Tuesday, October 24, 2006

Compression Triumphs

I recently started reading up on the issue of compression in modern audio recordings/remasterings. Now that my mind is on the subject, it's been informing nearly all the music I've been listening to lately. I always knew about the concept of compression, even though I didn't know it by name -- noticing that some albums sound very loud, noticing that certain recordings could be grating on my ears (and not in a "dense" way, i.e. the new Flaming Lips album vs, say, peak era shoegazing albums), mentally noting how some artists sounded louder than their musical style would warrant (hello, KEANE). I've been asking myself "does this sound compressed?" no matter if I'm hearing the song for the first time or the 50th time. I've been marvelling at the fantastic sound on Audion's records, particularly his newest EP "Mouth To Mouth", where you can easily hear quiet clicks and purrs way down in the mix, even on top of the cavernous beats that anchor the EP's two tracks. I'm remembering the stories about how Basic Channel insisted on mastering their vinyl at special facilities, and how much better those recordings sound on vinyl compared to CD. I remember being amazed at the power of the first two Oasis records, decibel-wise, and my dislike for Verve's "A Northern Soul" (also produced by Owen Morris) because it sounded so much like "(What's the Story) Morning Glory?", in dramatic contrast to their gentler, more atmospheric debut.

I recommend articles from Austin360, Stylus, and Wikipedia as an introduction to the subject. But all those articles are quck to point out that compression isn't always a bad thing. Full-on tracks that require almost zero subtlety are likely improved by sloppy, slap-in-the-face compression. Audion's "Mouth To Mouth" EP demands for it's gentler, percussive elements to heard amongst the beats, particularly when the volume is turned up. Other tracks probably wouldn't benefit at all from such subtlety ...

Ladytron, "Destroy Everything You Touch". It's hard to sit through the entire "Witching Hour" album in one sitting (you know why), but this track, with it's stomping beats, wild sirens, and caveman lyrics (perfect for shouting over the din) is just about perfect the way it is.

Depeche Mode, "John the Revelator". It builds up in layers, and Dave Gahan's voice pierces into the red from the very start. By the time the choir joins in during the chorus, there isn't anywhere in the mix left to put them. All the song's vocals feature the collective enunciation of a swarm of bees from this point onward, but who cares? It's Depeche Mode rocking the "Numbers" beat and blowing your speakers apart in the process.

Roots Manuva, "Chin High". All of the "Awfully Deep" album has been banned from my iPod until I figure out how to optimize its volume levelling capabilities. Roots Manuva's baritone does manage to stand out quite clearly, but otherwise the whole album is like one big, thudding bassline and that's OK because they're the best parts of RM albums. "Chin High" adds a bunch of clanking in order to increase the assault on the ears.


Amit said...

If you read the articles the problem with the 'volume wars' is not the compression, but the compression and subsequen loud recording with clippling that is the problem.

What compression does is make soft sounds louder, and stuff that's compressed sounds more "punchy", or "booming".

I don't think you can definitively say something sounds compresed, because it's a relative thing. Probably everything that's been recorded in the last 50 years uses some compression and some instuments are "naturally" compressed.

Guitarists who play a certain style or use a lot of effects will usually have a compressor as the first efect in their chain. It's mainly to even out the volume of notes which are played different ways (hammered on, tapped, plucked etc.)

But I listened to some of the tracks mentioned, and I also listened to the remastered Music for the Masses - and what I've heard so far (stil downloading) sounds like crap. There's weird interference and sounds which I hadn't heard on there before. It sounds like bad reception.

Barry said...

If you read the articles the problem with the 'volume wars' is not the compression, but the compression and subsequen loud recording with clippling that is the problem.

Yeah, I know this -- it's the need/want to make tracks sound loud that leads to overcompression, not the other way around. My general point here was some tracks sound really great in spite of all this compression.

Sure, compression is a relative thing, but some people's ears are very sensitive to it. Some people don't care if a note is sung slightly out of tune, for instance, whereas for other people it makes the song unlistenable.

Certain records are quite obviously compressed. I think Christina Aguilera's "Ain't No Other Man" is a good example of this -- you can hear her voice clipping very badly on some of the high notes. I also think it sounds awful in a bar. Bars play music at very high volume but normally don't have high-quality (or well-placed) speakers. It comes off sounding so swampy, almost like music from an AM radio.

Barry said...

Music for the Masses really needed to be remastered though, but I haven't heard the new version yet.

Amit said...

I'm send you a track from the remastered Music for the Masses to your gmail.

Listen to it and tell me if it sounds fucked to you.