Back in January 2004, Wired ran a piece on how the average volume level of commercial CDs has been steadily rising for the past two decades (Pump Up the Volume). Check out the visual waveforms on that page comparing AC/DC’s 1980 “Back in Black” to Celine Dion’s 2003 “I Drove all Night.” Amazing difference.
Compression is the act of reducing dynamic range during the mastering stage. Rather than making the overall volume louder, the loud/quiet peaks and valleys are brought closer together so there’s less delta in the waveform. The result is that the average volume is greater, even though the loudest sounds aren’t louder (though engineers do push the total volume to the max — at customer insistence — as well). Just as TV commercials seem louder than normal programming — their average volumes are higher, even though peak loudness is not.
In the days of LPs, pushing recorded volumes too far could result in the needle jumping out of the groove, and pressing plants would reject recordings that included clipping artifacts. After the advent of the CD, the needle problem went away. Artists quickly realized that louder overall volumes made a bigger impression on listeners … so louder music had a higher chance of becoming a hit. But despite the “impact” that louder music makes, the ultimate result for listeners is fatigue. Human auditory perception just wasn’t designed to listen to sound bereft of dynamic range.
Today, audio engineers are “exhausted” from trying to resist clients who insist on high compression levels. Either they do it, or the artist goes to an engineer who will. What’s unusual is that the vice president of a major label (Angelo Montrone of A&R) recently wrote an embattled plea to an industry newsletter, basically asking engineers to stop the madness.
Austin 360’s Everything Louder Than Everything Else summarizes the letter and provides an excellent overview of compression and its effect on humans. What I found particularly interesting was this cultural theory on why huge compression has become the norm:
So why aren’t more people noticing this sort of thing? One word: lifestyle. We listen to music in completely different ways than we did 20 or 30 years ago. For most people, music is listened to on the go, in cars, on headphones while running, on computers at work. Music has to compete with the sound of your car’s engine, has to punch through the background noise of street traffic or a loud office. “Ours is a culture of competition,” Wofford says. “Maybe labels think the music has to be super aggressive, super bright, like a kid screaming in a supermarket, to get your attention.”