Squeezing the Music...

This essay first appeared in the May 2005 Stereophile eNewsletter. But as the opinions and comments are still relevant in 2014 and in some ways the phenomenon of over-compression in recorded music (footnote 1) is just as bad, I thought it worth republishing.—John Atkinson

I write these words mere hours after returning home from Home Entertainment 2005, the Show cosponsored by Stereophile magazine that took place from April 28 through May 1 at the Manhattan Hilton. A full report will appear in the August 2005 issue of the magazine.

HE2005 was an upbeat affair, the majority of exhibitors presenting good sound at levels that, in general, were nowhere near deafening—a welcome trend. But for me, an essential aspect of the Show that had been relatively neglected at our 2004 event was the inclusion of live music. Not only did XM Satellite Radio sponsor a well-attended concert Friday night featuring that quintessential jam band, Medeski Martin + Wood, but there was a superb support act as well: torch singer Holly Palmer backed up by Mojo Mancini, a band that includes that most tastefully powerful of rock guitarists, John Leventhal (Shawn Colvin, Rosanne Cash). And there was a continuous program of live performances throughout the Show's three public days.

My thanks to: the jazz trio led by guitarist Tony Ormond; blues singer Deanna Bogart and her band; folk singer Kevin Mileski; the band led by singer Pamela Lewis and guitarist John Hurley; Hip Hop & Classical ensemble Nuttin But Stringz; jazz singer-pianist Tony DeSare (courtesy Telarc International); my colleagues in my jazz trio, pianist Bob Reina and drummer Allen Perkins; and, most important for me as his producer, Canadian pianist Robert Silverman, who previewed his forthcoming Stereophile CD with a blistering Saturday-afternoon performance of Beethoven's monumental Diabelli Variations.

An important function of the live music program is to allow Showgoers to recalibrate their ears with the real thing. But the emerging paradox is that, even as playback equipment reaches new heights of transparency and musical accuracy, the recordings we play on our equipment are increasingly compromised in sound quality. I first wrote several years ago about the sonic disaster resulting from heavy-handed compression. Things are now, if anything, worse.

I hasten to add that I refer to rock and popular music—classical recording, led by companies such as Channel Classics, ECM, Pentatone, and Hyperion, is currently enjoying a quietly underpromoted golden age of sound quality. But as one of the judges for the CEA's new Demmy Awards, a scheme intended to recognize the technical excellence of the audio and video recordings used to demonstrate gear, I grew increasingly depressed as I auditioned the contenders in all categories that had been nominated by attendees at the 2005 Consumer Electronics Show last January. (The Demmy Awards ceremony, where the winners will be announced, took place May 14 at the Professional Audio/Video Retailers Conference, now organized in conjunction with the CEA.)

Yes, there were superb examples of the modern recording art—the Tony Faulkner/Andrew Keener collaboration on the Florestan Trio's recording of French music for piano trio, for example (Hyperion SACDA67114)—but many of the nominees dated from an earlier, pre-digital age: tracks from Pink Floyd's Dark Side of the Moon, John Coltrane's A Love Supreme, Derek & the Dominos' Layla, Elton John's Goodbye Yellow Brick Road, Muddy Waters' The Folksinger, Frank Sinatra's Live at the Sands 1966, and the Grateful Dead's American Beauty. I mean, come on.

Yes, these are all great recordings (other than the remastered Dark Side...) but they were all laid down on analog tape before Stereophile writer Stephen Mejias was even born. And when I listened to a modern recording that had been nominated, the aggressively compressed and equalized "Lose My Breath," from Destiny's Child's Destiny Fulfilled—which CES attendee nominated this piece of sonic excrement?—I felt like shutting down the system, going outdoors, and listening to some silence.

Again perhaps paradoxically, it was the DVD Music Video/Concert category that provided the best examples of modern recorded sound. "Narrow Daylight," from Diana Krall's Live at the Montreal Jazz Festival, and "Lido," from Boz Scaggs' Greatest Hits Live, both have excellent dynamics and clean, natural balances. In fact, the recording I've been listening to most over the past few weeks is not an SACD, not a DVD-Audio, not a Dual-Disc, not a CD, and not even an LP—it's the live double DVD-Video of Eric Clapton's Crossroads Guitar Festival (Reprise R2 70378). Great music, great sound, great atmosphere, great musicians—dammit, I love ZZ Top—and as far as I could tell on the 15" LCD monitor set up between and behind my speakers, great video. As I wrote last November, the true replacement for the CD medium is not a hi-rez audio-only medium but the live concert DVD. Now that's a medium worth an award in itself.

2014 Postscript: There are signs of improvement nine years after I wrote the words above and returned to the subject in The Spaces Between the Notes in November 2009. The bestselling album of 2013, Daft Punk's Random Access Memories, has excellent dynamic range without losing its get-up-and-dance quality and Rush are remastering some of their catalog, admitting that a heavy hand on the compressor during the original mastering had made the CDs unlistenable. But there is a long way still to go before popular recordings are fit to play on audiophile systems. As Steve Guttenberg wrote last June, "compression doesn't sound so great for audiophiles craving maximum dynamic contrast, but we're just a tiny minority of music buyers."—John Atkinson



Footnote 1: Compression of the analog signal during mastering should not be confused with lossy digital compression processes like MP3 and AAC, which concern the throwing away of audio data to reduce file size.
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COMMENTS
Regadude's picture

This over compression is, I assume tied to the fact that CD loudness levels have also gotten louder since the early 2000s. The people who do the mastering (especially for pop music) seem to have sacrificed dynamic range for sheer loudness, in an attempt to make the music stand out more (in a bad way).

Maybe this is being done to appeal and sell the product to a large fan base, who listen to music on ipods with earbuds and other low quality gear. If people don't listen on equipment that can convey dynamic range, might as well give them louder recordings, because they will perceive them as better. 

I think the profusion of ipod like devices, mobile phones, etc. has contributed to the decline of well mastered music. This decline of well mastered music, has probably increased the use of these devices even more. Thus creating a vicious circle of lower quality. 

No wonder vinyl has skyrocketed in the past 10-12 years. Those people who want quality sound, are going back to a format that still provides it. 

Timbo in Oz's picture

There is a fixed limit to the maximum signal level that can be put on a silver disc.

But the discs you've noticed being louder is because of the compression which makes softer sounds louder. So that on some discs there's very little dynamic range at all.

Noting that this is done without exceeding the peak level limits of the particular silver disc format.

While I agree with JA that classical recordings are becoming technically better, mostly through simpler miking, they may still need to use dynmaic range adjustements (compression) so that we can hear the quieter moments, yet without having the neighbours sue us over the really loud parts.

As a volunteer recorder of classical concerts for a Canberra community FM station I have to 'normalise' every edited concert file, so that it will just fit within FM's dynamic range.

Regadude's picture

Timbo, I understand the difference between compression and loudness. I was merely stating that maybe they were linked, for the reasons I explained in my post. It's possible that I did not communicate that very well.

Here is the loudness stuff I was talking about:

http://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Loudness_war

http://www.das-kaiserreich.net/kategorie/library/the-loudness-war.html

http://www.dynamicrange.de/en/how-did-loudness-war-start

Interesting, but sad reading...

michael green's picture

Compression is something I have been keeping my ears on for a while now, so I'm glad to see the topic resurface. I have been hearing forms of compression happening throughout the industry and in my own way have been trying to raise the flag for us to take the time to look at our sources and playback equipment  and find out why our systems overall have been squeezed .  What I'm saying is our components and speakers are not giving the dynamics (I'm not talking loud) we once had.

In exploring this I have found some flaws in equipment and speaker designs that are causing this to happen. I think while we are looking at the signal part of compression we should also be looking at the physical contribution to squeezing the sound. As much as we talk about improvements in stereo over the last few years, high end audio has been heading down a path that started around the early 90's that has taken us further away from true dynamics. We are with the over designing of our components sucking the life out of the music. We turn on our stereos and hear them less dynamic and not able to play the music, then we start to put blame on the source. It's not just the source, but design flaws in the over dampening of the components.  Every time you dampen you are squeezing the signal. This is ok if you are starting with something that is too active to begin with, but when you start to squeeze the squeezed you can only go in one direction which is a problem that high end audio has been doing for years.

For the last 20 years I have been "undoing" audio systems to get back the dynamics. A lot of people don't want to hear this because of their investments and the thought that bigger is better, but as a result we are sitting with systems that can't play the music, and we will keep heading down this road till we start to think about the audio signal and how delicate it really is and how dampening it has caused these problems.

When I do my experiments for listeners to show them the problem they are in shock, and can't believe that we have let this happen, but the fact is that there is more to building equipment than the circuit, and more to building speakers than moving air. The audio signal is "vibration" and when you damp this vibration you "squeeze" the sound and this is a big part of what people are hearing.

At the same time I paint this picture I would also like to show the positive side. There are products on the market that have incorporated good design and sound. They are not on the radar necessarily because of their low price but when we (MGA/RoomTune) put these products through the same design-tuning-listening tests as the over built products they shined. This to me shows that the advancements of HiFi are very much alive and well and that the listener has every opportunity to have their dream sound. Sherwood for example produced an incredible sounding receiver (when tuned properly) and Magnavox a killer sounding DVD player used as a CD only. These two products together with a little tweaking cast a beautiful soundstage that rivals the best of the best in good room conditions.

When I first introduced these products to my high end friends there was a little smiling going on till the music began, then all jaws were on the floor. The over built designs left the building as the soundstage grew by at least double in size and the tonal balance was far more musical. From this point on when the disbelief showed itself I brought back in the over built products, hooked them up and the stage collapsed back into squeezed, tini and with obvious holes in the stage. I'm not interested in embarrassing well reguarded well reviewed golden eared products, but instead would like to bring to attention that maybe we should be taking a serious look at why we are not producing soundstages that compare to the recordings actual size. It's like from the mid 80's to mid 90's we were heading there (fantastic sound), then over night we decided to make our good sounding high end products into boat anchors and even though it was obvious that the soundstages were suffering we kept moving in this direction without flags being raised and anyone speaking up about the loss of sound. We started opening up these products and finding them full of sound deadening materials, over built chassis, and parts and cable that were way over sized. When asked why, the answer was because the parts are vibrating and vibration is distortion.

FOLKS? Audio is vibration and so is the music signal and you have killed it. Some how this industry went down a path of harmonic destruction and made a theory behind the thought and we closed our ears and excepted it. Now people are writing about why high end audio has declined so greatly. Have you been to a show lately? Shows are better organized then ever for the high end but the sound isn't there.

If I'm a music lover and I go to a high end audio show I want to hear something that blows me away. I want someone to show me how to get great sound. I don't want to go to my friends house and hear a 8ft wide 4ft deep and 6ft tall soundstage. I want to walk into a room and have it full of sound and a soundstage to the walls and beyond. If high end audio can't compete with todays Hi Fi headphones, why have it? Your going to take someone that is listening to a big (I'm not saying correct) headphone soundstage and set them in a room listening to this squeezed sound and try to turn them on to it? Not going to happen. Stop for a second with me and put on your memory caps. Compare the size of soundstages of the late 90's to todays typical audiophile stage and if you are honest with yourself you will agree that the stages have gotten smaller. It's not more detail, it's less information.

Don't believe me, follow me on tuneland and I'll show you, or invite me to show you here with a few brave souls.

Billiam's picture

Michael:  When you talk about having a large sound stage I have to agree.  I have a pair of Mirage OM 10 tower speakers built in the 1990's and the sound stage they create is impressive.  They easily fill a large room with a balanced, neutral sound regardless of where you sit or stand.  Omnipolar and Bipolar speakers do actually create a larger sound stage than a typical box speaker.

John Atkinson's picture

michael green wrote:
For the last 20 years I have been "undoing" audio systems to get back the dynamics...

Hi Michael, I appreciate you posting comments to our website. But we do request that people professionally involved in the audio industry include their affiliation in their postings. Thank you.

John Atkinson

Editor, Stereophile

 

Regadude's picture

Maybe he is this Michael Green:

http://www.michaelgreenaudio.com/index.html

No Rega in your shop Michael? Oh, Regadude is so disappointed...

Regadude's picture

Hey Mike, has anyone ever told you that on your avatar (the same picture on your website), you look like a cross/hybrid of D'Artagnan the musketeer and Michael McDonald of the Doobie brothers? No shyt!

Come on dude, post a video to youtube of you waving your sword while singing Yah mo be there. It would be so awesome!

Oh, and by the way. If I go to your store, can I get 15% off of list price? Regadude don't show up anyplace without getting at least a 15% discount. 

michael green's picture

Hi John

Hope you guys are doing great!  Absolutely, I'll go back through and try to find where I have posted and add the tag, and let me know if there are any other things I might need to do to stay within the rules. Also I invite you to visit us anytime on TuneLand.

michael green

MGA/RoomTune

John Atkinson's picture

michael green wrote:
Absolutely, I'll go back through and try to find where I have posted and add the tag, and let me know if there are any other things I might need to do to stay within the rules.

Thank you Michael. The only other rules are no flaming or personal abuse of other posters and no advertising.

John Atkinson

Editor, Stereophile

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