You have probably heard of the terms “over-compression” and “loudness war”. The latter, i.e. when compression goes overboard happens when the mastering (or mixing) engineer puts a compressor/limiter (usually a brickwall limiter) across the stereo bus. He then squeezes the music until it appears to sound fucking goddamn louder. So loud that jet engines start to politely eat their own hearts out with the phenomenon we commonly call “envy”. What is it good for? Well if the n00b kid decides to listen to some hip shit, he tends to turn the fecking volume up fully, right? Up to 11 is a standard, and it just ain’t going any higher. That’s when the squeezed-to-death tracks come into play. Because I shit you not, they will sound even louder. So if the previous, gentler sounding track caused only a minor hearing damage, you can be sure that the over-compressed one is going to melt our poor, anemic protagonist’s microscopic brain apart.
Artificial loudness = fatigue
And I’m not kidding you when I say that. While we – humans – tend to perceive louder things as better, the apparent loudness is very fatiguing for the ears and the brain. So it leads us to the conclusion that those very smart guys at those very wealthy companies want us to choose their products over music that’s less loud. But chances are that we will listen to these over-squeezed records much fewer times than those with more natural dynamic levels. So imagine our poor, anemic kid putting on some hip shite on his ipod or chick numbing hi-fi system. Yes, they do exist, but ssshhh. So he puts that crap on and listens through it exactly one single time. Then that was that, thank you very much. But who cares, right? The loud tracks attracted the guileless listener so he bought the whole shit already. His money is ours, so shut up and enjoy the sunset.
Music as a worthless item
You can see the problem with this though. It just renders music into a cheap, replaceable product, instead of what it’s supposed to be: art. It also degrades sound quality. Because once you compress something, you turn up the quieter sounding “valleys” so they get close to the louder sounding “peaks”. Which means the dynamics will be reduced on the tracks of where the amounts of compression skyrocketed. If you compress hard, the dynamics will be killed hard. There will be a smaller chance for the “surprise” transients that can grab the listener in an aesthetical way. All in all, it will turn into a samey sounding, fatiguing mess.
Clipping the converter
There’s another method that brings up this same quality issue with the whole thing: digital clipping. Some mastering engineers simply drive the mixes hard into the ceiling of their A/D converters. So much that they will eventually start clipping the signal. That of course results in a squashed sound, similarly to the above discussed method. Only in this case they’re squeezing the last apparent loudness drops out of a track by driving it into (often clearly audible) clipping. Distortion = awesomeness anyway, right? Nope. Not for just the sake of loudness. You can tell I’m not a fan of this method. But if you are, please don’t take it personally, my dear friend. Just stop doing it, for good.