by carl wilson

A Compressed Thought

Jake's comment on that Deerhoof-and-silence/dynamics post from last week: "If everyone digs music with dynamic shifts, why do so few of us make it?"

He blames it, basically, on indiscipline and ego. But today it occurred to me that it might relate to the great debate about compression - both the kind of compression that shrinks songs down into mp3s and the kind that makes all the records on the radio go to 11, all the time. If most of the music people hear has its dynamics all squashed together, that becomes the kind of music they want to make. Or are at least afraid not to make, which may be the psychological dynamic Jake is observing.

And this seems as good a point as any to point to Carl the Impostume's two superb posts about Pere Ubu (one and two), who understood that if you wanted to make your guitars "sound like a nuclear destruction" you first had to get "a ticket to the sonic reduction."

General | Posted by zoilus on Monday, March 17 at 5:33 PM | Linking Posts | Comments (15)




Thanks for the nice words!


Posted by Carl on March 21, 2008 5:53 AM



Carl, re Ubu:

I was trying update the line, to bring its shockingness more up-to-date. "Shock the bourgeoisie" was Jarry's intention, right? But the clever rhyme had a witty feel, so I was obviously stumbling on the shocking/clever conundrum. It's true, I didn't realize the song has been old enough to drink for a year now. My bad.

The '70s were a long time ago. I remember being shocked by the Sex Pistols -- I still find their name shocking. (One of my best friends may have been the first person in Kalamazoo to buy their album.) I didn't know Pere Ubu. I don't think it's just because I'm old now that "shock and offend" seems olde hat -- and not just olde hat, but reactionary -- politically. (Think, "shock jock" -- most, but not all, are reactionary.) The '70s were a different era, and "conservative" meant "respectable," so it would be wrong for me to hear Ubu through the filter of today's sonic politics; but the line set me off and running anyway. Baby that is rock and roll.

Thanks for asking! Please forgive my -- typical -- overzealous confusion.

Posted by john on March 20, 2008 3:16 PM



There wouldn't be a need for a "radio master" if we weren't at the point where that's how everything is mastered. So what I'm really arguing for is the creation of a non-radio master for the home listener. Maybe it can have a more appealing name like "Super-Dynamic".

Posted by zoilus on March 20, 2008 1:56 PM



"Why would anyone want their guitars to sound like a nuclear destruction? Shock and Awe or a car bomb would be more up-to-date."

John, the Ubu song in question was written in 1976, so the reference was pretty up-to-date then. Unless I'm missing your point?

Posted by zoilus on March 20, 2008 1:54 PM



There should be no need for a radio master v. a home master, because radio adds compression. Classical radio is highly compressed; the same record at home won't be. Years ago a classical DJ told me that Disc Jockeys got their job title because they "rode" the signal, compressing it -- manually twiddling the knobs as the piece rolled along, back in the day.

Least compressed pop record in recent memory (at least, that I've heard): "Smile." The louds really are louder! Good ol' Nonesuch, huh?

Posted by john on March 20, 2008 1:50 PM



There's a lot more people to hear from on compression than Albini. He's just the most colourful. See the Wikipedia entry I linked to on the "loudness war" and the references it links to.

Seems to me, following on michelangelo's sharp point, that part of the problem has to do with listening to a record at home vs. listening to it on the radio - radio, because it's primarily aimed at people listening in cars, at work (where there's lots of background noise), etc., benefits by the compression. But that's not true of the consumer version.

So the best solution would be for there to be a 'radio master' and an 'album master' of every song.

But in the current atmo$phere in the music biz that's just a pipe dream.

Posted by zoilus on March 20, 2008 1:37 PM



At the risk of committing heresy, why is Albini's word taken as such gospel? Especially when it's invariably mixed in with some kind of juvenile violent fantasy.

I mean, the Albini approach is very noble and worthwhile, it's just too bad there aren't more go-to guys for anti-compression quotes...

Posted by malstain on March 20, 2008 1:26 PM



a guy i know who mixes/masters music at a mastering house said that over the years he would play the same song twice--once quieter, once louder--to his clients (all types of bands, managers, radio guys, etc etc.) and would ask which mixed/mastered version they liked-- every time the picked the louder version. Louder is (subconsciously?) heard as better and compression makes it seem louder so the labels, etc. do it to woo the consumers. Radio even compresses the songs on top of that...

Posted by deed on March 20, 2008 10:27 AM



Don't like compression? Listen to classical. Louds are loud. Softs are soft. Like, so soft, if you're doing the dishes, you have to turn it up. And then when it gets loud, it's blowing out your speakers. Pretty cool.

Michaelangelo, you're right to talk about social uses. Uncompressed music isn't good for doing the dishes. Or listening while driving.

I recently picked up a CD with two performances of Cage's "4'33"." One performance, I can dig it, but two? Hilarious!

Why would anyone want their guitars to sound like a nuclear destruction? Shock and Awe or a car bomb would be more up-to-date. Or, maybe an Alfred Jarry character would be into Cold War kitsch? The joke's on me. Time to re-read Jarry.

Carl, you're totally right -- the dynamics question is related to the compression question. And, I'm guessing, a narrow dynamic range has been in force throughout most of musical history. The classical orchestra was the first heavy metal band. Nothing got REALLY loud till then. Mozart dropping those power chords into "Don Giovanni" -- RAWKS!

Is a wish for dynamic excitement a hangover of the Romantic era?

Posted by john on March 20, 2008 1:43 AM



Yeah, but Albini obviously doesn't think everyone should follow George Martin's lead. Part of what pisses him off is when so-called producers try to mindlessly ape the Beatles' sound...

"Every record I hear these days has incredibly loud, compressed vocals, and a quiet little murmur of a rock band in the background. The excuse given by producers for inflicting such an imbalance on a rock band is that it makes the record sound more like the Beatles. Yeah, right. Fuck's sake, Thurston Moore is not Paul McCartney, and nobody on earth, not with unlimited time and resources, could make the Smashing Pumpkins sound like the Beatles. Trying just makes them seem even dumber. Why can't people try to sound like the Smashchords or Metal Urbain or Third World War for a change?"

Posted by rR on March 19, 2008 7:55 PM



Compression is hugely misused these days but it is also the sine qua non of any professional recording throughout the history of rock and roll, including those done by steve albini. George Martin ran all the Beatles' stereo mixdowns through a compressor, just as one example that relates to albini's rant.

Posted by martin on March 19, 2008 6:37 PM



Compression may have more with social uses of music (when and where do you listen? What are you doing while you listen? Are you paying attention?) than with taste or style. Damn right it is is related to an artist's use of contrast and/or abrupt change: music with a vast dynamic range can never fade into the background.
At the same time, abrupt change can become a trite attention grabber like everything else. See post-Pixies alternative rock bands with their quiet/loud gimmick.

Posted by michelangelo on March 19, 2008 3:33 PM



Steve Albini's been railing against compression for years. Says he, "I want to find the guy that invented compression and tear his liver out. I hate it. It makes everything sound like a beer commercial."

Posted by rR on March 18, 2008 11:07 AM



darnielle. turns out the preview button exists for a reason.

Posted by alice on March 17, 2008 9:53 PM



maybe that's why "heretic pride" is really only a three goat record. i don't think it's any coincidence that everyone likes the screamy mtn goats songs best (i heard john danielle say once that as long as he yells the audience will be happy. except he said it much better. obviously.) you can only get so much in the way of dynamics when you're working with just a voice and your guitar and maybe some ambient tape-reel noise. i think "heretic pride" sort of wasted the point of the drum on this record. listen to "new zion." lame! pussy drums! it could have been awesome. he wouldn't even have to yell. which he doesn't really do either. sigh.

p.s. no one reads jake's blog. except his mom. seriously.

Posted by alice on March 17, 2008 9:51 PM




Zoilus by Carl Wilson