I was driving to a wedding the other day (a gig, not a friend's, or my own for that matter, which was recently ;)) and my friend (the drummer) decided to put on a new artist who has been getting a lot of hype. We plugged my phone into my car's stereo and loaded up the tracks on Google Play Music
and we proceeded to listen. The musicianship was incredible and the sound was huge but somehow we both felt emotionally unmoved by the music. Also another thing happened, our ears hurt.
We live in an age of over-production. Everything sounds big because we have the tools to do so. It seems to me that when mixing in the past people tried to find a balance, whereas today it's all about having everything stand out loud and the amount of compression (aka dynamics processing or limiting) that goes in to doing this can be just downright painful to listen to.
Let me take a quick pause to explain to the layman reader what compression is. In order to control the relative volume of an instrument or a group of instruments, one can use signal processing to contain the output of the signal and lower the decibel level by a certain ratio once the incoming signal passes the threshold. Used properly, compression can help contain audio and even "glue" the music together and can also create a very cool sounding effect. This tool can also be used to make music appear louder to a listener by chopping off the transient peaks and basically squishing the audio. When used too much, we get what is called "hyper-compression" by the industry pros. This method, to many people's great distress, is used all too often these days and you get instances like the story I just relayed to you.
All this makes me think that nobody is going to be listening to the music coming out today in years to come because I find it physically difficult to listen to it now. Let's compare this current music with the open sounding music of 70s (for example). After listening to several tracks off of this artist's record, we put on some old-school Elton John (again using Google Play music streaming), and the sound felt like a warm bed you could sink into. Everything sounded open and round and full. Yes, we had to crank the volume knob a bit more, but who cares? Our ears were happy and so were we.
I think that digital audio can sound great, but I also think that we producers push the limits of what you can do with it too far. Don't get me wrong, I love what compression can do to bring out a vocal or make a snare drum crack, but at a certain point, slamming the tracks too hard makes it very difficult to listen to something for more than a snippet at a time. Who knows, maybe that's why people don't listen to records anymore and we've slipped back to the age of the single? The point is that my ears are tired and I'm tired of them being tired. How about you?