The past couple of weeks, I've been carrying on about the quality of recorded, streamed or broadcast music in our lives, and why listening to good recordings matters.
A recap is due. I've explained that, beyond the quality of the medium — be it MP3 or FLAC, the quality of the original master recording (and the decisions made at the time) matters just as much as anything else when you're looking for good sound. Mastering and mixing engineers have control over the "dynamic range" of a recording, which defines the spread in volume between the average level of the song and the loudest moment in the song. In the '50s, jukebox owners noticed that recordings with higher average loudness were played more. Fast-forward to the future, and music engineers now feel pressure from all directions to make artists' songs as loud as possible to compete against other loud music.
Digital music has much more bandwidth than vinyl or tape, so music can be made louder than ever before. I'm not trying to vilify anyone with a job to do, and in my opinion, a track that has no compression or limiting applied sounds dull (depending on the genre). A bit of each is nearly always useful, but the amount is really what's at the heart of the discussion. Compression and limiting allows engineers to even out the average volume of a recording by either lifting the quiet parts or quieting the loud parts. Once the dynamic range is compressed, the song can then be made louder, up to the absolute limit possible.
A classic case of extremely compressed, loud as hell music with a very small dynamic range is the Red Hot Chili Peppers' album "Californication." Compare that sound with any music currently playing on the local classical radio station and you'll hear what I'm talking about. You probably need to turn up the volume on the classical broadcast, while moments in "Californication" might have you reaching to turn it down.
These are extremes, but the practice of heavy limiting and compression is still very prevalent in our modern music landscape. However, some genres have the right kind of structure to hide the compressed effect. The more busy the overall sound of a recording is (like the rockin' Chili Peppers), the more apparent the effect of compression is to the listener. So, sparse instrumentation like that in R&B and hip-hop allow engineers to really crank up the average loudness without it being so obvious. The space between the notes and beats provide a sense of ebb and flow so that the limited and compressed music seems a little less so to the listener.
There's good news for the future of recorded music. In 2015, standards began to be enforced, and new methods of loudness analysis allow programs like Spotify and iTunes to automatically adjust for the loudness of a song. These days, when you fire up "Californication" via one of those services, you might notice it's a little bit quieter than you remember when it was blaring on the radio years ago.
Read more Taylor: coloradodaily.com/columnists. Stalk him: instagram.com/duncanxmusic.