Dynamics & Dynamic Range More Letters

Is JA an old fogey?
Editor: I couldn't agree more with John Atkinson's "As We See It" comments in December on CD "over-compression"! Why should all pop CDs sound like they're being played through a radio? I've been mastering for 27 years, and I think we've hit an all-time low.

I can still remember the "level wars" of the late '60s and early '70s, when every producer wanted his record mastered louder than the other guy. But now...every pop CD is "slammed" 'til the little LEDs don't move, from the downbeat to the fade. When you run the D/A outputs through a +4dBm system, you have to drop the level 6dB just to keep it on scale on a VU meter. It's so pointless. I have had the same conversation with every producer I work with. Each guy says he hates compression, but he'll back off when everyone else does. It's enough to make me want to change careers.

All right, already! Let's all cry "Uncle!" I've been waiting and hoping for someone to start the ball rolling in the press. Thank you, John! But there's one more place that it needs to be repeated over and over and over...that's in the CD reviews.

Every time I read a glowing review of a new pop CD, I cringe. I haven't heard a decent one since 1993. It's the compression that kills it for me. And now they're starting to squash reissues. I heard a Marvin Gaye greatest-hits CD that I can't stand to listen to. When I compare cuts from earlier CD releases, damn if they didn't compress the hell out of the new one. Leave the old stuff alone...we're talking blasphemy here.

You might be an old fogey, John, but I won't dis you on this one. And what does our age have to do with it? The Doors, Pink Floyd—even the Airplane and Led Zeppelin never had this kind of compression. If Marilyn Manson and Nine Inch Nails weren't so compressed, we might even like them!

I have heard the same inane comment about wide dynamic range being "low" dynamic range. So how do we educate these morons? You can't imagine the frustration of trying to explain to a producer that it's a physical (geometric) impossibility to make his record as loud as his squashed CD. I get the biggest laugh reading about the need for higher bit rates when most of the pop guys aren't even using eight bits! And now we can look forward to six squashed channels. Oh boy, I can hardly wait.

Oh, well, at least we can still listen to classical and jazz. Sigh. Tell everyone to spread the word. Maybe a dynamic-range boycott...—Kevin Gray, b17kev@juno.com

JA's not an old fogey
Editor: I was just reading John Atkinson's "As We See It" in the December Stereophile, and I have to express my agreement regarding the over-compression of recent rock/pop albums. This is my big complaint about the Black Crowes remasters that came out last summer. It seems that someone at Columbia decided to go back and make the old albums sound like the (at the time) upcoming new album (By Your Side)—loud and compressed. Of the CDs I have in both forms (Shake Your Moneymaker and Southern Harmony), I greatly prefer the originals. While not sonic wonders, they actually have some dynamics and sound more "natural" to me. (The originals, of course, are no longer available, except secondhand.)

Compare these compressed CDs to something like Gov't. Mule's Dose—given a five-star rating for both sonics and performance in the August 1998 (Vol.21 No.8) issue of Stereophile—and it should be plain that it is quite possible to produce a recording that is both loud and powerful without compressing the sound all to hell.

Unfortunately, it's the compressed recordings that will sound "better" on the cheap boomboxes that the majority of music consumers have today, and that's who the big labels tend to target. In case that sounds elitist, I should add that I certainly don't expect everyone to have $10,000+ systems—I sure don't—but when components are selected carefully, it doesn't take a lot of money to make a very enjoyable system. Anyone who thinks they can get high fidelity out of a $100 hunk of plastic needs their head—and ears—examined.—Michael Hackett, Halifax, Nova Scotia, Canada, mhackett@supercity.ns.ca

Editor: I read with a lot of interest John Atkinson's "As We See It" in December '99, especially his observations on excessive use of compression/limiting in CD mastering.

The Santana Supernatural CD that he used to illustrate his point got 10 Grammy nominations! It appears to me that something must be wrong...

For sure, the general public has no message on the super-clean, realistic reproduction we audiophiles strive for. Furthermore, I do not understand what the music industry plans to achieve with the 24-bit resolution it intends to sell us. (I guess 8 bits would be more appropriate.)

Maybe the DVD-A standard should allow a user-set compression level: "In the Car," "In the Walkman," and "Clear" (no compression) for the audiophile. But I wonder whether the labels would like it—a heavily compressed CD gets both sales and record-industry nominations.

Just confused.—Paul Van Dyck, pvandyck@mail.com

FYI, Carlos Santana's compressed Supernatural got 10 nominations in the 42nd Grammy Awards, and Stereophile's wide-dynamic-range Rendezvous CD, which was shortlisted in four categories, didn't get through to the final nominations list. But my point stands: When they minimize dynamic range, record producers also minimize the music's message.JA