Compress or impress?

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There’s a lot of misconceptions about compression, how it works, how it affects the sound, what are the benefits and how to use compression (or avoid it) in mixes but also during airplay. What’s the “loudness war”? What are the standard nowadays? How can compression damage the sound?

Routinely, I hear radios who are over-compressing, actually limiting, tunes that have already been compressed and limited during the mixing and mastering phase. This doesn’t help the sound, in fact it’s badly hurting it! Add to the fact that most internet radios and podcasts are streaming at 128 kbps which is quite a low bit rate, already damaging the sound, and you get a lot of shows where the sound is pretty atrocious.

This week, I was also asked my opinion on a tune that is to be released for Xmas and is supposed to be a cover of a pop song, I was surprised to hear such an amount of compression and limiting in that tune that it was sounding more like Metallica in its worst days than a light-hearted pop tune for a young audience… that mixing and mastering engineers made such mistake in their assessment of the amount of compression for the genre is rather disturbing.

This really made me think that I should try and write a few articles on compression, what it means, what it can do, how it can help the sound but also how it can damage the sound irreversibly. Dynamics is a vast subject and very misunderstood, even by some novice sound engineers (and apparently some seasoned ones!) and indeed by a lot of radio hosts as well.

Now, the trick will be to find a way to explain this complex subject with something anyone can understand. I’m thinking of a “compression for dummies” kind of refreshing course in a series of articles… If I can pull that off, maybe this will help radios (and even listeners) recognize the effect of over-compression and make them strive for a better/more natural sound.

8 comments

  • Erin At Eleven

    Erin At Eleven Scotland

    Looking forward to reading your series and your views on compression. My favourite use of compression so far has to be recording SM57 talkback mic during drum recording then compressing the hell out of that track n basically using it as a room mic to give big, rock drums a la Scheps ✌

    Looking forward to reading your series and your views on compression. My favourite use of compression so far has to be recording SM57 talkback mic during drum recording then compressing the hell out of that track n basically using it as a room mic to give big, rock drums a la Scheps ✌

  • Ghostly Beard

    Ghostly Beard

    Hey Erin, thanks for the visit. Yeah, compression tricks can be awesome, but I will try to avoid being too technical. My purpose here will be primarily to try and make radio hosts and listeners understand and recognize bad compression during airplay... I fear I will have to get a little bit on how audio is, how it's perceived and an explanation on what compression does. I will need to find good pics to illustrate that as much as possible...

    Hey Erin, thanks for the visit. Yeah, compression tricks can be awesome, but I will try to avoid being too technical. My purpose here will be primarily to try and make radio hosts and listeners understand and recognize bad compression during airplay... I fear I will have to get a little bit on how audio is, how it's perceived and an explanation on what compression does. I will need to find good pics to illustrate that as much as possible...

  • September Campbell

    September Campbell SC

    Hey Ghost. I thought I had noticed a difference in sound quality in some songs during airplay on certain radio stations. So I'd love to hear more about this. Also would love to hear more about when compression is useful during recording or mixing, as I haven't found it very useful yet ( or may just be using it incorrectly) Very cool, thanks for sharing!

    Hey Ghost. I thought I had noticed a difference in sound quality in some songs during airplay on certain radio stations. So I'd love to hear more about this. Also would love to hear more about when compression is useful during recording or mixing, as I haven't found it very useful yet ( or may just be using it incorrectly) Very cool, thanks for sharing!

  • Ghostly Beard

    Ghostly Beard

    Hey September, thanks for visiting and your comment. Compression is VERY useful when mixing (I wouldn't use it when recording though, unless you really know what you're doing). It has many purposes, levels, but also colors, enhancing the sustain or the transients of a sound, making sure something pops up in a crowded mix, etc. There's many ways to use it, including parallel compression, so I will probably not be able to talk about all these things that can get too technical, but I will try and make everyone understand what it does at its basic and hear its effect. Many radios and shows are misusing it and it's my hope that this could help them achieve a better sound, at least realizing that there is an issue...

    Hey September, thanks for visiting and your comment. Compression is VERY useful when mixing (I wouldn't use it when recording though, unless you really know what you're doing). It has many purposes, levels, but also colors, enhancing the sustain or the transients of a sound, making sure something pops up in a crowded mix, etc. There's many ways to use it, including parallel compression, so I will probably not be able to talk about all these things that can get too technical, but I will try and make everyone understand what it does at its basic and hear its effect. Many radios and shows are misusing it and it's my hope that this could help them achieve a better sound, at least realizing that there is an issue...

  • Jayber.C

    Jayber.C Italy

    👍👍

    👍👍

  • Ghostly Beard

    Ghostly Beard

    Glad you approve, Jayber.C! :D

    Glad you approve, Jayber.C! biggrin

  • Tim Toz

    Tim Toz To-To Land

    Always a valid discussion GB... There’s a cool book by Bob Katz... Mastering Audio... he’s big against the loudness wars... and just has great explanations of what happens to audio in the digital world when it’s processed and reprocessed. A different topic but related... There’s also a huge difference between “level” and “volume”. One thing I took away from the book... was to NOT get as close to zero as possible when mixing. Leave headroom for the mastering processing. I’m happy if my peaks are minus 4 or less. That easily gets eaten up in mastering. Another interesting thing I noticed I was doing... wanting to tweak a track louder in a mix... eventually tweaking other tracks up a bit then before you know it... the 2 mix is screaming... Lol... I corrected this by pulling back ALL my trims... -10 To -15 dB depending on the song. Turning up the monitor “volume”... and keeping an eye on the 2 mix levels as we go... that would start off peaking -12 or 10. Then you have more room for dynamics... wanna hear something a tad louder? Turn up the monitor volume... don’t reach for tracks. See if it’s still not loud enough... One thing I never understood... mix bus compression while mixing... if you do that ... and your mix is at or near zero... what’s the mastering person gonna do? I don’t want to master this stuff myself but it fits the budget...zero. I’ve found I had to make my stuff louder to complete... without destroying the audio. Hard to do effectively without massive trial n error. Unfortunately I think everyone has been trained to be annoyed if they have to reach for the “volume”... we couldn’t possibly make Records any louder. And what would be the point?

    Always a valid discussion GB...
    There’s a cool book by Bob Katz... Mastering Audio... he’s big against the loudness wars... and just has great explanations of what happens to audio in the digital world when it’s processed and reprocessed. A different topic but related...

    There’s also a huge difference between “level” and “volume”.

    One thing I took away from the book... was to NOT get as close to zero as possible when mixing.
    Leave headroom for the mastering processing. I’m happy if my peaks are minus 4 or less. That easily gets eaten up in mastering.

    Another interesting thing I noticed I was doing... wanting to tweak a track louder in a mix... eventually tweaking other tracks up a bit then before you know it... the 2 mix is screaming... Lol...

    I corrected this by pulling back ALL my trims... -10 To -15 dB depending on the song. Turning up the monitor “volume”... and keeping an eye on the 2 mix levels as we go... that would start off peaking -12 or 10. Then you have more room for dynamics... wanna hear something a tad louder? Turn up the monitor volume... don’t reach for tracks. See if it’s still not loud enough...

    One thing I never understood... mix bus compression while mixing... if you do that ... and your mix is at or near zero... what’s the mastering person gonna do?

    I don’t want to master this stuff myself but it fits the budget...zero.
    I’ve found I had to make my stuff louder to complete... without destroying the audio. Hard to do effectively without massive trial n error. Unfortunately I think everyone has been trained to be annoyed if they have to reach for the “volume”... we couldn’t possibly make Records any louder.
    And what would be the point?

  • Ghostly Beard

    Ghostly Beard

    Hey Tim, thanks for the visit! Yeah, I know about Bob Katz, although I find him a little bit extreme in some of his views. Personally I use 2bus processing, including compression and limiting because I want to mix into it and get a feel of how the music will sound in the end. I only use an external mastering engineer to have another pair of ears on what I do, and to try to find a balance that will work in most environments, not to add any more limiting or try to get louder. All my masters are at -12 LUFS and I think that's reasonable considering I'm not doing punchy rock stuff. -10 LUFS could be a target still for rocking stuff, under that target you're losing much more than you're gaining.

    Hey Tim, thanks for the visit!
    Yeah, I know about Bob Katz, although I find him a little bit extreme in some of his views.

    Personally I use 2bus processing, including compression and limiting because I want to mix into it and get a feel of how the music will sound in the end. I only use an external mastering engineer to have another pair of ears on what I do, and to try to find a balance that will work in most environments, not to add any more limiting or try to get louder.

    All my masters are at -12 LUFS and I think that's reasonable considering I'm not doing punchy rock stuff. -10 LUFS could be a target still for rocking stuff, under that target you're losing much more than you're gaining.

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