in Music Production
Published July 2018
Understanding The Use Of Hyper-Compression In Music Production: A Systems-Based Approach To Examining Innovative Change In The Field Of Music Production
Described by a leading figure as the “destruction of an entire musical heritage” (Lund i/v, 2015), hyper-compression presents one of the most challenging issues facing Western mainstream popular music in the 21st Century. Historically, loudness has been utilised as a mechanism to influence consumer behaviour, taking advantage of the non-linearity of the human hearing mechanism. This process has been described as the “louder is better” paradigm. This paradigm conforms to an underlying belief that listeners consider louder music, both preferred and perceived, as sonically superior to that which is softer. During the so called “Loudness Wars” artists actively sought means to render their recordings as loud as possible, at times exceeding the medium’s limitations. Digital audio technology presented opportunities to significantly increase loudness levels, enabling the average level of an audio signal to be hyper-compressed, resulting in a greater perceived loudness when reproduced. This excessive use of compression, that is hyper-compression, can intercalate a range of undesirable artefacts such as non-linear distortion as various studies have shown. There is now a distinct tension between agent’s notions of loudness as a commercial imperative, its aesthetic intent and the integrity of the audio signal.
This thesis attempts to address why hyper-compression is so prevalent in music production despite scientific evidence that denotes deleterious consequences. Its use in the field exhibits little signs of abatement and therefore appears to represent a dominant structural determinant by acting as a prerequisite for recordings to enter the market. Previous focused research has examined many individual causal factors but has failed to adequately explain why hyper-compression continues to be reproduced as a structure within the popular music field. It is argued here that the issue is representative of a multi-factorial set of conditions that are systemic in nature. The origins of these factors are also illustrative of both objective and subjective concerns, and as such, the methodology underpinning this research project reflects a constructionist ontological position, providing, in addition to the objective work on signal analysis confirming the effect of hyper-compression on recordings and audiences, the necessary foundation for a broader socio-cultural investigation. It is argued that there is a profoundly interrelated system of objective conditions that governs possibilities of action by agents operating in the field of Western mainstream popular music. Understanding why agents collectively engage with hyper-compression was the central aim of this study.
To facilitate this aim, a framework was devised that accepts a systems perspective, drawing upon the theories of Csikszentmihalyi, Bourdieu and Rogers. The methodology employed reflects the underlying tenet of this framework, utilising a multi-strategy design of signal analysis and ethnography. Interviews were conducted with 29 industry participants in conjunction with the analysis of music recordings and audience reactions to them. Results indicate that despite the potential for loudness normalisation to mediate the immediate effects of the “louder is better” paradigm, there remains a multitude of factors in play that keep hyper-compression in use. All of the factors examined in this research collectively outweigh concerns focused on the quality of audio alone. It is further argued that a gradual and recursive change in the knowledge and symbolic structure of the domain of music production would be required to diminish the role of hyper- compression as a structural determinant, in a similar manner to the way it was instigated. The possibility of this occurring is discussed, with consideration to the multiple factors outlined in this thesis.
"This thesis tackles a thorny subject with some very innovative methodology, combining some serious sociological theory with a very high level of technical analysis, including re-interpretation of historical data, and a most impressive body of ethnographical research engaging with the world’s leading professional practitioners in the subject area. The balance that has been struck between these different elements is excellent, and the reader is helped through each theoretical area with the utmost care. The author has shown wonderful judgment in balancing quantitative and qualitative analysis, combining numbers with stories, and using vignettes gathered in interviews alongside hard data to produce a robust and multi-facetted argument. I have learned a lot through reading this thesis, and as soon as is appropriate I will include some of this material in my own teaching, as I am sure my students will benefit from many of the ideas herein." Review in full
"Firstly, allow me to congratulate the candidate on a very well-researched, thorough and interesting thesis. Clearly a huge amount of time, effort and work has gone into this PhD and it’s always a pleasure to read the results of a large-scale piece of work. Overall, this thesis has many strengths and I can certainly see areas for potential publication in addition to the [Audio Engineering Society] papers already presented by the candidate”. This examiner also stated that the candidate has demonstrated sufficient understanding of the relevant literature, which they thought was an overall strength of the thesis, they have demonstrated sufficient knowledge of the research area and “demonstrates a broad and deep understanding of a major issue in recorded music”. They also note that the candidate has applied appropriate methods to the research, and sound results and conclusions have been drawn. In summary they indicate that “the candidate has demonstrated a clear ability to conduct research at doctoral level.”
Audio practitioners interviewed for the research project: Leon Zervos, Jonathan Wyner, Don Bartley, William Bowden, Michael Romanowski, Scott Chae, Bigboom, Eric Broyhill, Björn Engelmann, Cem Oral, Florian Camerer, Sean Magee, John Dent, Alan Moulder, Bob Ludwig, Bob Katz, Thomas Lund, Greg Calbi, Susan Rogers, Bob Horn, Dave Pensado, Lachlan Mitchell, Scott Horscroft, George Massenburg, Andrew Scheps, Tony Mantz, Paul McKercher and Ian Shepherd.