Essay: The Limits of Compression

Dec 1, 2008 12:00 PM, By Gavin Lurssen



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Sugar has its place the same way pushing the limits on sound has its important place, but I think we are at a time when we fear that if we remove the sugar, no one will eat the cereal.

I am not a gear head. I've always focused on “vibe” rather than the purely technical side of things; the music, the sound, is the primary focus. I only use whatever tools are necessary to get the job done, and that changes with each assignment. Less is more. Less electronics, less processing, less push on what is in the chain.

But I do have strong feelings about tools like compression — especially from a conceptual point of view. I like to think of myself as growing with the new school and participating in it on every level. Any experience I share, or mentoring, is offered in the service of creating an environment of responsible audio transfers, no matter what medium. My close work with T Bone Burnett and his CODE sound quality-control initiative is an additional testament to this.

This idea of humans always pushing against limits brings to mind the early history of CDs, starting back in the 1980s when digital storage arrived for consumers. CD manufacturers would not accept any masters with samples over digital zero. The engineer would have to record or capture the music way below the threshold to maintain a legal master.

In the late '80s and early '90s, equipment manufacturers started building tools to clip audio right before the digital zero point. That, in turn, allowed the use of compression to essentially turn up the average volume of the music and reduce the peak volume while avoiding sample overs.

Compression and limiting became popular ways to push the limits — no longer simply part of a set of tools to be used to enhance the musical vision of an artist, producer or mixer. The trend gained popularity as more and more noise infiltrated our lives and our listening environments. When the Digital Age went portable, to compete with ambient noise meant to push and push the limits of our recordings.

In other words, we sugarcoated everything to make sure it still got eaten.

“Compression” is an often misunderstood and misused term. It is nothing more than dynamic range control. It does not reduce highs or add lows, as some people think. (I am referring to compression of the stereo master. Compression of individual tracks within a recording before it is mixed would be the subject of a different article.)

The responsibility of all engineering is to learn from and maintain standards set by the greats, to embrace and enhance them. It is about working with the whole of a sound, operating within the entire dynamic range.

When we limit the range of audio, we are in fact simply limiting ourselves. We are limiting the size of the canvas upon which we are asked to work, and we are, in the end, limiting what we can contribute to the production of music in this Digital Age.

Mastering engineer Gavin Lurssen is a two-time Grammy winner for the O Brother, Where Art Thou? soundtrack and PBS' Martin Scorsese Presents the Blues. He won two 2008 TEC awards for Robert Plant and Alison Krauss' Raising Sand.

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