After getting a lot of generous and smart comments on my initial post about compression and mid scooping I decided to take another crack at it. The basic fact, described here, is that modern commercial music is heavily heavily compressed and has its midrange scooped out. The question I’m looking at is why.
The late Walter Sear, of Sear Sound studios in NYC, was a big believer in analog technology and he posted a series of articles on his website about recording and the technology and economics of the industry.
Sear claims compression started when radio broadcast engineers wanted to send their signal further. “By compressing the program material at the transmitter, their broadcast range could be increased, they could reach more listeners in the ‘fringe’ areas, and hence, could charge more to their advertisers.” Everybody pretty much seems to agree about that and that compression could make your station “pop” when someone twiddled the dial.
He goes on: “So, now that the example was set by the broadcast station limiters and compressors, the audio engineers discovered a new tool. Compress, compress and compress.”
Before that, recording engineers constantly turned the the signal level up or down:
And the engineers were trained musicians….You put the score across the [console] and you followed the score. And you knew the human voice — you knew the singer was going to run out of support at the end of a phrase, and you ran up the fader a little bit. And you saw that she had a high F to come in on and you pulled the fader down, knowing she was going to blast it. We were musicians. We were as much a part of the performance as the musicians.
Sear argued that modern use of compression marks the decline of skills. It’s a plausible argument: compression compensates for a musician’s poor control over dynamics. The better the musician, the better and more consistent his or her control over dynamics. No rock band gives the engineer a score: the aesthetic of rock and jazz and R+B prizes spontaneity over scripted dynamics. Sear is lamenting a decline of meaning of skill on the part of musicians and and on the part of engineers. A machine, the compressor, replaced individual skills.
The alternative says it’s a question of taste: that compression “just sounds better.” And really, Sear is kind of contradicting himself in that quote: if compression is so bad, why were engineers in effect doing it themselves, by “riding the faders?” His own account suggests that compression is just an automated version of what he was already doing, and that what he was doing sounded good.
But that’s not what he means. Sear also makes an argument that human hearing is not designed to emphasize loud, “steady state” noises. “When we were trying to survive in the jungle, it wasn’t the steady state wind noise that was important,” Sear says: “It was when the tiger stepped on the twig which snapped that was important for survival.”
I’m usually extremely skeptical of “when we were in the jungle” arguments. It’s just too easy to make that stuff up. But the “steady state” argument is kind of interesting. The steady state sound of a big waterfall fills the mind: it’s intense and overpowering. I wonder if the taste for compression comes from exactly the fact that it’s “steady state” and overwhelming? Because Sear isn’t wrong–what compression does is bring all the same components in a pieces of music to the same flat dynamic range–not the same relative volume, but the same dynamic range, so every instrument comes at you in the same steady roar. For a great example, listen to Lady GaGa’s Bad Romance.
He’s also right that setting up a machine is cheaper than hiring an engineer who’s also a musician, at a professional studio staffed by guys with physics degrees. That’s expensive. Hiring good musicians to play the songs on the Byrds’ first album, instead of using the Byrds themselves, was expensive.
The more modern engineering method, hiring one guy with a computer and software to record each person individually, fix their mistakes, and recombine it into a sonic whole, in which each instrument comes at a uniform level of compression, is much cheaper. And the music that results is typically sonically forceful: it overwhelms the senses, like a waterfall.
I don’t know the exact reason all modern music is compressed, but it’s seems plausible that it’s a product of economics. If somebody’s primary exposure to music was songs on the radio, heavily compressed, then that listener wanted to hear that same sound when he bought the record. At each stage, compression both builds a taste for compression and makes production cheaper, which builds a taste for compression which makes production cheaper, and pretty soon you have a mass taste.
Economic causes mus be crucial, but also a desire to have music be overwhelming, so it blots everything else out and fill the mind. Whether that’s a good thing is hard to say. Does anybody other then the owners of recording studios yearn for the days when the only way to record was to rent really expensive studio time? I like cheap recording technology, but it’d be nice to walk away from the sonic waterfall now and then.