The top 10 reasons why music is compressed

People like the sound of compressed music, or to put it another way, people don't like music that has quiet and loud passages.

Steve Guttenberg

First things first, I'm referring to soft-to-loud dynamic range compression, not 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:

No. 10: 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.

No. 9: Louder music, even if it's just slightly louder, almost always sounds better than quieter music.

No. 8: 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.

No. 7: When listening in shuffle mode, there's a good chance 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.

No. 6: 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 sounds 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 soft-to-loud dynamic range than LPs.

No. 5: Engineers like using different types of compression to create new sounds to catch the ear. There's nothing wrong with that.

No. 4: People so rarely listen to music in quiet surroundings, they need compression to keep music loud enough to be heard over the noise.

No. 3: If people really didn't like compression, they would stop buying/listening to compressed music (see No. 1).

No. 2: 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.

No. 1: 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.

About the author

Ex-movie theater projectionist Steve Guttenberg has also worked as a high-end audio salesman, and as a record producer. Steve currently reviews audio products for CNET and works as a freelance writer for Home Theater, Inner Fidelity, Tone Audio, and Stereophile.

 

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