Wednesday, January 9, 2008

DJ, could you please turn that music down a little bit, it's hurting my ears?

There's a very interesting article up on the Rolling Stone website about how bands have been using compression to make their CDs sound louder at the expense of quality.

Compression is a technique that, at a very basic level, evens out the overall volume of a track so it is constantly as loud as it can be. Your ear, which is trained to pay particular attention to loud noises, immediately thinks "this is important, I should listen to this". Yes, even if it's Enrique Inglesias.

The problem is that, when the quiet sections of a song are played at the same volume as the chorus, you lose the dynamics that make a song interesting. Intricate details like plucked strings or finger cymbals get smothered in noise as the instruments compete against one another. And, most importantly, it introduces ear fatigue.

Radio One traditionally uses a lot of compression so that it can be heard over traffic or factory noises. If you have one of those stereos with a peak level meter on it, tune in to Radio One and watch it. It barely moves. That's why, after thirty minutes or so, it often becomes difficult to listen to (unless Sara Cox is on, in which case the time limit is 30 seconds).

In the past decade, CDs have started to apply the same technology, often to the detriment of the music they contain. Two examples that spring to mind are Daft Punk's Discovery and the Red Hot Chili Peppers' By The Way. They both have that tell-tale "pumping" sound, where other instruments are subjugated by transient sounds like kick drums and power chords.

Now, it seems like people in the music industry are starting to rebel against the technique… Read Rolling Stone's investigation to see why producers think listening to music on CD is now "like going to the Louvre and instead of the Mona Lisa there's a 10-megapixel image of it".

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