Those who know me know that I am passionate about how classical music is recorded and that my belief is that it is often not recorded well. You may have even suffered through a rant of mine on this subject, or followed (or even been a part of) one of several discussions I have had on the subject on social media. I’d like to address this issue a little differently today. I think that part of the problem in this is that composers don’t understand what some of the major techniques used in the recording process are, how they work, and why they’re important to how their music is perceived. So, rather than arguing with engineers (which is usually who ends up on the other side of this conversation) I’d like to try and educate composers, and anyone else who’s interested, about one of the major elements that plays a key role in this debate: compression.
I’ll be dealing with this in three installments over the next three weeks. Today’s topic is why this process is important in the way that our music is sold and consumed by listeners. Next week will be a rather technical post about what exactly compression is and how we use it. Finally, the third installment will deal with some of the pushback that I’ve gotten on this issue.
It’s worthwhile to start with a sort of quick-and-dirty definition of compression. In its most basic sense, compression is a dynamic effect that engineers use to limit the dynamic range of an audio signal. Put simply, it makes loud things quieter and quiet things louder. It does this by turning down the volume when a signal gets loud, and then compensating for that gain loss by turning up the overall volume, thus reducing the overall dynamic range. Again, we’ll get into this more next week.
Compression is frequently used on individual tracks of a recording, but much of this conversation hinges around master compression, or compression that occurs in the final stages of creating a recording on the overall mix of several tracks. This kind of compression, which is frequently accomplished with a device called a limiter, is generally used to make the overall volume of a piece of music louder, without causing it to overload and distort.
Why do I want this?
The fact of the matter is that we need to be aware of what people expect from our product. Most people listen to music in their car, at the gym, or at work. In many cases, these are the only times that a person will listen to music in their life at all. Neither of these situations is particularly conducive to listening to very quiet music. Most cars have an idle cabin noise level of about 40dB (source). This increases as the car travels faster. An office is at least equivalent and often louder (source) . So, in order for someone to actually be able to hear your music in either of those situations, they need to turn the volume up above that level. Turning the overall volume up to make the quiet parts louder than the atmospheric noise also makes the loud parts louder by the same increment; if the range between quiet and loud is too large, the adjustment that needs to be made can make it difficult to listen to music without having to frequently readjust the volume.
I have frequently heard people complain about constantly having to adjust the volume control on their stereo when they listen to classical music. In fact, I’ve probably complained about this myself. It’s an extremely common complaint. This is a problem that stems directly from not using compression in the recording process. This might not seem like that big of a deal, but you have to look at what that really means.
People hate this.
When you don’t use compression on your recordings, you are asking for someone to go through something that annoys them, which they hate, in order to be able to listen to your music. So you’re making it hard for people to be able to hear what you spent all those hours working on.
People are also lazy. Unless they have an investment in listening to your music (like, if they’re your mom), if you don’t make it easy for them, they won’t do it. Think about the last time you did something you hated. Would you have been willing to pay for that experience? Would you do it again?
Additionally, you simply can’t really ask people to change their listening habits to suit your needs. Recordings are one of the primary ways we have of distributing our music to a wider audience. In fact, other than concerts, which have an inherently limited scope, recordings are the ONLY way we have of reaching any audience that isn’t substantially musically literate. If you want people to listen to recordings of your music, you have to meet them where they are or they are going to go somewhere else. This is one of the major reasons that classical music is labeled as snobby, elitist, and pretentious: because only people with the time to listen to it in their homes while they do nothing else, or to go to a concert, or with the money to listen to it on expensive stereo equipment that applies compression internally are actually ABLE to listen to it in a meaningful way.
We also have to consider the larger musical market place: in essentially every genre of music EXCEPT classical, using compression in the recording process is the norm. In many cases, using hugely intense, destructive compression is the expectation. In fact, for a few decades a thing went on in the recording industry called “the loudness wars” wherein engineers were pushing the limits of what they were putting out, always trying to make it louder and louder. You can read more on that here if you’re interested. What I advocate for is really a much more gentle iteration of this process that is designed simply to make music listenable to a more general audience. If we don’t provide our audience with a listening experience that they enjoy, they will go somewhere else that provides it, and the entire rest of the music industry is already doing that.
The person who’s money we’re all competing for, the person who listens to music in their car, who hates adjusting the volume knob over and over again, ends up being presented with the choice of listening to your classical music that either requires them to go outside of their normal listening habits or suffer through turning the volume up and down over and over again, or listening to something else that has been compressed that they can put on in their car and simply enjoy. This is the choice they make when they spend their dollar. What do you think they’ll actually choose? We need to stop pretending we aren’t in direct competition with the rest of the music industry. We ARE. There’s nothing special about classical music that gives it a pass to exist without an audience. It will die if we do not provide better stewardship of it.