This is the final installment of a three-part series about using compression in recordings of classical music. In part one, I talked about why it’s important for composers to advocate that their music be recorded and mixed using compression. In part two, I discussed the technical side of this issue: what is compression and how does it work? In this last part, I want to provide some context about what the perceived reasons are for not using this technique on classical music.
Why isn’t this already happening?
It’s difficult for me to present the other side of this issue because I have never believed in it. I have an inherent bias against recording music this way and I feel passionately about the fact that we should be doing it better. With that in mind, I think the best way for me to approach this part of this discussion is to present the arguments against using compression on classical music that I have found to either be the most convincing, or that I have heard the most frequently. I’m also presenting my rebuttal to each of these comments. For what it’s worth, I have never heard an argument that had me convinced. If I had, I would put it here.
1. “Using compression on a concert recording makes all sorts of weird things about the concert hall
and all kinds of background noises become much more evident in the recording than otherwise.”
This is absolutely 100% true. However, rather than being an argument against using compression, this is actually only an argument in favor of not recording music during a live performance, recording in a studio space and close mic’ing all the instruments. See #4 below.
This isn’t to say that live recordings aren’t valuable. They are, and this is true in other genres as well. But they are a different kind of product for a different audience than a studio recordings are. As a rule, live music and recorded music are different products and should be treated differently. See #3 below.
2. “I want my music to have a wide dynamic range. When I write ppp, I want it to be
barely audible. When I write fff, I want it to be overpowering.”
This actually seems like a pretty convincing argument initially and it’s true that using compression limits the dynamic range of a recording. The problem is that this ignores both a truth about the physical properties of sound, and the necessity of compensating for the ways in which people listen to music.
There is a relationship that exists in acoustic instruments between perceivable overtones and amplitude. Any pitched sound (except a sine wave) contains a fundamental and numerous overtones that occur in a particular pattern above the fundamental. The presence and relative amplitude of these overtones is what creates timbre in musical sounds. As the frequency of these overtones increases, their relative amplitude decreases. Further, as the amplitude of the fundamental decreases, so do the relative amplitudes of each subsequent overtone. In short, louder sounds have more audible overtones than quiet ones.
This means that louder sounds have a different timbre than quieter sounds! So, in fact, when a composer writes ppp they’re not just writing a soft sound, they’re also writing a sound with an inherently different timbre. Increasing the volume of a prerecorded sound only makes that timbre louder, it doesn’t alter it. So your “barely audible” ppp will still actually have the timbre of a quiet sound no matter how loud we make it, and the fff will always have the timbre of fff even when the volume is turned all the way down. Therefore, we have to assume that changing a “barely audible” ppp into something that’s actually listenable won’t have a significant difference on the perception of that sound.
The other part of this particular argument is really about the context in which we listen to music. If I am listening in my car, for example, I need to get the quietest sound above the noise floor (the volume of ambient sound) of my car to be able to hear it. If your ppp was recorded at 20 dB, in my Honda on the highway, I need to turn it up at least 20 dB to be able for it to be “barely audible.” The problem is that by doing that I also made the explosive fff that’s coming 20 dB louder. If that fff was recorded at 80 dB, now it’s 100 dB!
Good performers naturally make these kinds of adjustments when they play. If a hall is very large, ppp will be louder than it would in a small chamber setting. And fff will be quieter at a house concert than it will be in an amphitheater. Players adjust their dynamics to suit the space in which they perform. This is why we don’t write decibel numbers into the score instead of dynamic markings. The system for notating dynamics is designed to be flexible.
Unfortunately, this is not how recordings work. The relative distance between different dynamic levels is entirely fixed once it is recorded, and can’t be adjusted to suit the listening situation, so we need to provide a sufficiently limited dynamic range that listening is actually possible in a variety of situations. The only way to accomplish this is with compression.
3. “I do this sort of thing to classical music if I’m mixing a movie score. But never to a concert piece.”
Once upon a time I asked my facebook friends to tell me who their favorite living composer was. Everyone, and I mean literally EVERYONE, who wasn’t deeply versed in contemporary classical music (and even some who were) said the name of a movie composer. The fact that engineers are mixing movie music differently than concert music, and that everyone loves movie music is not a coincidence! This is also not a question of compositional language or marketing. Experimental music gets made all the time, even by film composers (consider the scores for Interstellar or The Revenant), and sells well because people listen to it when it is recorded correctly. This is a question of how listenable the music is in its recorded form. Concert music and film music are the same sounds made by the same instruments. Musically speaking, they are the same thing. The only difference is context. It’s foolish to think that there is something “special and different” about concert music as opposed to film music that necessitates a different technique when they are the same thing.
4. “People want to hear the natural sound of the hall the music is being played in. Compression destroys that.”
I have literally no idea where this came from. No one wants to hear the sound of the hall. The hall sucks. It’s full of coughing, sneezing, talking, cell phone carrying people. That’s not what anyone wants to hear on a classical record. They want to hear the music, not the hall.
Ok, I’ll grant you an audiophile or three who spent more money on their stereo system than their car, but this is at best a niche market. It’s fine to make recordings that cater to that market, but it doesn’t make any sense to record an entire genre a particular way with those three guys in mind. Other than them, if people wanted to hear the sound of the hall, they would be buying records of pop music “as recorded at Carnegie hall” or whatever. They’re not doing that. And they’re certainly not buying records of classical music bearing the same information.
5. “This is a genre of music for the concert hall, not for recordings.”
There are so many things wrong with this…
First of all, if this is true, why are we recording this stuff at all? Why is this even an issue?
Second, this is another reason that people are turned off by classical music being snooty and elitist and so on. By saying classical music is only for the concert hall you are also saying that it is only for people who can afford concert tickets, a suit, a baby sitter, and a night off of work. It further says that this music is only for people who live in a major metropolitan area where this kind of music is performed, or can afford to travel to one.
At its best, this way of thinking is, indeed, elitist. At its worst, it’s racist.
Classical music is a beautiful, powerful art form that can and should be made, listened to, and appreciated by anyone and everyone. Recordings are the opportunity that we have to make our music approachable by those who would not normally have the opportunity to hear it. Recordings are the way that we can carry our music into new generations and inspire the people who will create and appreciate the classical music of the future. That isn’t true of the concert hall.
6. “People shouldn’t listen to classical music in cars or at work etc.”
They already do.
Again, this falls into the category of limiting your audience to those who can afford to spend a significant amount of time just listening to your music, or a significant amount of money to buy the equipment to make it not suck to listen to. I don’t even know musicians, people who are deeply passionate about music, who are capable of making that kind of time and money. Everyone has a family and friends and a job and a million places they have to be all the time. If we want people to listen to our art, we need to meet them where they are. This is especially true since every other genre is already successfully doing this and winning the ears and wallets of consumers far in advance of anything we put out.
I WANT PEOPLE TO HEAR MY MUSIC! I don’t care where they listen to it, or how, or why. These things don’t matter to me and they aren’t the reason that I write music. I write music so that people will listen to it, and that means that I have an obligation to my audience to make this as easy as I can for them.
These are the most common and most convincing reasons that people have given me for not recording and mastering classical music with a compressor. To me, they seem to all be either related to some incorrect decision they’ve made about the market for classical music, or to some fundamental misinformation they have about the nature of sound. And none of them are convincing to me. What’s more, many of them equate essentially to “this is just the way it’s done” which is a bad excuse to do things in a lazy way.
That might not be true for you. If not, that’s fine. There is a wealth of people who think like you and will make your music the way you want. But you need to know that you are limiting your audience and you’re making your music unapproachable and hard to listen to. When people don’t listen to your music and don’t come to your concert you can’t blame them for “not understanding art” or “not being educated enough” because those things aren’t true and never have been. What’s true is that you presented your product, which you have labored over for hours and hours, in a lazy way that people hate and don’t want to buy.
If you do agree with what I’m saying here, you should know this: those of us who write music and those who perform it are the ones that are driving the recording industry as it relates to classical music. We make industry decisions by spending our money in one place, and not another; by releasing one kind of sound and not another. This is what drives industry trends. We have a responsibility to ensure that our music is presented in the best possible way that it can be, or no one’s going to listen to it.
You have the power to change this kind of trend by taking control of how your music is presented to your audience. Be informed about these processes. Advocate for them to be done correctly by hiring people who will treat your art the way that you want it treated, and by NOT hiring people who try to convince you otherwise.
If classical music is dying, it’s because somewhere down the line we stopped caring about whether or not people listen to what we create. Either that or we never learned the tools that are necessary to compete on a technological level with what the rest of the music world is creating. Or, worse yet, we’ve stopped considering the fact that our music does, in fact, need to compete with the rest of what’s out there.
People want to listen to your music, but you need to let them.