Largely regarded as one of Prince’s crowning achievements, 1987’s Sign O’ The Times wasn’t only a monumental moment for the purple one, but also a pivotal step for Susan Rogers. When she started out as a maintenance technician, there weren’t very many female engineers, “and there still aren’t,” but luckily Prince didn’t make the distinction between someone who knew the technology and someone that knew how to use it. She became Prince’s engineer and began a long and storied career. She is now an associate professor at the Berklee School of Music, but that doesn’t mean she’s cut off from trends in the studio. Via Daddy Rock Star:
DRS: Speaking of recording techniques, when I listen to a lot of music these days, it seems really loud. It’s not just a matter of ‘things have progressed in technology,’ but it just seems like the music is just louder for the sake of being loud. Maybe it’s just another sign I’m getting older (laughing). Am I off base with that? As an engineer who’s been around for years, what do you think?
SR: I know what you’re saying. The technique these days involves hyper-compression where in mastering, and sometimes even before, you squash out all the dynamics. You level the dynamics such that there’s no change in loudness going from the verse to the chorus and the climaxes of the song don’t get any louder than the quiet parts of the song. The trend began in the ‘90s…it originated from radio broadcasters who wanted program levels to be uniformly loud. They didn’t want any quiet moments that might allow a listener to switch to a new station, so record makers started competing in the same way by flattening out the dynamics so that your record would be louder than the next guy’s…and it sounds great when you put your record on and it just comes in hotter than the next person’s. We know, at least here in the Western world, consumers prefer whichever audio source is louder. It can be a fraction of a DB hotter and the consumer will say “yeah, that one sounds better.” But what has happened, by reducing these dynamics we’re actually changing the emotional impact, (I’m arguing this anyway) of musical material because dynamics are what gives a song tension and release…it gives it a payoff. To take away the dynamics, you can listen longer because there’s nothing changing so you can listen for a longer period of time but you’ll probably be less emotionally engaged than you would have been otherwise. Dynamics contribute to emotion, but, that said, we are now writing and producing music such that you don’t need a lot of dynamics. It’s changing the way composers and producers are working. How we think of music nowadays we think of it as being kind of uni-dynamic.