The use of (or more properly, the abuse of) compression can rob music of its dynamics, so that the first note is almost as loud as the big crescendo. Today, even modest home project studios have access to high-quality compression and there’s little doubt that a lead vocal can, in many cases, benefit from the judicious use of compression, as will a bass guitar, which after all is the foundation on which most popular music is built.
But over-use of compression isn’t just something you might expect of a novice. Although we have extremely wide dynamic ranges available now that almost everyone is recording to digital, it’s easy to add a bit more compression than is actually required, which is why not every CD you buy or every song you download off iTunes plays back at the same overall volume.
Many feel that the best compression is the kind you are never aware of at all. Then again, today’s “pop” music is not about finesse, but rather attitude, with in-your-face vocals and room-shaking drums. Some producers are definitely going for loud and aggressive on purpose, but most music actually benefits more from the judicious use of a hardware or software limiter. By taming hot transients, you can end up with a mix that’s got a fairly wide dynamic range, but which is also much more listenable. Music that’s loud all the time quickly leads to ear fatigue.