You may have heard about or read some articles regarding the "Loudness War" or the loss of dynamic range in modern music. I'm about to school you on this terrible trend in modern music and how it makes your music weaker, even if it is louder than the next guy.
Simply put. In audio the dynamic range is the difference between the average and peak levels of a signal. An audio file that has an average level of -14 dB RMS and a peak at -0.1 dBfs is said to have a dynamic range of 13.99 dB.
I often get the request to make a record "loud, yet punchy" which I'm afraid to inform you is an oxymoron and you can't physically have both.
Imagine in your head the image of a speaker and how it moves in and out while music is blasting through it. How far does it move out when you crank the volume on a record you REALLY love? Every time the kick hits that speaker moves out very far and very fast. It moves a lot of air very quickly and this is where we perceive the "punch" of a kick or other percussive elements in a song. The harder and faster that burst of air jumps out above the average signal, the more impact it has on us.
What happens when we raise the average level of a signal with heavy compression?
The further we raise the average level the less those percussive elements are able to jump out. Get the speaker picture in your head again where before the speaker was moving in and out about an inch on average but would push out 3 or 4 inches when the kick hits. Now let's raise the average level where the speaker is staying extended between 2-3 inches most of the time but still only pushes out to 3 or 4 inches to fully extend when the kick hits. The speaker is loud but it can't physically move that big sudden burst of air. Only a tiny bit of extra air is now being pushed when the kick hits in relation to the average signal.
Does it all make sense yet? Not only does hyper compressing your music in mastering make your dynamics weak, it also adds a TON of distortion in the process. Now that you know the physics behind it all let's listen to some examples.
In the following example I have a simple TS909 drum loop. The first 4 measures are uneffected. The next 4 measures following have been ran through a limiter to give the loop only about 6 dB of dynamic range which is currently the norm on hyper compressed tracks. The last 4 measures is for those of you who really like the tone and nastiness of the compressed track but like the punch and dynamics of the uneffected track. The technique of blending a compressed track in with an uneffected signal is known as parallel compression aka the New York compression trick. All have been volume matched to take loudness out of the equation.
Download the wav file here, burn it to a CD and audition it on a good set of speakers capable of reproducing a decent amount of bass.
When used correctly compression can add some nice color to the original signal. On the right system the compressed track will punch you even harder than the original. When compression is abused, especially the type of hyper limiting used in mastering, you end up with a weak and distorted signal that doesn't push as much air and doesn't have anywhere near the same impact.
If you like distortion as an effect put it in parallel with the original track so it not only sounds dirty, but retains the punch of the original.
If you have a dynamic record that has a lot of impact your fans will reach for the volume control and turn it way up. Enjoying it all the way through. If your album isn't that dynamic and has a lot of distortion from limiting your fans will likely get fatigued quickly, turn the track down, and only listen to a track or two instead of your entire album.
Bob Dylan was famously quoted as saying "You listen to these modern records, they're atrocious, they have sound all over them," he added. "There's no definition of nothing, no vocal, no nothing, just like ... static". Part of what he is referring to is this use of modern processing to destroy any natural dynamics in recorded music.
Loudness is a totally relative thing. Your fans have a volume control and won't hesitate to use it depending on how your music makes them feel. It all depends on if you're willing to be a solution or a part of an ongoing problem. I certainly have been a part of the problem myself by going there when a client requests. But if given the personal choice between have a smashed and loud record or a dynamic open one I'll choose the dynamic record every single time.
For more info check out
What Happens to My Recording When it’s Played on the Radio?
Dynamic range - Wikipedia
Loudness war - Wikipedia