By Dave Foxx
Any regular reader of this column knows that I am a major proponent of the use of compression in production. I’ve written at length about compressing voice tracks, effects and even compressing the end product. One thing you will note though is I have never advocated the compression of music, particularly hit music that plays within promos or commercials.
Most of today’s hit music is over-processed. There has been discussion of this topic within the broadcast and recording industries for several years, mainly in regards to how it affects the listener. One camp insists that it helps sell records. On the other side of the coin is my group, which insists it causes listener fatigue. Surprised? I am, a little. Someone who says, “You can’t have too much compression on a VO” would seem an unlikely advocate for dynamics, but when it comes to music, less is definitely better.
The whole argument was started – I believe – back in the early ‘70s by jingle writer–cum–music superstar, Barry Manilow. Barry was making a ton of money writing jingles for McDonalds (“You deserve a break today…), Dr. Pepper (I’m a pepper, he’s a pepper, she’s a pepper…) and others, when he got the chance to make his first record. Now, bear in mind that commercial producers have been using compression for decades, to make their spots “jump out” of the radio or television, over the other programming. Barry had been thoroughly schooled in the use of compression and knew the power it adds, so when his first record was mastered, he added a lot of it. Critics were not kind to Barry, but he sold an astounding number of albums anyway. Music company execs sat up and took notice. Somebody decided it was the compression that did it and a new standard of music production was born.
Oh, and it’s gotten worse over the last decade. An article by Joe Gross on Austin360.com (Austin360.com is the on-line arts and entertainment wing of the Austin American-Statesman, the daily paper in Austin, Texas.), called Everything Louder Than Everything Else (October 2, 2006), quoted an open letter to the music industry by Angelo Montrone, a vice president of A&R at One Haven Music, which said, “There’s something…sinister in audio that is causing our listeners fatigue and even pain while trying to enjoy their favorite music. It has been propagated by A&R departments for the last eight years: The complete abuse of compression in mastering (forced on the mastering engineers against their will and better judgment).”
“The mistaken belief that a ‘super loud’ record will sound better and magically turn a song into a hit has caused most major label releases in the past eight years to be an aural assault on the listener,” Montrone’s letter continued. “Have you ever heard one of those test tones on TV when the station is off the air? Notice how it becomes painfully annoying in a very short time? That’s essentially what you do to a song when you super compress it. You eliminate all dynamics.”
The column’s author, Joe Gross explained, “For those already confused, Montrone was essentially saying that there are millions of copies of CDs being released that are physically exhausting listeners, most of whom probably don’t know why their ears and brains are feeling worn out.” He’s got it exactly right. Listen to a copy of Christina Aguilera’s Dirrty — the title track from her 2002 CD — on a good system and you’ll swear there’s something wrong with the system. I don’t mean to pick on Christina, but come on… it just sounds awful. By contrast, her current single release, “Hurt”, sounds very open and wonderfully alive.
Joe Gross went on to write, “Loud records? Can’t you just turn it down? Well, yes and no.
“Let’s say you go to the store to buy a CD, a brand-new CD of a popular rock band. The group is your favorite; you’ve been looking forward to this CD for some time. You have the band’s other recordings, you’ve seen them live, perhaps you’ve even heard the new songs once or twice at a show.
“You buy the CD. You take it home and throw it in the CD player. You couldn’t be more excited as it starts to play. But something weird happens as you listen to it. You like the songs, but you don’t really want to listen to it for very long and you’re not entirely sure why. You take it off. A few minutes later, you put it back on. Same thing happens: You like the music, but you still want to take the CD off. It’s more than a little weird. Condolences. You are officially a casualty of the loudness wars, the ongoing competition among bands, labels and A&R folks to make ever-louder albums.”
OK, Dave… all this is really interesting, but what does it have to do with me as a radio producer? After all, my little imaging promo is only going to last for 30 seconds, not 3 minutes. That would hardly qualify as ‘fatiguing’ for the listener. Very true, but think about this: When you include the hooks from popular hits in a promo about your station’s variety, they’ve already been compressed a ton. They certainly don’t need your help in the ‘loud’ department. If anything, you need to back off the rest of your production.
That brings me to the point of this rather long rant: When you add compression to the overall mix, be gentle. You’re compressing compression that’s already been compressed. I know that sounds stupid, but it’s a fact, and it sounds even worse.
Use that final bit of compression as a control measure. It should only suppress those pesky RMS peaks that wreak havoc on a digital system. If you’ve been using all the tools available to you, the rest of the production should be on an equal footing with your music, before you get to that final mastering stage. It should punch through the music when there is less going on in the music. When the vocal comes up, the rest of your production should be gone for the moment.
If you’re a regular subscriber and get the CD that accompanies RAP magazine, check out my track for this month. It’s a music image promo about the variety of music Z100 plays. You’ll hear rock, pop, hip hop and dance in there, all of which are processed in very different ways. The distortion in the vocal of Sexy Back by Justin Timberlake is purely intentional, as the rest of the track is exceedingly clean. Lips Of An Angel by Hinder uses a “wall of sound” approach to a rock ballad, as does Too Little Too Late by Jojo. By contrast, check out Pullin’ Me Back by Chingy, which uses a really smooth (or as he would say, “smoove”) compression that almost glides past. Miracle by Cascada is about as ‘thumpy’ a club track as you’ll ever hear. The only additional compression I used on any of these was set to exactly -0.3db with the threshold matching the input. In other words, the only thing I used it for was to control anything that went beyond -0.3db.
You want your bit of production to jump out of the radio like a Barry Manilow jingle, but – you want some dynamics in the music… what little there is left.
To quote once more, this time from a Rolling Stone magazine interview with Bob Dylan; “You listen to these modern records, they’re atrocious. They have sound all over them. There’s no definition of nothing, no vocal, no nothing, just like – static.”
Too true, Bob. And to think, the basic premise of FM was to get rid of static!
Oh, log on at www.austin360.com/arts/content/music/stories/xl/2006/09/28cover.html if you’d like to read Joe Gross’ complete article. I recommend it highly.