Why Modern Music Sucks

Boy, do I sound like my parents with that headline, or what?

Apparently, two kinds of compression are changing the sound of recorded music.  The first is digital compression, such as we use to get a bunch of mp3's on an iPod.    I still buy CD's, and then rip them myself so I can control the bit rate and compression, but a lot of folks are buying mp3's online of all kinds of quality.  (I actually rip every CD twice -- once as a VBR MP3 for my iPod and once as a loss-less FLAC file for my home audio server).

The second type of compression, perhaps more insidious because it is impossible for the individual listener to control, is use of audio compressors that reduce the dynamic range of music - basically making soft parts louder and vice versa.    NPR discusses it here, via Flowing Data. While the second form of compression is as old as vinyl (the revenge of Phil Specter?) these two types of compression are related as apparently louder music gives more room to hide digital compression artifacts, so producers are compressing music and increasing loudness.

The best test I have of dynamic range is listening to music in a noisy car, say with the windows open.  Many classical disks can't be listened to this way, as the variation from soft to loud causes one to keep having to fiddle with the volume knob.  I have a few old rock disks that have the same kind of range  (some old Genesis albums come to mind) but most of my newer disks will play just fine in a loud car, probably meaning that they indeed do have much narrower dynamic ranges.

To some extent, this is counter intuitive to me given the prevalence of headphone listening, since headphones are great for listening to music with big dynamic ranges.  But what do I know?  I grew up listening to 8-tracks so it all is an improvement for me.

Here is a very good, succinct example of how compression works and why it makes music suck:

  • Joel Jarrard

    Heavy use of compression is not a new development. I work at dbx, the company that created audio compression back in the early 70s. Recording engineers have had to use heavy compression on audio tracks since then in order to stay at competitive sound levels with other music and broadcasts on the radio. Imagine having a heavy loud track on the radio and then having your music track follow it using "natural" dynamics. It's going to sound weak and thin. One of the key goals of recording a modern music album is to get it as loud as possible without exceeding peak levels and overloading circuitry.

    In addition, there's a trademark rock album sound that wouldn't be there if the audio wasn't heavily compressed. The heavy pumping of well-produced rock sounds is a trait that is much desired by record producers and audio/mixing engineers and is present because of the artful use of compression. The purpose of recording an album is not to capture as natural a recorded sound as possible. It hasn't been that way since the Beatles. It's to create a piece of art in and of itself that exists on its own merits.

    Love your blog, by the way. I lurk around and read it when I can.

  • Frank Gas

    Instead of mp3s for your iPod, m4a files (mp4s) sound much better while still providing a small file size. The best encoder is free from Nero and the easiest way to encode is using foobar2000 (Windows). I use q10, but experiment for your ears. Q6 is not even that bad .

  • http://anarchangel.blogspot.com Chris Byrne

    Funny enough, I wrote mostly the same post, with mostly the same title about two years ago.

    http://anarchangel.blogspot.com/2008/01/why-todays-cds-sound-like-crap.html

  • SJChannel

    A nitpick for Joel: It's an overstatement to say that dbx "created" audio compression in the early 1970's. It was a well-known technique long before dbx got involved with it. E.g., I have in front of me a copy of the Radiotron Designer's Handbook 3rd Edition with a chapter entitled "Volume Expansion and Compression". The book was published in 1941.

  • Snarko

    Wait a minute. You *rip* a CD twice, even though you're using a lossless target for one of the two rips? Is there some overriding reason you can't simply convert from said lossless files into .mp3, .m4a or what have you? Or, easier yet, use a program that lets you rip into multiple targets simultaneously?

  • Joel Jarrard

    SJChannel: I'm sure you're right that the concept behind compression was around long before this, I don't know about that book. I do know that David Blackmer, founder of dbx, created the RMS circuits designed to make modern analog compression possible in 1972. He's widely considered the father of modern audio compression.

  • Bob Smith

    Compression has been around for a while, but the flight to zero-db of dynamic range is indeed a recent phenomenon. For me, one artifact of extreme dynamic range compression is that it makes kick drum strikes painful to listen to. If I listen to, say, Nickelback's All The Right Reasons or Slayer's Christ Illusion at reasonable (not ear-splitting) volume my ears start to hurt after a very short period of time. It's also very fatiguing to listen to hyper-compressed recordings.

  • Dr. T

    "...this is counter intuitive to me given the prevalence of headphone listening..."

    Most people use crappy ear buds or cheap headphones to listen to music. They don't handle low and high frequencies well, so no one notices the difference between uncompressed music and compressed music with dynamic range loss.

    I don't ever listen to classic music while driving, because the pianissimo parts get lost and the forte fortissimo parts blow out my ears. I listen to classical with a good stereo system or good open headphones.

    There is one time when I like to use software-based dynamic range compression: when I'm listening to music that helps me sleep.

    To Chris Bryne: I remember that article. Nice job.

  • Mesa Econoguy

    The real test of a good audio system is how it sounds at low volumes, especially in musical pieces with mucho crescendos and dynamic range, e.g. Beethoven.

    I agree, most of the “new” stuff sounds too processed, but if it’s done right, it can sound phenomenal, bringing out parts of an arrangement that you wouldn’t hear 20 years ago.

    The compression algos and signal processing are now so good (or bad, depending on applications) that it’s tough to tell live vs. studio on a lot of new stuff.

  • http://http//www.tinyvital.com/blog John Moore

    Joel - when I was working as a broadcast engineer in the '60s, we had audio compressors. I worked at a 110kw classical station (KANU-FM) where the compressor was used primarily to avoid over-modulation (the station director went ballistic if we used significant compression otherwise - it ruins classical music). I also worked at rock stations that ran the audio levels high, fed those into a compressor, and let it even everything out to about 100% modulation (AM).

    Blackmer may have invented something important, but it sure wasn't audio compression.

    There is, btw, another way that folks have long messed up music (or made music, YMMV) - intentional distortion. Some types of rock music feed certain instruments through clippers (old fashioned, easy to do) or other distorters to change the instrument voice dramatically.

    BTW, in the '60s, broadcast engineer was a fine job for a student - it didn't pay much, but if you were a transmitter engineer, you only had to write down readings every 15 minutes, and the rest of the time was available to study (unless something broke - then you had to fix it).