Ask the Expert – are we over compressing our worship music?

We had a really busy live Ask the Expert session a few days ago with our panel of Tech and Church PA specialists. Whilst you can scroll through all the chat on the event wall, we thought it made sense to break each discussion into smaller digestible chunks so for the next few weeks we’ll be running more than usual Ask The Expert blog posts on technical matters.

To kick us off, here is relatively technical discussion on the issue of compression. Jason Chollar writes:

“Just read a fascinating article on CNET. In it, Steve Guttenberg states: The ‘Loudness Wars’ aren’t about loud music, they’re more about how music is mixed or mastered to eliminate the soft-to-loud variations in live music.” I then wrote my own post about the subject of loudness in worship.

So here’s my question: with so many churches now jumping into digital mixers with compression on every channel do you think a lot of them are over compressing? I think we tend to in our services. Anyone else having this same problem?”

Rich Renken (Artist Relations / Customer Advocate at Line 6)
I mix music as well as working at Line 6. I have worked on major worship records. The loudness wars are awful. It is a necessary evil though. Everyone compares their music to other music and if it isn’t as “loud” they don’t think to turn up the volume, they just say, hey, this doesn’t sound the Switchfoot record. Fix it. :)

Jason Chollar
What about live in church? We have our drums fully isolated, so the sound engineer has full control, but many times I think we are over compressing.

Geoff Boswell (Audioplan)
I don’t think it will affect the overall loudness of the live sound. Compression on digital desks is great [I am Roland user and owner] and certainly its great to have compression available for vocals and all the other stuff that goes on at differing levels in a church band ! Agree don’t over use.

Rich Renken
Yes, we are over-compressing in live situations. There, the loudness wars are irrelevant. My buddy from Sonicflood goes to a growing church in Hollywood called Reality LA and they got a new digital board and the guy mixed as if he was doing a record. It was too compressed and zaps the live (life) out of it. We have to be careful live. Use compression to just pull off the peaks to get decent enjoyable RMS. 4:1 with around 2-3 dB of compression and attack and release to taste based on the instrument.

Jason Chollar
It seems to be a very artistic, subjective judgement call: good – better – best …. and many engineers want a right versus wrong equation: either there is noise, or there isn’t …
And I think some use it as a shield to avoid complaints: The SPL meter has never gotten above 85, so we are safe.
Sometimes though I think safe is code for music with the dynamics and life squeezed right out of them. Know what I mean?

Tim Horton (SFL)
I agree, it can be really too easy to over-compress with the digital boards and their associated functionality.
Compression used in the right place, tastefully can add to the music, but over do it and you just suck the life out of it.
Live music is so very different to recorded stuff. We shouldn’t try to recreate the album sound in our Churches… Each Church should be creating music (and mixes) inherent of their indigenous worship style. I’m all for using the technology but because I want to serve (aka. worship) in my Church appropriately not because I’m trying to emulate someone/something else.

Jason Chollar
So how do we learn and teach how to not overcompress? Any ideas?

Andy Chamberlain (Musicademy)
Part of the complication is choice of songs – there’s a lot of really popular stuff at the moment that doesn’t have much in the way of light and shade. Just big layered parts with huge bands and not much available musical space…Most inexperienced musicians tend to only listen to their own parts especially if the band is on personal in ear mixers which escalates the loudness problem. Thoughts?

Rich Renken
That is a good point Andy. When that happens I try to be musical with the mix. Pay attention to who is “driving” or “grooving” in a particular section. Move the faders around. Feature different parts on each section. Push stuff around for excitement. Give things movement. I do this but I bring it to my live mixing because of the things I do on records to make them “move”.

Geoff Boswell
Rich is right about moving faders around. Mixing should be active not passive. Also I am a great fan of the human compressor [its a hand on a fader!]

Compression needs to be used mainly as control in live PA. In studio it can be used other ways. Me thinks many churches here in the UK will think a comp is a thing that powers a jack or road hammer

Tim Horton

Here’s an interesting YouTube video…

Dave Rat is a bit of a character! Knows his stuff though. He’s the FOH Engineer for teh Red Hot Chilli Peppers and owner of a Production Company over in the USA.