It’s Not Just Pop Music That’s Over-Compressed

Much has been written about “the loudness wars,” the trend for music to be over-compressed. This isn’t the kind of compression one talks about when discussing, say, MP3 files; this is audio compression, or dynamic range compression, which reduces the differences in loudness in a song so the entire song can be louder. When a song is over-compressed, it JUST SOUNDS LOUD with no nuance. (I’ve written an article explaining how this works.)

This is very common among pop music, in part to make it sound “punchier.” But it’s starting to creep up in other types of music. I received a new album by the string quartet Brooklyn Rider last week. I went to start playing it this morning, and it nearly blew my speakers; my amp’s volume had been set at a normal level for the last music I had listened to, which was an album by Orchestral Manoeuvres in the Dark.

I was very surprised at the extreme volume of the first track I listened to, so I opened it in Fission, my audio editor of choice. Here’s what I saw:


The waveform shows volume, and when you see the volume hitting the top and bottom of the waveform, that’s compression; it’s also a sign of clipping, which can introduce distortion. It’s very odd that this album is so loud. Granted, it’s a sort of crossover album; it’s designed to try and break out of the standard classical music mold, and I applaud Brooklyn Rider for their music. But I think they’ve made a very big mistake allowing the album to be produced this way.
I looked at the second track:


More excess compression. I looked at others, which were just as compressed. But not all tracks are; for example, here’s the final track:


That looks normal; the way music should look when it’s not overly compressed. There are highs and lows; loud sections and softer sections. But there are none of those sections where all the music is clipped.

I won’t listen to pop or rock music that’s over-compressed, and I certainly won’t listen to classical music that’s produced in the same way. This just shouldn’t happen for a recording of a string quartet.