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Is compression helping or hurting the sound of music?

Here's what you need to know about what dynamic range compression is doing to your music.

Steve Guttenberg/CNET

Compression has gotten a bad rap in recent times, but I'd wager nearly all of your favorite records are compressed. Some less than others, yet some of your most beloved tunes are massively compressed. Dynamic range compression (not lossy compression) is a handy scapegoat too often tagged to bad-sounding music, but heavily compressed music isn't a new trend: listen to Motown albums from the 1960s. The same goes for Led Zeppelin's classic work, and as for more recent music even the best-sounding Wilco and Radiohead albums are compressed. Dynamic range compression reduces music's naturally occurring soft-to-loud dynamics, so a whisper might be as loud as a scream. You'd be hard-pressed to find a piece of popular music of the last 50 years that isn't compressed.

I recently had a nice chat with Tape Op magazine founder and editor Larry Crane about the good, bad and ugly aspects of compression. (Crane also runs the Jackpot! Recording Studio in Portland, Ore.)

Crane agreed with my stance and added, "You have to look at compression from two different angles: are we talking about the whole audio track being compressed in mixing or mastering, or individual elements (instruments or vocals) while the music is being recorded or mixed." Right -- compression is used in all phases of record making, so many of the soft-loud dynamics may be long gone by the time the mastering engineer makes the final pass. If you don't have access to the multitrack masters, two-track mix-down and the final master you can't begin to understand why a record sounds the way it does.

I brought up Spoon's 2014 album "They Want My Soul," as an example of a particularly harsh-sounding recording of great tunes. Crane laughed and said he mostly listened to it in his car , and he thought it sounded great there. Which brings up another aspect of why music is compressed: because if you listen in noisy places, compression and a little extra "crispness" helps the music cut through the noise better.

Larry Crane on the job. Jason Quigley

When people say they like the sound of a record, I take that to mean they like the music, as if sound and music are interchangeable terms. They're not to me -- the sound from an audiophile point of view might be crude or harsh, but ultimately that doesn't matter for most listeners.

A lot of folks are quick to blame the overuse of compression on mastering engineers, but compression is used during recording sessions, more compression is applied when the music is mixed, and then again during mastering. Unless you were present at each stage, you wouldn't know what the instruments and vocals sounded like in the beginning of the process.

If the artists wanted you to hear premixed and premastered sound, they would release music the way the band heard it "in the studio." Crane said, "People who produce, engineer, mix and master records are not the ones in the way -- we've been helping artists since this whole thing started 100-plus years ago. We're part of the creative process that makes amazing works of art." He added, "You don't need a version of 'Dark Side of the Moon' that hasn't been mixed or mastered." Pink Floyd released the version they want you to hear.

Crane was on a roll, "If the artist wants the sound to be crazy and distorted like a Guided by Voices record, there's nothing wrong with that, if that's the intent, and intent always trumps sound quality." Vocals are almost always compressed, same for bass, drums, guitars and keyboards. Compression keeps the vocal at the right level throughout the tune, or lets them jump out of the mix a little better without being louder; just the right type of compression might make the drums more exciting or intentionally weird. It's all about using the available tools to make great-sounding music. That's why it takes years to learn how to use compression with just the right touch. If the mix engineer leaned too hard on the guitar's compression, the mastering engineer won't be able to fully restore the missing dynamics.

Larry Crane has recorded Stephen Malkmus, Cat Power, Sleater-Kinney, Jenny Lewis, M. Ward, the Go-Betweens, Jason Lytle, Elliott Smith, Quasi and Richmond Fontaine, to name just a few. His Jackpot! Studio has played host to sessions for the Breeders, The Decemberists, Eddie Vedder, Pavement, R.E.M., She & Him, and many, many more.