Yet more wittering about compression

Tuesday, February 26, 2008

Two things.

Firstly, our septuagenarian neighbour is a music teacher, as well as a bad influence, who coerces us into drinking far too much champagne on Sunday afternoons. She’s a violinist by trade, but also plays piano. She still regularly performs concerts, and teaches freelance at the local school, which is very posh, and also private lessons to the kinds of young children whose parents pay for young children to have music lessons. She’s a New Zealander who’s lived here for over 50 years. She’s said some disparaging things about what Peter Jackson’s done re; tourism in NZ over recent years. She smokes, drinks, and swears, and is pretty awesome.

This Sunday just gone I was explaining the compression article to her over a bottle or two. As you might expect of a music teacher of a certain age, she’s into classical. She has little truck with jazz and less with pop. And you know what? She didn’t understand the compression thing. Not because she couldn’t technically grasp the concept; far from it. Her reaction was something along the lines of this (not verbatim; a little too much was consumed that afternoon):

“No fortissimo? No pianissimo? Why?! Why the bloody hell would you flatten music? It’s all about the fortissimo! That’s why recorded music is never as good as seeing something in a concert hall; it’s never as exciting!

I was, needless to say, absolutely fucking delighted with this reaction. She thinks I’m a crusader now. Which I kind of am.

Secondly, someone on ILM asked if I’d ever made a list of great sounding records. I pointed them towards the two top tens I did for Stylus on the subject, which are OK, but not quite what was asked for.

Closer are the two lists I put together on Amazon. Bu they’re still not exactly what I was asked for. Neither is this, but it’s closer, and, well, I’ve not quite written enough about this yet.

Maybe a third thing before I get to the actual list…

Thirdly, briefly, putting the stereo in a bigger room has made some things a damn site more sonically palatable than they were before. Presumably something about “standing waves”, whatever they are. Still not ideal, but there you go.

Anyway, some records. Two lots; the first lot, records a bit damaged by being, in my opinion, over-compressed one way or another. The second lot are records that I think aren’t over-compressed, or, at the least, that I think use compression effectively rather than destructively.

As ever; I’m NOT a sound engineer, just a fussy cockfarmer with lots of headphones. I’m not talking about data compression, and I’m not talking about compression on individual instruments; just dynamic range compression, the stuff that makes records consistent in volume and can often blur the sharpness of instruments

Part One: Records damaged by inappropriate or unnecessary use of compression, 2000 onwards
These are not necessarily records that I dislike; in fact in many cases I very much do like them, maybe even love them. They’re just records that I can’t bring myself to listen to very often because they give me a headache if I pay attention.

Embrace – Out Of Nothing
A really good example of the potentially negative affects of dynamic range compression (let’s call it DRC from now on) is what’s happened to the title track here. On an early, unmastered version of this song that I heard as an MP3, the levels were left more natural; as a result, when the huge, searing feedback climax kicked-in it was a damn site more shocking and exhilarating than it is on the version you can buy on CD. It’s still a phenomenal song, but it could be better.

Radiohead – Kid A
I had a bit of a Radiohead phase over the last few weeks, mainly because I’ve actually really enjoyed In Rainbows, and so I stuck all their albums on my work computer and made a best-of playlist. I stuck the Amnesiac version of “Morning Bell” on there, cos I remembered the opening vocal melody being lovely. It is. But it’s mastered horribly; really loud and imprecise. The prior album is much the same; I’ve said before that my problem with Kid A is that it’s an electronic / avant-garde record mastered like a mainstream rock record, and I stand by that; there’s none of the detail and precision and real accuracy that you get in the things they’re aping.

PJ Harvey – Stories From The City, Stories From The Sea
Play this after Rid Of Me or Dry. Sure, you have to turn those up, but they FUCKING ROCK when you do. This, on the other hand, turns very quickly to engine noise. And that’s not nice to listen to, no matter how great the songs.

Bloc Party – A Weekend In The City
I gave this a kicking at Stylus; almost completely unlistenable. And the songs don’t justify trying, either.

Spoon – Ga Ga Ga Ga Ga
This choice might shock some of you, because I fucking love this record; but it’s squashed. It works, pretty much, and I still listen to it a lot, but I can’t help think that Howie Weinberg (who mastered the PJ Harvey album mentioned above, too) just squeezed a little too much clarity and distinction out of the bass guitar and kick drum as he pushed for that extra -1dB. Gimme Fiction suffers from this too, and wasn’t Weinberg job, so I can only assume it was the band’s decision. Play Kill The Moonlight and realise this could be done better. Then play A Series Of Sneaks and realise that Kill The Moonlight could be done better too.

Bob the kitten has been sitting on a beanbag by the speaker. iTunes is playing on random as I type. The realistic, uncompressed sound of Patrick Wolf’s violin on “Eulogy” has just freaked him the fuck out, and he’s beaten a course to the windowsill.

Back to business.

The Flaming Lips – At War With The Mystics
This one you should know about. I can’t even remember how any of the songs go, is how flat and corrupted it is.

Snow Patrol – Final Straw
It was the opening track of this MBV-for-accountants album that was one of the things that shocked me when I played it straight after something older, possibly even something by them (first album engineered by Jamie Watson, and sounds great for it). No wonder they went massive; they ditched the idiosyncratic song titles and pumped-up the levels.

Yo La Tengo – I Am Not Afraid Of You And I Will Kick Your Ass
Just that little bit too much, you know? Still pretty terrific, but a little fuzzy around the edges, and for such a long album it makes it very hard to get through all at once.

The Shortwave Set – The Debt Collection
A little idiosyncratic indie record with an emphasis on odd sonics and thrift-shop instrumentation, and they pump it as loud as possible. Criminal.

Arcade Fire – Funeral
Can’t remember a note, even though I vaguely remember quite enjoying it the first time.

Matthew Dear – Asa Breed
Like Kid A this is just a little too upfront, a little too brash, and not quite involving enough.

Cocteau Twins – Heaven Or Las Vegas (2004 Remaster)
This, however, is headache-inducingly shrill and loud. And I love this album. Thank heaven I kept the original.

Phoenix – It’s Never Been Like That
Their aesthetic kind of needs to be clean and polished, but this was meant to be a step away from that. It didn’t work; the first track was so horribly in-your-face that I never went back.

Keane – Under The Iron Sea
Muse – Black Holes & Revelations
These two you just expect to be disgusting; surprise surprise, they don’t disappoint. Get the snare sound on the Muse album. Get the track that’s meant to be really minimal and acoustic and a bit barbershop, but that’s exactly the same volume as the mentalist rockers. It’s stupid. And the Keane album is just fucking disgusting.

TV On The Radio – Return To Cookie Mountain
See: Yo La Tengo. The debut EP is terrifically done. This is just a bit crunchy and lacking in space.

Working For A Nuclear Free City – Businessmen & Ghosts
The debut proper was really quiet, which meant when you turned it really loud it was properly engulfing and psychedelic. They’ve not destroyed the integrity of instruments and other ingredients on this double-CD compilation, but they have made it more boring, which is a shame.

Ulrich Schnauss – A Strangely Isolated Place
This is meant to be shoegazing. The bass clips. Unforgivable.

65daysofstatic – One Time For All Time
One of the ones that set me off; I could tell it was ‘good’ compositionally, but it didn’t move, it didn’t achieve the intensity I was after.

The nicer bit will follow in a while; maybe hours, maybe days.


Tuesday, February 26, 2008


Blogger mcclintic - 11:07 pm

I wandered back here for no reason and was delighted to see your return. Just a few days back, I listened to Mark Hollis's mesmerizing (no other word for it) "westward bound"--and I thought of your compression piece. Anyway, welcome back.

Blogger Ant - 2:04 pm

The fact that my 2 favourite bands (Depeche Mode and Embrace) have compressed their recent albums to death makes me want to cry. I can't listen to either of these albums, so much so that I'm actually scratching my head trying to remember the bloody name of Embrace's last album!

It actually puts a bit of a downer on the anticipation of waiting for new material from both of them. On the one hand I'm fairly sure I'll love the tunes, but I'm resigned to the fact that I'll certainly hate the sound.

Lets hope Embrace use Mickey Dale's ears during mastering this time and not someone with too much hair over their lug-holes!

Either that or wait 10 years for the remasters!

Blogger baconfat - 4:02 pm

65daysofstatic is the band name.

Blogger Nick - 7:44 am

Which I know very well; I was just two bottles of dog down the line and got things arse-over-tit at that point...


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Nick Southall was born in southwest England at the tail end of the 70s, and is the youngest of three brothers. He has a degree in popular culture and philosophy and has written about music for Stylus Magazine, The Guardian and Drowned In Sound, amongst others. He likes red wine, expensive headphones, spicy food, and the Hungarian national football team of the 1950s. His favourite record is the last one he listened to. You can contact him by email via sickmouthy @ gmail dot com should you so wish.

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