The "C" word

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A few days we ago we got caught up in the discussion of a very unwelcome word in the world of high-end audio. Compression. Even writing the word pains me as to compress is generally to make worse. Surely when we compress a file into an MP3 we do so by removing valuable musical information and this sounds significantly worse. No question about it. But I argued that compressing with the proper tools can actually enhance the listening experience; as evidenced by the compressed nature of LP's. Others would not agree.

Mark Waldrup of AIX Records, who incidentally makes truly magnificent recordings, remarked: "On my recordings .....there is no artificial reverb, EQ or compression used on any track. On Sunday many of them came back with lists of albums that they wanted to purchase. The customers had never heard uncompressed, high-definition digital recordings done with lots of stereo pairs of microphones before...and they were blown away. Leave compression to others, in my opinion. We finally have the ability to capture real world dynamics and ultrasonic frequencies and deliver them inexpensively to music lovers." Who among us would argue with Mark?

And surely we all recoil with the tendency of today's record producer to keep alive the loudness wars, the overly compressed crap that comes out of the record industry today is disgraceful. Yet, I stand by my remarks.

Compression of dynamics. The concept sounds truly horrible. It can take many forms and I believe Mr. Waldrup may use some of them but he wouldn't call it compression. I would argue it is.

Dynamic range is the range of difference between the quietest passage and the loudest passage of music: a pin drop to a jet engine pretty much covers what a CD can do, going to 24 bits increases that to a single molecule of air hitting your eardrum rather than a tiny pin drop. Can you hear either of these? No, of course not and even if you could it'd be lost on any loudspeaker system of today.

Let me give you a thought. Since Mr. Waldrup uses "lots of stereo pairs of microphones", as do many other recording engineers including our friend John Atkinson of Stereophile, what happens if one of those stereo pairs of microphones is used to record the room? What if another is used to record the back of the hall of the recording? Ambient microphones have long been used to increase the sense of space, I know for a fact John Atkinson has used this technique on several recordings and I suspect Mr. Waldrup has as well (but I don't know that). Here's the point. When you add a microphone set that is recording the room reverb, sound and reflections of the main sound you just compressed the music.

Read it again.

Compression is restricting the loudest to the highest. If we leave the highest unchanged and we add the room noise and reflections into the mix we can no longer hear a pin drop if we try and record that pin drop from the main microphone. Why? Because it's swamped out by the ambient microphone's contribution. No active limiting or compressing has occurred. Purists can say there was "no "C" word used in a recording. Yet it is every bit as compressed as if you had.

Just think about it.

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Paul McGowan

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