WXXI FM Classical Overzealous Audio Compression

Another open letter begging for sane audio compression... (first forum posting)

August 30, 2010

To: Jeanne Fisher, Vice President for Radio, WXXI Public Broadcasting

Dear Jeanne,

Clearly I have not gotten through to anyone about WXXI's overzealous audio compression on Classical 91.5 and HD-1. We don't know each other, and I mean no disrespect, but in order to save time I'll be direct rather than flowery.

What you are apparently missing is that we humans are affected subliminally by negative stimuli even when we don't consciously recognize that it is going on. Stress is a perfect example, and you are stressing your listeners. If your rationale for extreme compression is that of attracting and keeping listeners, then you are misguided.

WXXI is incessantly louder and pushier, phrase by phrase, than is any other of the several classical stations available over the air in Sodus, NY, or of the many streaming online. As we've discussed, compression is necessary. But WXXI takes compression to an unnecessarily stressful extreme. WXXI intersects the emotional peaks and valleys of the music in the manner of a "Flatland"-style plane. All vertical perspective is removed, and listeners are left with a planar event that is merely either/or: Either sound-at-one-loudness or no-sound-at-all. Only according to changes in timbre may the listener guess at what is really happening expressively/dynamically in the music. Indeed your current compressive overkill is such that fortes are actually being transmitted slightly more softly than are pianissimos through mezzo-fortes, with only the fortes' brighter timbre left as a clue that the composer, conductor and orchestra had intended and had executed a forte.

The result is stultifying. It is stressful to your listeners to have to subliminally compensate, phrase by phrase. It is not entirely unlike the twanging of a jew's harp ever at one volume level and variable only in harmonic content. One waits ever poised for a moment of relief from the wall of sound wherein a solo instrument is always ramped up to a level equally loud or even slightly louder than is the full orchestra when the latter enters and gets squashed and squeezed out to your antennas. More's the pity because the basic sound of WXXI is generally musical, if quite pushy and utterly without any depth perspective.

It is not elitist to ask WXXI to serve the music as well as do its brethren in Syracuse and Canada. It is not elitist to ask WXXI to recognize that its lifeblood and raison d'être is a genre of music in which part and parcel there is inherent dynamic range and there is inherent acoustical depth perspective before those elements are wrestled to the ground by your station--apparently in the name of grabbing a few listeners from WBEE. What folly! You are selling your classical birthright (or at least offering to--who from 92.5 is buying?) for a mess of pop porridge. Far beyond the necessary and acceptable compression one hears from Syracuse and Canada, you are killing the music you broadcast by pretending that it is other than it is, lesser than it is. You are dumbing it down in order to make a bigger splash. That is simply dishonest. Further it impedes the possibility that a person unfamiliar with classical music will understand (subliminally at first) why WXXI exists at all. 'More of the same' is about as uniquely attractive as is McDonalds at the Louvre.

People who are subliminally disaffected with any circumstance are neither attracted nor retained by that circumstance. You want to attract and retain listeners? Then puh-leeze touch base with WCNY's just-retired Vice President of Technology & Operations John Duffy. Learn how and why their three classical FM stations are successful even though they are purposely not quite as loud on the dial as are their myriad non-classical neighbors. Could it be that WCNY owes its success not to competition but to dedication?

Clearly you and everyone at WXXI-FM are dedicated to classical music and to your listeners, and I am grateful for that. But within dedication it is possible to be misguided.

"If it ain't broke, don't fix it"? How can you be sure that just because extreme compression has for decades been the local, insular status quo it ain't in fact broke? Listeners don't ask you to fix it, because they know neither that you easily could nor how marginal is their present experience of the music as trammeled by WXXI. For many a two-minute comparison with WCNY would be enlightening and refreshing. Although the difference is clearly audible 24/7, the nightly 7 pm simulcast of "Exploring Music" makes for an ideal comparison, and is worth a drive east within range of both WXXI and WCNY (although you can hear the compression difference equally well online).

Have you yourself made the comparison, Jeanne? I'd be grateful for your answer.


Bob Laird

Entire string, including the above, available at http://sirhute.com/wxxi-fm-classical-amusical-audio-compress...