The top 10 reasons why music is compressed

First things first, I'm referring to soft-to-loud dynamic range compression, not to MP3 or other types of lossy data compression. Dynamic range compression has been around for almost as long as recorded music has existed, but, over the last decade or so, the public has demanded ever higher levels of dynamic range compression.

The so-called lowest common denominator approach to mixing and mastering music boosts all of the softer/quieter passages to be loud all the time. That process obliterates all of the original details, subtleties and nuances of the instruments and vocalists. Once the mix has been compressed, it can never be uncompressed by the end user.

Here are the top 10 reasons why music is compressed.

  1. Compression is part of the sound of contemporary music. Completely uncompressed music would sound lifeless and boring to most listeners. They crave more energy than unprocessed sound offers

  2. Louder music, even if it's just slightly louder, almost always sounds better than quieter music

  3. Most music is listened to in the background to accompany some other activity, like working, reading, exercising, driving or cooking. When you're doing something else, uncompressed music's constantly shifting volume level would be an annoyance

  4. When listening in shuffle mode, there's a good chance that you'll skip over the quieter songs to get to the next tune. Record producers live in fear of a mix that's too quiet

  5. In the days before CD mastering, engineers needed to boost the quietest sounds to keep them above the LP's noise floor, and reduce the loudest volume level to keep the "needle" in the groove. Digital didn't have those problems, but we still wound up with CDs that have less dynamic range than LPs

  6. Engineers like using different types of compression to create new sounds to catch the ear

  7. People so rarely listen to music in quiet surroundings that they need compression to keep music loud enough to be heard over the noise

  8. If people really didn't like compression, they would stop buying/listening to compressed music

  9. People mistake compression for dynamics; when all the sounds are loud and "punchy", it's called "dynamic". Naturally, dynamic music lacks the kick of a compressed mix

  10. Audiophiles like to complain about compressed music, but they actually prefer it.

How do you feel about compression? Share your thoughts in the comments section.


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MarkI posted a comment   

See Reason **** sounds better louder (Thats why you should make music that is not all loud)


peter patina posted a comment   

Hollywood movies to star in must be on the light side for Steve Guttenberg. Lol


JacksonG posted a comment   

I find the compression on voices in TV ads to be painful to the ear, that and what they are saying, and the tone they use...

A lot of 'purists' do complain about over compression, but if not overdone it is much more comfortable to listen to than music with too low compression. I think people are getting very used to everything being the same level, when I watch a movie at home I find the others always want to turn it up in the talking scenes and down in the loud scenes, where I'm happy for the loud bits to be loud.


BillC1 posted a comment   

Compression is an unknown variable to most listeners. They have no clue. They feel agitated by the music and the length of time people can comfortably listen to popular music is steadily decreasing. They have no idea why.

Compression is applied at the vocal/instrument level to even out the sounds of the individual musical elements - in particular guitars/vocals and acoustic instruments including drums. This is an important and valid technique.

Then it is applied by engineers in post-production to the mix to make it "loud".

Then it is applied further by radio stations to compete with each other on loudness.

Then it is applied still further by some stereo systems to enhance the perceived sound quality.

I don't necessarily hate the lack of dynamic range. There a compelling argument alluded to in the article that compressed vocals etc is a stylistic fashion as valid as any other musical trend. I can live with this - kinda...

What really bugs me the most is that a sound wave at extreme modern compression levels stimulates the ear to behave as if there is an extremely loud and damaging organic noise. Our ears contract certain muscles to protect us from the "blast". This makes it tiring and uncomfortable to listen to music over time. Regardless of how low we turn the volume down the sound wave and it's impact on the ear stays the same. We become irritated and do not know why until the radio is switched off.

I really welcome discussion on this subject, as the more people are aware of compression, what it sounds like and how it effects us, the more likely we are to change something. However, the basis of this article pre-supposes that people actually want and even demand ever higher compression rates. People want better quality in their music for sure, but most are fooled by psycho-acoustics to think compressed music sounds like "higher quality" music. However, the long term effect of this processing is to actually turn people off music. Is this the mechanism by which popular music will eventually kill itself?

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