OK, I’ve been finally listening to a gift I got at the Salvation Army about three years ago… Time Life’s “Super Hits From The Seventies ‘Have A Nice Day”. Twenty Five CDs with everything that made the seventies, er… whatever they were.
But whether or not you swoon (or run for the loo) when you hear ‘Billy Don’t Be A Hero’ you can’t help but be impressed by the sound of all the best recordings of that era. It truly is the Golden Age Of Recording for all devotees and it can be summed up with one word. No not cocaine–that was the 80’s, dude.
The word is compression.
Compression is the steroid that made everything sound good. In fact, I’ll go so far as to suggest that it is the answer to the question of ‘why?’
A little history and a little theory. A compressor is a device which automatically adjusts the volume of audio signals. In it’s most basic form it is much like the governor on an engine… it keeps the volume from exceeding a certain level. That way, when the drummer hits a really loud cymbal it doesn’t distort. It’s sort of like having a little elf inside your record player or radio which is constantly turning down the volume when it gets too loud.
Originally, compression was developed for use with telephone systems to make speech more intelligible. As you moved closer and further away from the handset, a small circuit compensated so that the listener would hear about the same apparent volume.
But record companies almost immediately borrowed the technology which became essential to mastering records. Compression on records was necessary so that they wouldn’t skip if the song was too ‘hot’ and for making sure radio broadcasts didn’t distort horribly when the announcer screamed ‘Home Run!’ into the mic. After all, remember that the dynamic range of a vinyl LP is many times less than a CD. A radio broadcast is even worse. The sound has to be squeezed into a smaller range of soft to loud in order to work on vinyl or tape or the radio.
People quickly realised that when you compress carefully, instead of things sounding ‘squished’ and lifeless, on the contrary, they can be made to sound more ‘in your face’. And the stereo can sound bigger than life. I mean really large. It’s just completely captivating.
At about the same time, the first really big recording consoles came into common use in all the studios. And these mixing boards used compression not just on the whole mix, but on each channel. Wowwwww! That’s why, about 1970 you start hearing PUMPING bass guitar and SLAMMING drums. Once it became cost-effective to compress each track it became standard practice to compress every track and that friends is what makes the 1970’s sound so smooth and in your face.
I cannot emphasize this enough–the constant use of compression that began in the early 70’s doesn’t just change the sound of records, but also the content of the records. It makes almost anything with a beat sound so good to listen to it makes the song a lot less important. Did anyone say ‘Disco’?
So early in the 70’s you have this complete run of novelty records (anyone remember “The Lords Prayer” done to a rock beat?) but then as the decade goes on, the pumping bass and toms that hit you in the chest like a jackhammer start morphing into the New York sound that becomes dance music. It isn’t just that tastes changed, it’s that the music starts adapting to fit the sonics that best fit highly compressed sound, a.ka. beatz.
People complain endlessly about the ‘lack of dynamics’ in music, but the truth is, that’s like bemoaning all the women with breast implants–people are hypocrites. They say they like all natural, but down deep? Most of us are attracted to stuff that’s bigger n’ life. Records from the 70’s still sound great because they are over the top with compression. It was a period of excess and the sound reflects it.
I still love it. Of course, it does get fatiguing, but that’s a topic for another rant.