[the palaverist]

Thursday, October 05, 2006

[the compression obsession]

Ever put a bunch of CDs on random in your disc changer, only to find yourself scrambling for the remote to turn down the volume when you go from a relatively quiet record to one that blasts? Ever wonder why different CDs are mastered at different volumes?

DKNY once explained to me that record companies have for years been pushing new CDs ever louder, in the belief that louder somehow equals awesomer. And it's true that on cheap stereos and crappy headphones — the sort of equipment owned by, say, teenagers — the additional loudness can give a record some extra power.

Unfortunately, the effect is achieved through a process called compression, in which the dynamic range of the recording is squeezed, so that the quietest sounds become louder and the loudest sounds become quieter. Then the whole reduced-range package is given a higher overall volume. An article in the Austin-American Statesman goes into greater detail about both the technicalities and the industry issues behind them. This tends to smooth the music into a roaring mass of sound that is fatiguing to the ears. It's a trick Phil Spector used and was probably right to use: he was making three-minute ditties to be played on AM radio, surrounded by far less densely recorded songs. But it's why entire CDs of Spector hits are so exhausting. Eventually the wall of sound crushes you.

On today's 70-minute pop CDs, though, the effect can be intensely wearing. So why do producers do it? Partly there's an element of competition: when your disc comes up in the changer, you want people to hear it. Likewise when they listen to your song in MP3 form in the car or the subway, where it has to compete with background noise. And I will admit that while commuting, I often skip songs with a lot of quiet bits in them.

Music has always been affected by the requirements of loudness. Jazz went from tuba to upright bass when electrical amplification made the latter audible over the uproar of the brass, and this allowed a looser rhythm that became known as swing. Louis Armstrong's trumpet and Caruso's tenor had the clean, clear wave forms necessary to punch through the static of 78s, while new hi-fi technologies ushered in the crooners of the 1950s. Electrification of guitars was initially a way to make them louder, with distortion considered a problem to be avoided, as its name implied; only after Jimi Hendrix did musicians start using distortion as its own instrument. And I have posited that the high-treble tendencies of 1970s heavy metal — the squealing guitar solos and Robert Plant-inspired screeching — had much to do with the fact that people listened to this stuff on FM radio in their cars, where bass notes and baritone voices would be buried under the rumble of engine noise.

Will we pull back?

Trends in recording come and go, and we are in a moment that has particular respect for sheen. It's an 80s retro moment, among other things, and 80s pop production was awfully shiny and bright. En Vogue and Paula Abdul and Def Leppard and Bon Jovi had very, very clean, slick production. Ultimately that's much of what made them sound ridiculous. Late-80s pop was knocked off its perch by the inheritors of a countercurrent in 80s rock: the post-punk murk and dynamic range of Steve Albini and the Pixies. Nirvana made their fortune from dynamic range, and alternative acts and labels with decidedly unshiny production — SubPop, Beck's Mellow Gold, Pavement — took over the mainstream.

For a while, no record was complete without pointless feedback and studio noise tacked on. (Did we really need that extra three seconds of amp hum at the end of the song?) But like anything else, grunge ran its course, and artists who demonstrated auditory discipline and sophistication and songcraft began to sound fresh and new instead of stale and packaged. At the same, technology created another shift in the way young artists were creating music. For the first time, it became cheaper and easier to assemble sophisticated soundscapes on computer than to buy a guitar, a bass, two amps, a trap kit and a four-track. Guitar-driven garage rock lost its claim to superior authenticity, and anyone with a computer could be a record producer. To stand out as professional — to protect the guild, as it were — actual record producers have had to go searching for things to do that kids in their basements can't do. And as far as I can tell, compression and loudness are the marks of professional as opposed to amateur CD production.

I suppose the big question is whether artists and record companies will be willing to risk musical moments that get lost when tracks are converted to low-grade MP3s and played in noisy environments. My guess is that they will, and that quieter CDs with more dynamic range will eventually be seen as a mark of sophistication. Why? Because pop music is always looking for a new sound, and its pendulum is always swinging. Some record with phenomenal dynamic range will sell a gazillion copies, and suddenly everyone will be demanding auditory Easter eggs, hidden sounds that only show up at high volume. ("Telephone call for Mr. Jones!") It's as likely as anything else.

Well, almost anything else. The one really unlikely scenario is that pop music will keep sounding like it does today.

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Anonymous DKNY said...

Mmmmm, 3 seconds of amp hum. Love it!

I'm not sure you're right about excess compression being used to "protect the guild" (nice term, that). After all, compressing a waveform in ProTools or Logic is ridiculously easy (and you can even watch the waveform, which is pretty cool). I think it has more to do with competition---an exec will come in with a CD that he was listening to in the car, and say "Why isn't the track you're recording as loud as this?" Yes, that's stupid, but so are most record execs (oh believe you me, so are most record execs).

A change may come soon---there've been a couple of pieces about the loudness wars, and audio engineers annoyance with them. Though you may be right that the popularity of portable music devices, and the attendant need to drown out background noise, will keep that change at bay for a while. Me, I have my lovely, lovely Etymotic Research 6 headphones, so all the subway noise in the world ain't no thang.

8:14 AM  
Blogger [the palaverist] said...

Yeah, you make a strong point about the record execs driving this trend.

In terms of portable music devices, I think we're going to see a shift back towards higher fidelity over the coming years as massive amounts of storage space get ever cheaper and people switch from MP3 to lossless formats.

The growing popularity of noise-cancelling headphones is a case in point. If you're dropping $400 for your new iPod Freakishly Small and another $150 for your snazzy headphones, you may want high-quality data to run through that system.

Still, considering that there's been no particularly strong reason for the trend toward clipping and compression, I expect the trend to swing the other way, as trends do.

9:40 AM  
Anonymous DKNY said...

I think you're right that MP3s will gradually be supplanted by something higher quality. The iTunes Music store already sells files as AAC, a higher-quality, less compressed format. Admittedly, bandwidth restrictions may contain that for a while, but those will loosen, hopefully, with time. And already there's a lot of people who transfer their CDs losslessly to their portable player, because they've got the equipment to notice the difference, even at the gym.

The high premium placed on portability, though, does strengthen the hand of loudness. It's interesting to contrast this with the Playboy hi-fi aesthetic of the 50s, 60s, and 70s, where records often had a lot of dynamic range to show off the ability of your enormous living room stereo to sound clear at any volume.

But these, along with executives' and engineers' thoughts on how to record, are factors very far from the mind of most consumers, and for that reason, I'm not entirely sure the compression obsession can be thought of as a trend (and thus subject to pendulum-swing change).

It's not as though all the kids are into records mastered louder because it's the fashionable thing, like hip-hop beats. Records sound like that based on decisions made very far from the point of purchase, and vanishingly few consumers are aware of the difference at all. Unlike, say, use of distortion or even quiet-loud alternation in songs, compression level is a difference that's only subconsciously noticable---the same Nirvana song can be mastered with more or less dynamic range without altering the music clearly going from (imagine Beavis voice here) "wussy part" to "awesome part".

And the advantages to louder, more compressed sound is obvious---your record stands out more in a changer, loud = kickass, and so on. The only argument for less compression is that it gives you truer, richer, more satisfying sound. And as we've seen many times in the history of technology, the highest quality standards as perceived by the cognoscenti are often steamrolled in favor of what best meets the needs of the broadest market segment. I remember that even you, a very sophisticated consumer of music, commented once on how annoying it was that Tom Waits CDs were so much quieter than your other CDs, which you saw as a problem in his mixing. If someone as aware as you can think that, don't we all seem sort of doomed to high, hot audio mixing?

3:00 AM  
Anonymous DKNY said...

And speaking of the iPod Freakishly Small---have you seen the new iPod shuffle? Good god, that *is* freakishly small!

12:11 PM  
Blogger [the palaverist] said...

I think your point about trends is valid to an extent, although I think industries have internal trends as well as external, market-driven trends. People on the inside are starting to complain about this issue, so change seems possible.

And I think there have been other mixing issues through recording history that have been mostly known to insiders, but that have made enough of a difference to the consumer that they affected sales and trends. I go back again to the taste in the 1990s for crackle and blur, after a period of very shiny sound. I don't know what the differences are at a technical level, but I'm pretty certain there's some kind of difference.

You're right, though, that the audiophile POV has consistently lost to the mass market. The question is whether the mass market actually supports the high-and-hot tendency, or whether that's just the record execs being dumb. Clearly record sales haven't exactly been through the roof since the mixing has gone loud, although obviously there are lots of other factors.

Considering the bizarre twists and turns in music technology over the last two decades, though, I would hesitate to predict that anything about how music is produced will stay the same for long.

12:48 PM  
Blogger [the palaverist] said...

Oh, and as for the new Nano, yeah, that is ridiculously small. I never want to spend $80 on anything that small unless it will be attached to something much bigger that I can't lose or will make me high.

12:50 PM  
Anonymous DKNY said...

It's an interesting point about recent record sales, actually (goodbye Tower!). I wonder if pushing audiophile sound, including improved recording techniques, would help the industry sell CDs again, and give people some incentive to actually buy music instead of downloading it at lower quality.

6:52 PM  

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