This is about compression. Not the sort of compression that makes file sizes smaller, though the two types are often confused. Audio compression reduces dynamic range (the difference between loud and soft) in order to make recordings sound ‘punchier’ or – at least perceptually – louder.
One of the advantages of a louder sounding recording is to make albums more ‘impressive’. This is often considered particularly important on smaller speakers, through radio, or via mp3 where most users are not listening in ideal conditions (ie: on little headphones, on the bus).
But audiophiles – and, increasingly, just people who like music – are complaining that too much compression and not enough dynamic range is killing the quality of recorded music. And they kind of have a point.
There’s a video that demonstrates this nicely:
Typically, the compression has been added in CD mastering (a large part of the reason that vinyl aficionados prefer the sound of records) and it happens a great deal with radio. In fact, FM stations notoriously compress the hell out of everything all over again – ostensibly to protect their transmitters from ‘clipping’, but mostly to just sound louder than the competition.
The problem with compressed audio (apart from just the sound that results from the lack of dynamic range) is that it’s fatiguing to listen to. People can listen to music with ‘air’ in it for far longer than something that is sonically relentless.
Now, I raise this because there is a tension between hypercompression (the kids are listening out of the speakers of their cellphones, for goodness sake!) and what I call dynamic puritanism.
I’d argue that compression isn’t of itself a bad thing, and as a former sound engineer and producer, I’ve been known to put compression on the sorts of things that purists would be horrified at (I compressed a grand piano on a jazz recording at 3:1 once and drove it fairly hard too).
But compressing a whole mix so that there’s no dynamic range whatsoever kills the sound of a recording (and here comes my point) far more than data compression does. A lot of contemporary recordings have been degraded far more because of audio compression than because of file compression.
Taking out the dynamic range on a rock or a hip hop record makes it sound worse than converting it from CD quality to an mp3 (as long as we’re talking decent bitrates).
So before we start getting sniffy about what mp3 is doing to audio fidelity, let’s sort out the more important problem first. Just ease back on the compression when you’re mastering your masterpieces, would you?