If you’ve spent any time making music, then you’ve surely heard the arguments about compression. Some will tell you that compression is killing modern music. Others will extol the virtues of stacking compressors. So does compressed music usually sound better or worse?
In this article, I want to go in-depth on music compression’s impact on sound quality.
Does Compression Make Music Sound Better?
Yes, compression will make music sound better…to an extent. Almost every major label pop, rock, or rap song you’ve heard in the last few decades have used a notable amount of compression to get that radio sound.
It’s considered a standard practices because it improves a music track. When done in moderation, at least. The trick is to not over-do compression, or the positive effects will get negated by other audio issues.
But why exactly does compression make music better sounding?
Why Does Compressed Music Sound Better?
Compressed music sounds “better” because the song becomes louder, clearer, and more even. We could say that compression improves a song in two general ways:
- Reduces dynamics, and
- Increases the average volume
What compression really does is reduce the loudest parts of an audio signal (the peaks) and increase the quietest parts (the troughs). This makes the music overall less dynamic.
Dynamics, in music terms, just means the difference between the softest and loudest parts. The more dynamics a song has, the more noticeable changes in volume are within the track. And that is not always a good thing.
Have you ever been watching a movie where you can barely hear the people speaking, so you turn up the volume. But then, a moment later, an explosion occurs that blasts your ear drums and you’re scrambling to find the remote again?
That’s exactly why highly-dynamic music can be unpleasant. It leads to some words or sections being too quiet to hear, while other parts are too loud for comfort.
Compression smooths out those differences so you don’t have to adjust the volume every time the verse switches to the chorus (and vice versa). This also leads to another benefit…
Increased Average Volume
Compressed music sounds louder. But that’s not because the act of compression alone increases volume. Compression simply levels out the overall volume of a track by lowering the peaks and raising the troughs.
But compressors also have a makeup gain knob—this knob controls how much you increase the overall volume of the track after the compressor had done it’s job. By reducing the difference between peaks and troughs, a compressor allows you to apply more makeup gain.
Thus, the average (or apparent) volume level of the song is louder because the quieter parts are not as quiet anymore. And louder music tends to sound higher quality to people. Why is that?
Why Does Louder Music Sound Better?
People perceive loud music as sounding better because it allows them to hear more details of the composition and it stimulates the senses.
In fact, a study by The University of Aukland found that people enjoy listening to loud music because it places them in a state of arousal: their body becomes more alert, which in turn intensifies whatever emotions they are feeling.
Furthermore, excessively loud music activates the vestibular system in your ears, which can make your body feel like it’s pulsating. It specifically stimulates a collection of sensory ear cells called the sacculus; doing so sends a feel-good signal to the brain.
Lastly, I mentioned that loud music has more audible details to it. Quieter sounds are harder for our ears to pick up and decipher. Not only that, but the human brain is designed to listen more attentively to louder noises. Our sense of hearing operates by instinct to pay more attention to closer sounds (because they could signal danger is close by).
As a result, things that sound louder may be perceived as closer, and therefore cue the brain to pay more attention.
But there are limits to how much a song can be compressed before it goes from better to worse.
Why is Compressed Music Bad?
Too much compression can make a song sound bad because it strips the music of emotion and reduces the perception of musical depth. Both of these issues are caused by a lack of dynamics.
Let’s briefly discuss why the loss of dynamics can be a bad thing.
Remember that dynamics refers to the variation of loudness between music notes. And not all variation of volume is bad. Sure, we don’t want to assault the listener’s ears with a massive trombone blast right after a moment of barely-audible piano. That variation would be too extreme.
But a sensible bit of dynamics is extremely useful in conveying emotions within music. Soft passages of music tend to evoke intimacy and fragility, while very loud passages can amplify feeling of grandeur, fear, power, or strength.
If music becomes so compressed that the softest whisper is as apparently loud as a shout, then the emotional impact of both the whisper and the shout are negated. The song’s emotions are effectively blunted.
Lack of Depth
More so, reducing the dynamic range of a song also diminishes the perceived depth of it’s 3-dimensional space.
In music, we use volume as a means of separating instruments and notes in audio space. A guitar that’s quieter than the vocals will sound farther away from the listener. Likewise, an arpeggio playing softly will sound less important than the louder lead melody. In this way, dynamics allow a songwriter or composer to organize instruments aurally and arrange melodic motifs into hierarchies of importance.
But an over-compressed song will push the quieter guitar parts forward in the mix while dragging the more important vocal lines down. It will make the quiet arpeggio almost as loud as the lead melody.
In short, over-compression causes loss of depth perception between musical parts. And that can make a mix sound muddy, because every instrument now sounds like it’s jammed into the same small box competing for the same audio space.
What Does Overly Compressed Music Sound Like?
Over-compressed music sounds like it lacks breathing space: the soft parts feel like they’re too present in the mix while the loudest sections sound constrained. Vocals that have too much compression may cause belts or yells to sound no louder than the rest of the words, making them feel impotent.
To really understand what over-compression sounds like, perhaps you should listen to a few notable examples. The following albums are frequently cited as being victims of over-compressed production:
- Death Magnetic by Metallica
- Californication by Red Hot Chili Peppers
- (What’s the Story) Morning Glory? By Oasis
- Sam’s Town by The Killers
- ‘N Sync by ‘N Sync
Compression is a very useful mixing tool. It can move vocals forward in a mix and provide clarity. But applying too much compression to a song’s entire mix can squash dynamic range. That kind of production can kill musical nuance and lead to ear fatigue.
If your song has lost depth and your whispered words sound too aggressive, then consider reducing the amount of compression in your mix.
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