SH Spotlight I was asked "Why do recordings need compression/limiting during recording, mastering?"

Discussion in 'Music Corner' started by Steve Hoffman, Dec 13, 2016.

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  1. Steve Hoffman

    Steve Hoffman Your host Your Host Thread Starter

    First of all, I never use compression or limiting in my mastering. But this is just my choice, I like dynamic range to be preserved as it is on the actual mix. But analog compression is a good thing, used in mixing, it's indispensable. Here is why:

    Compression is a tool. In the hands of a good operator, it is crucial. Too much dynamic range on recordings (the softest sound to the loudest sound) is bad. Not enough, worse. There is a art/science/technique to making a good recording. The compressor; overused, bad, used correctly, perfection!

    When music is mixed, human hands work the faders but the compressor is there to help.

    I'd venture to say that 99% of all recorded music of the last 90 years was created with a compressor/limiter.

    When electric recording came in around 1925, the Western Electric microphone went to the cutter with a fixed-groove revolving beeswax disk, 80 RPM usually (standardized at 78 RPM around 1934.)

    The music, of course, was recorded live, the cutting amplifier was only about 1 or 2 watts and the saturation of the tubes caused a pleasing compression that made it possible for a giant dance band to be recorded with only one microphone and mastered on the disk at full volume without overload distortion. You could hear the tuba in the back, the horns, drums, guitar, bass, reeds, vocal, everything with just one microphone.

    Why? Tubes really don't overload, they just compress when stressed. I've heard thousands of 78's from 1925 to the start of tape in 1949 and I've never heard any distortion on any of them. Some sound better than others, but the saturation of the tubes prevented any ugly odd order harmonics to screw anything up, even on a piano recording from 1925. (Compare that to the 25% piano distortion on the peaks during 1961's Bill Evans At The Village Vanguard!)

    When cutting amps got bigger, more accurate in the 1930's, the Victor and Columbia engineers discovered that it was harder to control the sound of the music because it was becoming too dynamic. The saxes would be lost because the horns were three times as loud. More microphones were needed, causing the orchestras to sound unnatural, isolated. The pleasing saturation of a low power tube stage was needed to make it all gel. Thus, they found a way to make the tubes work against their nature, instead of amplifying, they de-amplified the sound. Compression via outboard compressor/limiters!

    The best were the RCA Opto-limiters, using optical sound like in a movie studio and making it work in reverse.

    Later units could choose (by operator switching) between compression and limiting. In most old recordings (and most new ones) compression is always in the circuit, reducing dynamic range during the music and the limiter part only comes into play after a certain level is reached. The RCA engineers decided that around 15 db of dynamic range (a hell of a lot, actually) was just about right for late 1930's big band recording. Both the compressor and limiter were used on an Artie Shaw or Benny Goodman recording, the limiting only kicking in during the loud brass passages.

    "Why do we need this at all?" You ask me this all the time. Too much dynamic range is very unlifelike. In the concert hall, the sound bounces around and compresses nicely before it reaches your seat. Try listening to an orchestra OUTSIDE. Sounds like dead crap, right? You need the concert hall just like recordings need compression.

    Make sense? Let me think of another way to talk about it..

    Well, think of a recording as a good Chili sauce that you're making for a party. You have the ingredients on the counter, chopped onions, tomato, seasonings, etc. In a multi-track recording, each instrument on a track can be considered in these terms. If you do, it will be easier to understand. The drums are onions, the bass, spice, the guitar, something else, and so on.

    Now, you know that in order to make a good sauce, the ingredients need to be cooked and simmered to perfection for everything to blend together just right. Over done, bad, under done, you can taste each ingredient. Urggh.

    The same goes for mixing music, but we cannot mix music without the fire to simmer the various instruments together. This is what the compressor does. It is the crucial step to get something to sound not like a bunch of separate things, but as a whole.

    I've remixed a lot of stuff without compression and I cringe when I hear these today on the radio or wherever. They sound like band demos and not real recordings. Two hands can't control faders and dip something lightning fast, impossible but the compressor fuses it all together in such a good way (if used correctly) that you don't even realize it's working magic, you just know you like the sound.

    BTW I typed all of this on my iPad, I'll try and correct typos when I have a chance. Questions, comments welcome.
  2. MLutthans

    MLutthans That's my spaghetti, Chewbacca! Staff

  3. Steve Hoffman

    Steve Hoffman Your host Your Host Thread Starter

  4. CDmp3

    CDmp3 Forum Resident

    Helps me understand it better. Thanks.
  5. MLutthans

    MLutthans That's my spaghetti, Chewbacca! Staff



    My buddy Dave D. has (or at least had -- I think he still has) two of these at his studio in Seattle. Very cool machines, fully restored (by him).
    Last edited: Dec 13, 2016
  6. Tensilversaxes

    Tensilversaxes Well-Known Member

    What does something with too much compression sound like? I hear people talk about an LP sounding like it has "too much compression," but I have no idea what that would sound like.
    Old Rusty likes this.
  7. Guitarded

    Guitarded Forum Resident

    This some kind of Vegetarian Chili?
  8. MLutthans

    MLutthans That's my spaghetti, Chewbacca! Staff

    One thing that I think is hard to grasp and convey is that there's compression, and then there's compression. Every single mono Capitol LP "back in the day," for instance, had some pretty severe compression added during cutting. Some of those waveforms are really smooshed -- almost as much as what we'd call "brickwalled" today -- but because the compressor was set "just so" and was a good sounding variety, most people, myself included, really enjoy those old mono LP cuts, even though many of us will fully reject any release that is smashed to that degree using modern digital compression (for instance). If you get later (1980s and beyond) cuts of the same mono LPs, there was likely no compression added during cutting, and often these sound better overall, but that has to do with "mastering decisions" (tonality changes) more than dynamics, although the wider dynamics can certainly help. Some later cuts have absolutely "wide open" dynamics (measurable, viewable, audible) but are mastered in, for instance, an edgier fashion, so may sound worse, even though they ride roughshod over the originals in terms of dynamics. You'll never find an original USA mono Come Dance with Me by Sinatra that has dynamics that equal the 1997 UK reissue, but the mastering on that one is metallic/edgy and not nearly as pleasant, and I say this as a guy who leans in the "more dynamics = better" (within reason) direction.
    Last edited: Dec 13, 2016
  9. MLutthans

    MLutthans That's my spaghetti, Chewbacca! Staff

    Have you heard the Raspberries? I'm kind of kidding....but kind of not. It's great for AM radio. Not as great for "hi-fi" listening.
  10. MLutthans

    MLutthans That's my spaghetti, Chewbacca! Staff

    Recent examples of too much compression on LPs:
    The Ultimate Sinatra
    •The recent LP of The Mark, Tom, and Travis Show by Blink 182.
    hodgo likes this.
  11. Tensilversaxes

    Tensilversaxes Well-Known Member

    Ah, I guess then that my original mono Lovin' Spoonful, "Do You Believe in Magic," has a compressed, AM radio sound, but kind of in a good way. I like the sound.
    Brother Maynard likes this.
  12. Ben Adams

    Ben Adams Forum Resident

    Phoenix, AZ, USA
    The debut album from the Lemon Twigs has that Raspberries-style compression. Someone on the forum asked how much better the DR was on the vinyl compared to the CD, and my answer was basically that it doesn't matter, because they both sound like they're coming out of AM car speakers.
    spindly, forthlin and MLutthans like this.
  13. drasil

    drasil Former Resident

    all the performers in the song are at the same level as each other throughout. the drums are as loud as the vocals. the vocalist's breathing is as loud as the drums. quiet parts are the same volume as loud parts. sometimes the uppermost and lowermost frequencies are sheared off if the compressed recording is boosted to fill all the available frequencies, resulting in distortion and a waveform that looks like a solid rectangle--the 'brick wall.'

    compression also carries with it a characteristic 'whooshing' noise that you can really hear on an overcompressed recording if there's a major jump in natural volume (say, when the drums kick in, or the song goes abruptly from quiet to loud). this is the sound of the compressor kicking in and squishing the loud part down to keep it at the same overall volume as the preceding quiet part.

    ('squishing' being the technical term for this phenomenon.)
    Last edited: Dec 13, 2016
  14. vonwegen

    vonwegen Forum Resident

    Try the mono vinyl of the 40th anniversary reissue of The Ramones' 1st album for a textbook example of too much compression, badly done. Horrible, shrill and just plain unlistenable.
  15. Tensilversaxes

    Tensilversaxes Well-Known Member

    I bought that Lemon Twigs album on vinyl and agree with Ben Adams on the sound.
    Ben Adams likes this.
  16. JohnO

    JohnO Senior Member

    Washington, DC
    I came across this a while back, showing that brickwalling or overcompression can ruin a recording that originally intentionally used compression and limiting and other effects on the original master.
    Dave Edmunds - Queen of Hearts.
    Edmunds's style usually seems to be to do something with every studio trick he has available, and he gets the sound he wants - on original issues. After that, things can go wrong...

    Original 1979 UK single (note that Youtube itself adds a bit of dynamic compression):

    Now brickwalled on some CD I luckily don't have:
    Dave Edmunds - Queen Of Hearts »
    Last edited: Dec 13, 2016
    Kit2010, Tomek, sami and 2 others like this.
  17. AnalogJ

    AnalogJ Hearing In Stereo Since 1959

    Salem, MA
    Nicely explained.

    If there is TOO much compression, it saps the life out of the music. But too little on a dynamic recording can make the recording seem very unnatural. I think of those occasional films projected at 120fps 4K digital and it just looks weird. I don't know if that's a good analogy or not, but I get that there's a balancing act when it comes to mastering for vinyl.
  18. wavethatflag

    wavethatflag From a picture of a picture I took.

    Pacifica, CA
    At the risk of being accused of suck-up-ery, this is a brilliant analogy. Thanks.
  19. Steve Hoffman

    Steve Hoffman Your host Your Host Thread Starter

    Thanks. I thought of it in the bathtub today, for whatever that's worth.
  20. Steve Hoffman

    Steve Hoffman Your host Your Host Thread Starter

    That's pretty smashed just the way it is. Solid state limiting, in duplicate. If the CD is worse it must really be dreadful. Digital compression is really the pits.
    Rad Dudeski, EVOLVIST and drasil like this.
  21. sberger

    sberger Dream Baby Dream

    If possible to name names I for one would like to know some specific titles. Also, why were you instructed to remix without compression. What were the artists hoping to achieve?
  22. jfine

    jfine Forum Resident

    Never thought of it like that, if I'm listening to a song with a lot of dynamic range, I pat my system on the back for portraying it, huh.
  23. Steve Hoffman

    Steve Hoffman Your host Your Host Thread Starter

    Too much dynamic range is unnatural sounding, just sounds wrong. The vocal is too loud, too soft, this or that, it's hard to get a good balance. Mixing is very difficult. Compression helps make it sound natural (as funky hard as that is to believe).
  24. Amyfan71

    Amyfan71 Active Member

    oklahoma city
    When I played in my first christian rock band we cut a demo and didn't have any compression on mix-down. It was too quiet in some spots, in others it was okay. You've explained what we went through perfectly.

    We found a guy with some good tube compressors to help us out and voila!

    Great writing and explanation, steve!
    Max Florian and Front 242 Addict like this.
  25. Claus

    Claus Senior Member

    Well, that means only for recording... right? When I listen live to small classical ensembles, it doesn't sound unnatural to me.
    AnalogueAndy likes this.
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