Resources for the Recording Musician
October 29, 2009

Use of compressor on early records

I greatly appreciate this site. It is such a treat to be able to speak to experienced and knowledgeable mixers.

Question: I know technology in the recording field has come far in the last 40 years, but compressors were around in the 60's yet you do not hear the "punch" on those records like you do now.

I know some of the limitation was probably format (analogue vs digital), but was the compressor not used to "punch up instruments" (give them more presence and punch) because it wasn't "in vogue" at the time or was it simply that analogue tape couldn't handle the increased dynamics?

Or was it because being "pressed to vinyl" the dynamic range would make the stylus jump out of the groove? and therefore the compressor was used more to "limit" the sound?

Along this line, who was the first engineer to really punch up the bottom? What was the earliest records (that shows my age) CDs/tapes, etc...that this shows up in? Was using the compressor to punch up the bottom a chance discovery or was it known all the time but technology limited its use in this way?

I know this is probably an involved question and involved answer, and so let me tell you up front how much I appreciate your time answering this.

I guess you need to define what you mean by "punch" when referring to more modern records.  I think that perhaps you are confusing shear volume (loudness) for punch.  But, in my mind, "punch" is different from loudness, and are not necessarily terms that go together.In this modern digital age we are certainly suffering from the negative aspects of the "loudness wars".  Just do a Google search for "loudness wars" if you aren't up on what that means, and you'll find enough reading to keep you busy for a long time.To the "untrained ear", louder and brighter always sounds "better"... at least at first quick listen.  But, the problem with today's music is that, in an effort to make each release louder than every other release, music has been compressed and peak limited to death, resulting in very loud and harsh CDs (and MP3s) that are generally fatiguing to listen to for any extended amount of time.  Yet, people think they sound "better" because they are so much louder, and our ears are very easily fooled.You might also think of this general loudness as being "punchy", when in reality it's just LOUD and all the dynamics have been totally removed from the music.  In my mind, in order to have true "punch" there needs to be dynamics and contrast between loud and soft.  Also, punch is all about transients and peaks, which are generally squashed away and removed as much as possible when trying to make digital audio as loud as possible.

While it may be true that analog tape killed some transients in the old days, and possibly degraded the "punch" of the audio a bit, it is certainly not nearly as bad as what people are doing in mastering these days in an effort to make their music louder than everything else.

In fact, I bet if you take some older recordings from the 60s and 70s, and simply turned up the volume on your stereo, and matched the listening level of them to a current production, the older music would sound MUCH MUCH better and more punchy than the modern stuff.  You just have to get it up to the same volume level... If you match the volume levels with the volume control on your stereo, the music will sound much better because it still retains all the dynamics and transients and true punch that has been squashed out of the modern music.

Yes... compressors have been around for a long time, and if used properly you can use them to increase the overall average volume of a track, but, in general, compressors are reducing the dynamic range, and usually squashing some of the transients as well, thus reducing the "punch" instead of adding more punch.  We just think it sounds punchier because you can make the average volume louder by using a compressor.  You can use a slower attack setting to allow more of the attack transients through, and play around with settings to make it pump a bit more, which can sometimes sound like it's more punchy as well.  But, in general, I think compressors just make things louder, but not punchier.

Originally, compressors were invented to help deal with the limited dynamic range of analog tape, as well as vinyl.  You had to reduce the dynamic range of the audio so that you could raise the overall volume and keep it well above the noise floor of the tape, while at the same time taming those attack transients and the overall level so that you didn't saturate and distort the tape.  When mastering, you had to sometimes do more compression and limiting to keep the levels within the range that you could fit on vinyl without the needle jumping out of the groove, etc...

Of course, engineers quickly learned that compressors could be used for more than just taming levels and compressing dynamics.  They each had their own sound that could be used to "color" the audio passing through it, and could also be driven hard and abused to achieve certain types of sounds.

Back then, though, technology was still analog, and there was only so much you could do with it.  Things didn't start to become REALLY LOUD until we entered the digital world and the peak limiter was invented (the Waves L1 being the first very popular software limiter).  These digital limiters could "look ahead" and see big transient peaks coming, and then act accordingly to round them off and reduce their level so that the average RMS level of the audio could be greatly increased without clipping the digital signal.  Of course, it created nasty sounding artifacts if driven too hard, but people loved it because we could make music so much louder than we ever could before.

Peak limiting, and other techniques for making things loud, has been getting better and better over the years (or worse, depending on your viewpoint), and so the average loudness of CDs has steadily increased since the 70s, and the dynamic range of music has likewise steadily decreased.

So, probably didn't exactly answer your question, and used it to rant a bit about the loudness wars, but I think you get the general idea.  I couldn't tell you who was the first to use a compressor to "punch" things up.  I think it's been a gradual progression since compressors were invented, and a more rapid progression since digital peak limiting was invented.  Again, though, I don't think of this increased loudness as "punch".

Thanks for the response. I didn't mean to hit a sore spot, but truthfully, your response was interesting in many ways.I've taken some of the recordings from the 60's and 70's and have "turned up the volume" in order to compare recordings from then to more current recordings.It seems the bottom end on newer recordings are much more pronounced and clearer. For example, compare the bottom end to an early Beatles' song like "I Saw Her Standing There," a personal favorite of mine, and then compare the bottom end to something like the Pretenders' "My City Is Gone."Both songs are excellent, well-played and recorded, both by excellent bands recorded in top notch studios by talented engineers. Yet the difference is stunning.

The bottom end of the Pretenders song is full, well-rounded and "punchy"...the bottom end of the Beatles' song is excellent, rocking and moving, but doesn't have the volume or the "punch" of the Pretenders.

Now, 30+ years separate the dateline of the recordings and format is different I'm sure.

But technically speaking, was a compressor used on the bottom end of the Beatles' recording differently than that of the Pretenders?

And even if you crank up the Beatles' song (which I have often), the bottom end is very different.

I'm guessing that compressor technology had greatly improved during that period of time, but it is much more than just volume.

It seems to be more of a frame of mind or attitude about the use of the compressor. Or maybe just the technology.

I don't know. I was hoping that you might provide a little insight into the matter.

I am familiar with the whole "Loudness Wars" debate and much prefer, at least personally, to the recordings from the 60's and 70's as a whole. The sound and color are more pleasing and interesting to me.

Anyway, I love both of the aforementioned bands and this message was not meant as a criticism of either the bands or the engineers/producers working with them - they are all great!

My question was more about the use of the compressor and changes in attitudes that may have occurred with engineers, producers, etc... and whether or not the technology existed back in 1963 when the Beatles were recording on their 4 track machine or was it simply not something that anyone had tried, thought to try, or technologically not possible (or a combination of all of those things).

Again, thank you for your time. I really find your responses informative.

No problems... that helps clarify what you are asking about anyway.If you're talking specifically about the bottom end, and bass in particular, I don't think it really has to do with compressors.  The most coveted compressors these days are still some of the oldest.  Fairchild, 1176, LA2A are all classic compressors that have been around for a long time, and are still copied and even emulated with plug-ins today.  Compressor technology really hasn't evolved enough over the years for that to be the difference you are hearing.I believe it's simply more of a progression of the recording medium and the enhanced techniques allowed as recording technology improved.

Using your example of classic Beatles' songs... those were recorded back when they had only 2 tracks to begin with, and then later on 3 or 4 tracks.  They also had a limited number of channels on the console and a limited amount of processing gear.  Many instruments had to be recorded and mixed together on the fly to a single track, and then the tracks were often bounced to free up additional tracks.  Bouncing certainly degrades the low end and high-end, and having to record many instruments at once didn't leave for much flexibility when it came time to mix.  Of course, the real mixing was done during the actual recording since so many instruments were mixed together onto one track, and there wasn't much mixing to be done with only 2 or 4 tracks at the end.

As technology progressed, there were a lot more tracks to work with, so the bass could live on its own track until the mixing stage, and not have to be bounced several times, or pre-mixed with several other instruments onto one track.  That gives you a LOT more flexibility in shaping the tone of the bass and making sure it cuts through in the final mix.  Plus, not having to bounce the tracks definitely will preserve much of the original punch of the track.

Finally, I think a lot of it is simply a change in style over the years.  I think in the older days of music, the rhythm instruments were much more of a background type of role and not meant to be as up front and punchy as we like them today.  Over time, the drums and bass have become a much more dominant force in the songs, and they are simply mixed to be much more up front and punchy.  I really don't believe it has anything to do with compressor technology specifically... just a change of attitude, and a lot more tracks to work with to enable much more flexibility in the final mix.

Of course, these days with computers, you don't have to worry about generation loss due to bouncing, or even degrading the signal by repeated playback of the tape.  Back in the old days of analog tape, every time you played the tape, the signal would degrade a bit more as more oxide was scraped off the tape by the tape heads.  Especially for bands like the Beatles that were very creative in the studio, there was a lot of bouncing and a lot of playing of the tape over and over, and so their recorded signals probably suffered more than other bands of the time.

There was some interesting notes from Bruce Swedien about how he used multiple reels of tape and multiple machines when working with Michael Jackson.  He would fill up a tape with tracks and then immediately make a reference onto another tape on another machine (with a timecode track for synchronization also) and then put the original tape away and never play it again until time to mix.  That's one of the things he says made those recordings and mixes sound so good - because there wasn't all the signal degradation from repeated playback of the tapes.  Also, he is strongly against the use of compression in general, as he believes it destroys too much of the transients and the "punch" of the audio, and that people use it too much as a crutch these days.  He claims that not using compression is another reason why those recordings sound so good.  Something to check out anyway.  He had a whole section devoted to questions and answers on the forum a while back:
Also some great articles in recent trade magazines, and his book "Make Mine Music" is also a great read!

Steve - thank you for answer. Very informative. That's the information I was looking for.

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