Hearing is a physical and analog process. High and low sound pressures hit a diaphragm that transduces those pressures to bones that goes to a snail-like-looking-thing filled with hairs that turns all of it into electricity which the brain thinks is audio. Not exactly very efficient. As a result, your brain is always lying to you about everything you hear…and you’re doing wrong listening practices expecting all things in hearing are created equal…and compression is one of the things it’s lying to you the MOST about. Here’s why it does, and how to counteract it.
Like I said, the hearing mechanism is basically a terrible analog device. Now, it’s ingenious. But Terrible. In fact,
when it gets overloaded with sound, it begins shutting down its sensitivity by compressing the loud sounds and leaving low sounds alone. It does this mechanically by tightening up the ligaments around the bones and other neandertholic methods. But it works, because sustained exposure to loud sounds will destroy your hearing and the hearing mechanism saves you tens of thousands of times in your life from going deaf. Nice. Thank you hearing mechanism!
Of course, we cover all of the things you need to watch out for with regards to hearing in the Cinema Sound MZed Pro Membership – along with everything you need to know about how to make great media in general. Click here to sign up now!
But for those of us who have to listen and add compression to dialog, SFX and music, since next to transducing sound itself, the ear does amplitude compression better than anything (to protect itself), it’s obvious that mixing with compression is one of the most lying-est, deceitfullest things your brain can do…and it makes applying compression to audio something which must be done in a certain way. Let’s cure the doing wrong listening practices for good.
Loud is Death
Since you ear naturally compresses itself with loud sounds, it stands to reason that we don’t ever want to listen to anything we’re trying to mix at a loud volume – unless we’re just testing what it’ll sound like in a theater – knowing that afterward we’ll have no ability to listen acutely, and our notes and scribbles for changes will have to suffice for the next 6 hours. But when we’re listening to something loud and trying to enact compression, the brain will counter-enact compression and make it seem like things are far more “balanced” and “even” than they really are. Why? Because your hearing mechanism is masterful at doing it’s “own” compression for you. If you’re listening to dialog at 80 decibels and add compression, then listen again at 75 dB, you’ll be shocked to discover how horribly imbalanced things are. Even if they sounded amazing at 80 dB, and you got those compressors in just the right place, and all the automation is working great…at 75 dB or less (especially less), you’re hosed.
What does this mean? Well, it means that you’ll want to be applying compression at 75 dB or less. You don’t have to leave the mix there. In fact, I like to balance dialog as low as possible (since it’s the first thing I do in a mix anyway), then bring everything else in and go back to the end-user’s listening level. You’ll be surprised at how much easier it is to add compression and tweeze settings this way, and your hearing mechanism will have your brain lie to you about compression at the most minimum. Dope.
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