The Incredible Squashiness

The last few albums I've heard have been disappointing in terms of audio quality. There's a reason for it: The iPod age. iPods, iPhones, and their ilk are often used in noisy environments. As a result artists and labels are not only clamoring for their mixes to be as loud as everyone else's but for the music to not sag in level and therefore drop into the clutter of the background. The method used to accomplish this is literally squashing the life out of the music with a stereo compressor laid across the stereo bus. Of course, the result is a mix that is lifeless on large speakers. It is what I call a "toggle switch mix:" from the beginning of the song it just drives you through the back wall and continues to do so without letup until the last note. Full saturation simply toggles on and off. That sort of product is fatiguing to the listener, unless he's listening on earbuds and straining to hear the music over traffic, machinery, or a crowd.

As I sit typing this, I've got an example album up: This album has other mix problems, but my interest here is in the volume management department. For our example, I'll take a ballad that has made a stir in guitar circles. Once I line up the song properly to 0db VU on Dorrough Loudness Meters (meters that show both VU and peak at the same time), I see a song that is crushed heavily enough that it rides consistently between -2 and 0db VU with peaks in the range of +5-7db. No big surprise there, but it maintains that level whether or not there is a lead vocal or instrument present. The drums have pretty much zero dynamic impact. The snare doesn't snap. The kick can barely be discerned at all. By punching the bass up by 5 db at 50 hz I can put the kick into the picture again, barely. The very first time I hurried home and put up the mix on my home stereo I was completely disappointed. It reminded me of the product from the beginning of the '70s at some of the new studios: Everything was squashed flat and felt very lifeless.

That's an example, but it is only a single example in a trend. It has become enough of an issue that when I went to the Audio Engineering Society Convention in New York recently, the distasteful business of squashing mixes to death for iPod consumption was a major topic at the mastering and Digital TV discussions. The practice is so rabid that clients don't even want to walk out the recording studio with excellent mixes and then take them to mastering. They demand that engineers create a purposely-squashed copy for them to put into their iPod music shuffle to compare to their favorite tunes. A typical engineer throws a compressor or limiter plug-in across the stereo mix, squashes the life out of it, and hands that to the artist. The artist has enough time to get used to that over-processing before he goes to mastering. With the heavy compression, instead of seeing a build from very to bridge to chorus, you may actually see an inversion - the apparent volume of vocals and leads may actually drop as complexity is added to the arrangement. The mastering engineer tries to prevent a certain amount of the squashing and uses more sophisticated methods to create a more pleasing sound, but the artist has already become accustomed to the over-squashed mix and doesn't like it better. Uh, boy.

I'm passing on this stuff on to warn you of trends that are being noticed within the industry and are causing concern. One method that is being considered to deal with the compression issue is encoding context-sensitive metadata into the mix. The metadata would take advantage of the existing playback codecs and select varying amounts of contextual compression based upon the playback environment. Of course, that scheme is complicated by use of iPod docks for playback on stereo systems: You'd have to have a higher level of iPod compression for independent, mobile iPod use and another, lesser level or none at all when the iPod is docked into a high-quality system where you don't want compression.

So next time you are heading into the mix, consider the audience and listening environment you expect for your mix to exist in. Do you expect your material to be listened to in the subway on iPods or laptops? Will most people listen at home on a stereo? Which will be the cash audience for your music? Is it worth disappointing one for the other?