Tuesday evening I taught a clinic on audio mastering. The room was packed. The air conditioning wasn't effective in cooling down this mass of humanity. But, that didn't seem to bother anyone.
One of the topics we covered was compression/limiting. Within that, was the subject of over-compression/limiting. Ever since Brian Gardner at Bernie Grundman Mastering discovered the "NOVA" button on the UV22, we've had the (what seemed like) the NEBOL (never-ending-battle-of-loudness). I played examples of the negative effects of this practice.
However, NEBOL is not new. Before digital, the limitations of NEBOL were determined by the medium. For example, tape would reach a saturation point. Beyond which, was tape compression, high frequency loss and finally, square wave distortion. Vinyl was limited by the pitch as the side is being cut. Not enough pitch would create cross-cuts. On a turntable that didn't track properly, this would sound like a "broken record".
With digital, the limitation is hard and concrete. 0dBFS or 0 decibels -Full Scale. Given any bit-depth, 0dBFS is the maximum and the scale goes negative from there. Let's use 16-bits as an example, since it is the standard for audio CD's. If all 16 bits are ones, that's it. There's no room to go any higher. Taken a step further, with an audio CD's sampling frequency of 44.1Khz, one full-scale sample out of 44,100 per second is not audible. Two or three consecutive full-scale samples and it's arguable on some playback systems. Four or more, and the distortion is apparent and nasty. While analog distortion can be used musically and sound pleasing at times, digital distortion is just plain awful.
The problem posed to mastering engineers when digital first came out was how to master for this medium and get the most out of its dynamic range. The highest point needed to reach at least 0dBFS at some point. Otherwise, there was a waste of dynamic range. As the NEBOL surfaced, simply placing a hard limiter on the ADC (analog to digital convertor) was sufficient.
Then the A&R (Artist and Repertoire) people got involved and wanted their artists project to stand out. They mistakingly thought that by making the projects louder, it would appear louder on the radio. All radio stations have a slew of compressors and other processing before the final transmission because they have such limited bandwidth. Therefore, every track has the same volume. And because, the A&R people wrote the checks, it was pressed upon the mastering engineer to push the level. As much as we tried to educate, it fell upon deaf ears. Pretty sad for an industry that required listening for its survival, huh?
Anyhow, the problem became more prevalent when we started using compressors and digital limiters with "read-ahead" capabilities. These new techniques and technologies allowed for the increase in perceived loudness. Because digital has a hard ceiling, the only way to accomplish this is to chop the peaks and increase the average level. However, the negative effect is a decrease in dynamic range. Some push it too far and decrease the dynamics of the music altogether. This is over-compression/limiting.
A theory I subscribe to is that eliminating dynamics from music is detrimental to the music. It makes music boring. Of the four basic elements of music (melody, harmony, rhythm and dynamics), the only one we affect as engineers is dynamics. And, by reducing or removing that element, we are robbing the music of the impact the artist is trying to make on their audience.
Another symptom of over-compressing/limiting is the instruments appear to get smaller. When a snare drum in a rock band that should sound the size of a large trash can, sounds the size of a baseball instead, it's bad.
There has been a large backlash from the engineering community. There are groups of engineers whose sole mission is to educate and clear the myths and misnomers of this dangerous practice. Thankfully, people are listening.
Recently, there are new releases that return the dynamics back into music. Foo Fighters' "Echoes, Silence, Patience and Grace" is one of my favorite examples of this. They use dynamics to get your attention when they want. The listening experience is compelling and full of impact. It snares my attention and keeps it. I, for one, am glad for this. Let's keep it rolling!
Rock. Roll. Repeat.