End of Year, Never Once Reflect

Nothing Shocking: was side-chain compression the sound of the decade?

I like Simon Reynolds. His writing is precise and compelling. And he usually draws insightful conclusions from his compulsive consumption of culture. Which is why I followed with interest as one after another of Reynolds’s end-of-decade articles appeared over the past few months, each more contentious than the last. First was a piece on the portmanteau “Conceptronica” for Pitchfork in October. Next came an article in Resident Advisor on the rise of Ambient and New Age, a piece that was itself a counterpoint to another of Reynolds’s 2010s compendia, a prognostic article about “Maximalism” written in 2011. Finally with a December dispatch for The Guardian, Reynolds concluded that he couldn’t actually remember what came out in the 2010s, or precisely when, because of the sheer onslaught of mass culture: “The reason that it feels like nothing happened in the 2010s,” explained Reynolds, “is that too much happened.”

Ten years ago, Reynolds published a clear-eyed book-length account of a certain nostalgic, hauntological tendency in pop culture which he smartly called “Retromania”. Now, he’s given us three separate stories in three separate publications about three discrepant and not particularly monumental cultural currents. Is he losing his critical edge, his fingers falling off our proverbial pulse? Surely not! Or, is it possible that there really was no ripple effect that swelled to a fully-fledged tidal wave, no discernible cultural high watermark for the past ten years?

As we dip into the 2020s, we can safely say that there wasn’t one particular defining sound or genre of music that characterised the last decade to the extent, say, that Alternative Rock did for the 1990s. Nor was there even a pervasive creative tendency apparent in the Zeitgeist, like Retromania haunted the 2000s. The biggest story of music in the 2010s was that there was no biggest story of music in the 2010s. But why not? And will there ever be a big story again? And should there be? In the absence of big stories — that shock of the new — where else might we look to answer the questions of how music characterises our times, how it gives song to our collective dreams, our nightmares, how music concurrently mirrors and invents our culture?

Conveniently, Reynolds offers us a clue in yet another of his comprehensive roundups, a cultural history of autotune. In lieu of a genre that coalesced the 2010s, autotune could be a worthy candidate for the decade’s characteristic sound. Importantly, what Reynolds points to is not generic but technical. If we shift our perspective on sound and music to include technological criteria — not what musicians create, but how — we will see that there was indeed a sound of the 2010s, just not a generic one.

The sound of the decade was … processed. That’s to say, the electrical signal of almost every recording, across every genre, by every artist (save perhaps Jack White) was to some extent rendered synthetic. Pop music of the 2010s was dripping wet with all manner of effects, plug-ins, pitch correction, equalization, delay, reverb, time manipulation — you name it. Even the cleanest of recordings — something like, for instance, Paul Simon’s 2018 album In The Blue Light — employed some degree of digital processing, some dressing-up of the singer’s naked voice. Autotune is likely the most ubiquitous form of signal processing in pop. But another equally omnipresent and comparable form stands out as well. That technique is called side-chain compression.

What follows will proceed from the assumption that music, and particularly music that aspires to art, can be interpreted, deciphered, that it means something. I also assume (as my PhD supervisor Jonathan Sterne always reminded me) that technology is performative. In effect, technologies enact, technically, analogous cultural logics. Put more simply, technologies act out our shared understandings and expectations about how things could or should be in the world. From those assumptions, we might then begin to interpret music and technology along two vital and overlapping lines: aesthetic and instrumental. We might say that the aesthetic is generally affective, while the instrumental is generally semiotic. Aesthetics deal with what sounds feel like, their immediate qualities of tone and timbre; instrumentality addresses what those sound-feelings can do, what they could mean, and how, in their particularities, they might reflect something more universal about us and the world around us.

Side-chain compression, also called “keyed” or “gated” compression, is not a novel production technique. But its use in the 2010s became more mannered and pronounced, extending especially from the avant-garde of electronic music scenes. Side-chain compression is a method of dynamic range compression — that is, it squeezes the volume of a given sound between its quietest and loudest parts. Side-chain compression is distinct in that it compresses a specific instrument or track (let’s say, the bass guitar) to the input of another instrument or track (say, the kick drum). So, whenever the kick drum kicks in, the bass guitar’s volume is compressed. Side chain compression is time-based, too. Which means that whenever the kick drum is absent, the compression fades away; the bass guitar’s volume returns to its full capacity.

The reason producers used side-chain compression in the analogue recording days was so that two loud sounds in the same frequency range wouldn’t double up and saturate the tape. Nowadays, producers tend to use it as much for aesthetic and instrumental effect as for function. We might recognise the bouncing, breathing, signature side-chain sound in tracks like Actress’s “Bubble Butts and Equations”, from the 2010 album, Splazsh. Note that this particular song’s kick drum controls the volume of the rest of the melody.

Once we identify this distinctive sound, we’ll hear it cropping up often throughout the decade — from Tim Hecker to Holly Herndon.

The aesthetic effect of side-chain compression is a remnant of what is commonly called pop music’s “loudness war”. Kyle Devine, Associate Professor of Musicology at the University of Oslo, in a 2013 article entitled “Imperfect sound forever: loudness wars, listening formations, and the history of sound reproduction”, explained: “generally loud and heavily compressed recordings prevail because they fare best in the situations in which most people listen to music.” Compression gives the impression that music is louder, therefore sounding superior to the ear. And louder music is more legible in non-ideal listening conditions, like on headphones in transit, or in a nightclub where the room’s ambient noise competes with the music.

Instrumentally, though, side-chain compression in effect protects the overall sound of the music from individual sonic shocks. Each time any sound too aggressively enters into the sonic field, other sounds drop out to absorb the potential trauma of a distorted signal. Most often, this interplay is automated, too, causing a complex chain reaction of logical, if-this-then-that operations across the soundscape.

It is difficult not to draw analogies here with the algorithmic, artificially intelligent, and ideally automated functioning of global capitalism. Our system is built to absorb, redistribute and even to foresee shocks of all stripes: economic, political, social, environmental. Mark Fisher wrote in 2004: “… the frontier zones of hypercapital do not try to repress so much as absorb the irrational and the illogical …” Global capital would like to perpetuate the narrative in which global capital is never-not assured: “Capitalist realism is not about people positively identifying with neoliberalism; it is about the naturalisation and therefore the depoliticization of the neoliberal worldview.” So, like side-chain compression, global capital seeks to always-already absorb, to incorporate, and to make the unexpected the already-anticipated.

Slavoj Žizek, in his 1989 book The Sublime Object of Ideology, noted: “… the Real is a shock of a contingent encounter which disrupts the automatic circulation of the symbolic mechanism; a grain of sand preventing its smooth functioning; a traumatic encounter which ruins the balance of the symbolic universe of the subject.” Global capitalism has sought to minimize those contingent encounters — the shock of the Real — and thus minimize the disruption to the global circulation of the Ur symbolic mechanism: capital.

Adam Curtis described this risk-averse inclination in his 2016 documentary HyperNormalisation, citing the German economist Ulrich Beck’s work. “In developed civilization,” Beck wrote in his benchmark 1986 book Risk Society, “which had set out to remove ascriptions, to evolve privacy, and to free people from the constraints of nature and tradition, there is thus emerging a new global ascription of risks, against which individual decisions hardly exist.” Side-chain compression can therefore be read as a kind of sonic risk management system. It designates the traumatised and precarious subject in an era of limitless acceleration of information — Fisher’s “semioblitz”.

Professor of English at the University of Wisconsin–Milwaukee Richard Grusin goes one step further, articulating the anticipatory turn of mediation in the 21st century. He calls it “premediation”, or the proliferation of pre-emptive mediations of events. The goal of premediation, though, is not to accurately predict future events, but rather to minimise shock and sustain the status quo. The newsreader’s favourite 21st century expression — “In the coming days…” — exemplifies premediation.

Grusin explains: “What premediation strives for is not to prevent future catastrophes but to prevent those catastrophes from having been unanticipated to protect us from being caught unawares and shocked by future catastrophes as we were on 9/11.” Musing on the early 20th century’s ultimate shock, the sinking of the Titanic, Žižek clairvoyantly wrote: “…’the time was waiting for it’: even before it actually happened, there was already a place opened, reserved for it in fantasy-space.” With this in mind, let’s listen to Kaytranada’s 2016 single “Lite Spots” and notice how its prominent side-chain compression symbolically anticipates the song’s disruptive, shocking, traumatic rhythm – in Grusin’s words, “to antedate the sound of the gun.”

“Could it be,” wondered Mark Fisher in his essay “Coffee Bars and Internment Camps”, “that there are no breaks, no ‘shocks of the new’ to come? Such anxieties tend to result in a bi-polar oscillation: the ‘weak messianic’ hope that there must be something new on the way lapses into the morose conviction that nothing new can ever happen. The focus shifts from the Next Big Thing to the last big thing — how long ago did it happen and just how big was it?”

This is a proposition that writers like Simon Reynolds and I — those of us who want to tie together cultural currents that are necessarily disparate and asynchronous — must confront as we all move into another ten-year period that may prove to be the most divisive (or most unifying) yet. Is it possible that the Real will increasingly dip and bend and deform and compress to absorb and distribute any possible threats, any imaginable shocks? Or is there a shock that cannot be conceived, much less compressed, yet to come? And so what if there is never another Nirvana, or Sex Pistols, or Beatles? The void of widely popular and overtly revolutionary music does not necessarily negate the possibility of revolution’s potential for wide popularity.

Is it conceivable to see something positive in side-chain compression’s structural homology with wider society? There is also an inherently communist aspect to it — each sound giving and taking and adjusting according to its transitory needs. Still, another interpretation could be that side-chain compression understands the finite nature of life, and that we all must continually strive to negotiate and share our limited place on this metaphorical magnetic tape we call planet Earth.