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The Weekend Vote weekend vote: Should recording companies make mixes of classical music that are suitable for listening in the car or train?

July 24, 2009 at 11:21 AM

I love my pianissimos as much as the next person, but...

I also like listening to music in the car. In fact, my family has been driving many miles across the United States this month, and I've wanted to listen to classical music. Unfortunately, it doesn't always work well.

Why? Because I can hear the music for a few minutes, and then it disappears. The ambient noise of a car (or for that matter, a restaurant or store) covers much of the quieter portions of the music , so one hears only an odd, occasional swoop of music, surrounded by long periods of, seemingly, silence.

At a live performance, the quieter portions of classical music can be thrilling. For that matter, I enjoy the full range of dynamics when listening on headphones, or in a silent room.

But if I'm to listen to classical music in the car, I need to fiddle constantly with the volume, or to keep the music going in my head when it disappears. This has made me wonder, with today's excellent technology, couldn't there be a way to include a version of classical recordings that is mixed specifically for use in the car, or in situations that have ambient noise? Wouldn't this help classical music radio stations as well? Or do people find this idea to be too much of a compromise?



From Anne Horvath
Posted on July 24, 2009 at 12:34 PM

Solo piano music rarely gets lost in the car noise.  (Smiles)

From Graham Clark
Posted on July 24, 2009 at 12:59 PM

What you are talking about, Laurie, is called "compression", which means that the dynamic range is compressed, and radio already uses it. The loudest bits are made quieter, while the quieter ar emade louder.

All the same, they may not compress the music as much as you need in those specific contexts.

Some hi-fi components have compression. You certainly get it on recording suites.


From Barry Nelson
Posted on July 24, 2009 at 1:25 PM

All i know is, even with my car CD cranked to its max, I still have those portions that are hard to hear

From E. Smith
Posted on July 24, 2009 at 1:27 PM

This is something that drives me crazy! My car has a very noisy ride and not-great speakers. I spend a lot of time in the car during which I try to listen to classical music, but often on highway rides I give up in frustration because I have to drive with one hand on the volume knob. I have found that it's easier to listen to, say, string quartets than symhonies since the dynamic range is more narrow. Although I wouldn't want all of my music engineered with a compressed dynamic range, I would really love a solution to this problem!

From bill platt
Posted on July 24, 2009 at 1:37 PM

Cellos literally disappear into the road noise.

From Pauline Lerner
Posted on July 24, 2009 at 2:29 PM

Classical music has more changes in dynamics than other genres of music.  I don't have a car, so I walk and take public transportation a lot.  I can't use any kind of CD player, or even my cell phone, when I'm on the road because of the the street noise.  Very frustrating!  Laurie, I sympathize with you driving long distances without full spectrum classical music.  Have you tried using the radio to find a station in your vicinity that plays classical music?  One of my friends does this on long drives when she goes from state to state, and it works for her.

From Jonathan Frohnen
Posted on July 24, 2009 at 3:55 PM

My car (and I believe many others) has some feature that adjusts the levels depending on the driving conditions...maybe investigate that?  But for now stick with these!

TA DA!  Also I have "The World's Fastest Classics" not play this in your car if you are running late for ANYTHING! :-)

From Bart Meijer
Posted on July 25, 2009 at 9:42 AM


it seems that you need a car audio compressor: an electronic device that makes softer passages louder and louder passages softer. I searched for it. Car audio exists, car compressors exist, audio compressors exist, but I couldn't find a car audio compressor.

We cannot be the first people to think of this, surely?

All those inventive questions -- how do you come up with them!


Come to think of it: the Dutch classical radio is transmitted through the aether in compressed form from seven to nine in the morning. The cable networks get the uncompressed version.

From Cora Venus Lunny
Posted on July 25, 2009 at 8:00 PM

 Classical albums are mastered to a much lower level than rock, pop, etc. In recent times the so-called "mastering war" has been an issue in more popular genres than classical, where albums are getting louder and louder, and some subtleties can get lost. Some frequencies will never cut over the sound of a fast-moving car and yes, there is a limit to what your speakers can output, but I personally don't understand why classical abums aren't just routinely mastered a bit louder!

From Deborah McCann
Posted on July 26, 2009 at 3:31 AM


My 2004 car has volume control right on the steering wheel.  I just have to remember which side is cruise and which is the volume.  Also, with an equalizer, it takes care of the extra wide ranges, though piano can get too soft in the romantic literature.

From Carrie Salisbury
Posted on July 26, 2009 at 6:42 AM

I remember very vividly a car conversation with an old Music History professor of mine. First of all, she never spoke out loud while the music was playing. Talk or listen, never both. Secondly, she recommended that to counter balance the noise of the engine that one should listen to early Baroque or Classical period music because the dynamic ranges are more predictable. It's very frustrating to play with the volume knobs through a Late Romantic-era piece, that's for sure!

So maybe pull out those Bach, Vivaldi, Corelli and Scarlatti discs!

From Alison S
Posted on July 26, 2009 at 7:42 AM

I have long given up worrying about the lack of sound quality of classical music in the car. For long journeys I play music that has an evolving story line and a repeated theme like Britten's Peter Grimes or Jeff Wayne's War of the Worlds. The hours fly past.

UK Radio station Classic FM seem to have figured out the type of classical music that works in the car, in fact drivers are probably their target audience. It still doesn't please everyone though.

Something that does worry me is the volume of background traffic noise I have to contend with as a pedestrian. With my music turned up to full blast  I can still barely hear anything above the traffic. It seems as if I will damage my hearing with or without the MP3 player.  

From Peter Kent
Posted on July 26, 2009 at 8:18 AM

....would be great to have the volume control on the left otherwise, it's difficult to conduct and applause at the end of the piece is generally not recommended....Seriously, satellite radio and an equalizer are valuable tools.....and over the years, Ive discovered two more things:

The tires that come on new cars are generally below the quality you can buy at a tire dealer....replace them for less road noise !

While not advocating a brand....My Hyundai Elantra has double door insulation and is actually quieter than a friend's Caddy !  The first time he road in my car, trying to conjure items to scoff at , he got a puzzled look on his face, made me stop, and he examined the rubber seals on the door frames....and agreed that they  eliminated more noise than his luxury chariot.

This might be a consideration....but the equalizer set to Classical, seems to do help the problem too....and decent tires !




From Mike Lambert
Posted on July 26, 2009 at 7:53 PM

 This would be great!  My parents and friends have, over the years, developed a talent for listening to music in the car with me and turning it down when it gets "too loud" right as it gets to a quiet section.  It never fails.

From Karen Bird
Posted on July 27, 2009 at 2:32 AM

We've just returned home from two weeks on the road. We like to start the morning with what my husband has taken to calling "two-fifths" or 40%. That is, we start with Beethoven's 5th Symphony and move on to his 5th Piano Concerto. Wonderful accompaniment to the passing countryside. Tom likes to play them loud enough that even the quiet passages are audible, but I don't mind turning up the volume for the quieter passages. That is preferable to foregoing classical music altogether!  It helps that our car travels rather quietly.

From Trevor Kilbey
Posted on July 27, 2009 at 9:20 AM

The faster you drive, the louder the volume you will need, even with compressed broadcasts that are common on UK classical broadcasts. Fast driving needs concentration, not day dreaming over your composer of the month.

In the interests of saving lives and preserving your hearing, I suggest drive more slowly. Would agree the Baroque, on CD's, are more suitable listening whereas Delius and Sibelius etc fall in to the not recommended.

For aircraft travel, where the cabin noise level can be 85DBa, cannot recomend too highly use of a good pair of noise cancelling headphones. Might work in a car, but probably not legal.

Best wishes Trevor

From Christopher McGovern
Posted on July 28, 2009 at 6:17 PM

I always have issues with listening to classical in the car--I mostly do it anyway because I don't always have the time to listen to it at home, and I completely understand your issues, Laurie. That noise of the car (Even when you have a nice sounding smooth engine, just tuned-up, new car, etc.) is just too distracting to enjoy the dymamics and story that a sweeping piece of classical music requires for your attention. I have a much better time listening to bluegrass and folk music in the car on road trips than classical.

From David Stern
Posted on July 28, 2009 at 6:04 PM

Here's a solution, though it takes some effort.  Using an audio editing program (this example applies to Sony Sound Forge 9.0), copy the CD track(s) into Sound Forge as a WAV file.  Select the part of the track (or all of it) to edit, open the Effects menu and select Dynamics - Graphic.  A window pops up with options to set attack and release times, threshold, compression ratio and output gain.  You can have anything from minimal compression, to no dynamics at all (like some performances we've all heard!).   Let the program work its magic, save the file, and burn a new CD.  Voila, your own customized, compressed recording for your motoring enjoyment. 

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