The song “Robotic Fillies” before and after compression, showing how loud compression makes music.
Photo by Gary Fenstamaker

By Jeremy Quintin
Staff Columnist

I produced an album over this past break, and it was no easy achievement. Spending five hours a day in the studio known as my bedroom with prolonged headphone use lead to stir-crazy tendencies and unhealthy habits. Yet the daunting task of production seems worth it to musicians looking to create that one spectacular moment of a song that will shake hearts across the world.

So it’s disheartening when the problem people find with your song is a perceived lack of loudness. You’d think the simple solution would be to raise the volume on your speakers. The issue, however, isn’t that one song is too soft, but that everyone else’s songs are too loud. This is due to a recognized but unsanctioned competition between record labels known as the Loudness War, in which opposing labels try to outdo their competitors by releasing the loudest possible album on the market.

To make tracks louder, producers put songs through a process called “compression.” Compression is the act of pushing the highest and lowest volume levels of a song to the same maximum output on the volume scale. Presently, producers pump the volume on songs so high that the entire track is pushed to the limits of volume. Yes, there is such a thing as a max volume beyond which no change can be made.

The concept is similar to a balloon’s max capacity before popping. Once every point in a song has reached this same maximum output, all the instruments will compete for the dominant voice of the track. This removes clarity between instruments, adds distortion to sounds at high peaks of volume, and reduces variety from the dynamics of audio.

Many people don’t recognize these effects because the average person has listened to nothing but overly compressed songs for most their life. Heavy compression has become the industry standard of finalizing music for release, making comparison with the uncompressed a difficult task.

Yet from time to time I find myself in conversations with friends who recognize that the drums don’t always sound as clear as they should be in Sum 41, or that the bass isn’t really noticeable when played next to the guitar in Green Day. This isn’t a mistake on the musician’s part, and it’s not something they wanted to have happen in the first place. This imbalance is due to the unnecessary compression musicians feel they must add to sell their songs. Many artists face the misfortune of sacrificing the quality of their sound for volume to compete in this war.

This vying for loudness is the result of a false belief that if tracks are not produced as loud as their competitors, then their albums will not sell in comparison. This belief in loudness comes from a reality of consumer interest. Record companies don’t actually believe loudness improves music, but that it sells music, and this is true because most people believe the former. When a softer song comes along, even with proper sound levels, it just doesn’t stack up to the majority of naturally loud songs for sale.

For musicians who spend a long time creating a high quality mix, it hurts to hear that someone is more interested in the volume as opposed to the production value of their work. We should all accept that the louder a song is has nothing to do with its quality. Yet people have been fooled into thinking louder is better thanks to the results of the Loudness War, and as such unintentionally fuel the engine for its perpetuation. It’s the companies’ responsibility to bring back proper mastering of songs, but it’s also the public’s responsibility to change the position of their volume knobs.

The Elm

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