarist likes to use shit equipment. that kind of thing. i like electronic music best, which doesn't run into these kinds of issues. hence my surprise at someone saying music was being ruined by compression. i love all that new microhouse stuff, i don't think it's missing any essential component. i don't care how much you compress an essentially "dead" signal like one from a 606, you know, child? it'll sound pretty good unless you get way ridiculous with the compression. as someone who obviously knows about digital recording/editing, don't you think some of this argument comes down to sheer aesthetic preference? and that therefore there is room for disagreement? you seem to understand that...
Posted 05/10/2006 - 04:40:49 PM by :
 also, if i read him closely enough, i think rask was saying that the "low end" loses a lot of warmth and air and space in digital recordings, for whatever reason, as a result of the way digital data is stored/processed/read/etc. not that there are any identifiable or easy to pin down "frequency problems."
Posted 06/01/2006 - 08:51:40 AM by matthewk:
 Nice read Nick - and it got me to dig out Surfer Rosa and shred the paintwork with it, first time I've done that since I got my current amp. It is a thing of beauty, and a lot of current CDs do sound like clipped rubbish. However - must take issue with your comment that the Liars' album is badly compressed. Half of the drum sound is achieved deliberately by passing the drum sound through some 80s looking reverb unit, they do it live as well. The other drum kit is reproduced pretty well I think, in fact the album has a lot more dynamics than many recent ones. And really, are they shooting for a "hot" radio-friendly sound? Sorry - it just pushed my buttons. But your central issue is vital - people have got to care about sound and recording, it's such a pleasure when it's right. That's why I like DVD-A and SACD - the formats offer no real benefit over CD in terms of reproducing audible sounds, but when people buy those formats they are choosing sound quality and good mastering, it's one way around the current trend.
Posted 02/15/2007 - 05:02:27 AM by guygarvey:
 Hello. i'm Guy Garvey of elbow.Craig Potter the keyboard player and more recently producer of the band sent me your article and i'd like to let you know how much we appreciate it. The decision between squashing the fuck out of a record to make it sit comfy on give away cover mount cds , jumping out at some under qualified radio programmer or letting your records live and breath and hanging on to volume as a precious creative tool is one of the many examples of art vs commerce that elbow face daily. I think that the growing division between ticket sales and record sales may be the listening mans saviour. as i predicted many years ago music will one day be free as a matter of course and bands will live off their live reputations. this may cut labels out of the equation and with them commercial knob twiddling. again thanks for a refreshing read. guy.
Posted 06/04/2007 - 04:59:23 AM by nathanwoolls:
 There's a piece in today's Times (4th June) on this topic.
Posted 10/02/2007 - 05:11:04 PM by monkey:
 ...I think you deserve a big pat on the back Nick (even if yo do like Embrace lol). For years I had wondered why I would get so fatigued of listening to the music of some of my favourite bands, and for the life of me I couldn't work out why - often going weeks without listening to music full stop, because my senses had been that overloaded - an audio detox if you can call it that. Particularly so when I first started listening to music, and was perhaps was less selective of what I listened to. Similarly I also wondered some of the more recently released albums sounded so flat to ones released 15-20 years ago, like as you mentioned Nevermind by Nirvana. And a lot of the time it wasn't that the bands weren't imaginative or didn't make a good record, because live they were fab, but for some reason on record they sounded so flat, well now I sort of understand why. A notable anecdote, is playing Takk by Sigur Rós to a mate, on its release, and him getting annoyed at having to adjust the volume every so often, because he wasn't used to the dynamic shifts being more accustomed to listening to records by Keane or Coldplay which are really highly compressed. We also had to play it at higher volume than his other records, so I think even with music released today you can notice the difference. Anyway I just wanted to come on and say what a great article you wrote, and good on you for raising this issue. I would normally be put off reading something so long, especially on a computer screen, but I just had to finish it, and sign up as soon as I could tell you what a great article it is.
Posted 10/02/2007 - 05:16:28 PM by monkey:
 ...woooo I posted on a messagboard, two posts after someone in elbow...