Friday, September 14, 2007

Producers Blame iPods for Thier Crappy Sounding Mixes

In this article in the Wall Street Journal this week, music producers, artists and other people who ought to know better said that they are starting to mix music to sound best over earbuds and iPods because that is how the majority of people consume music these days.

This is leading to mixes that are compressed and one dimensional, and sound particularly bad on any system higher end than an iPod (95 percent of everything else). Here are some of the more potent quotes:

"Right now, when you are done recording a track, the first thing the band does is to load it onto an iPod and give it a listen," said Alan Douches, who has worked with Fleetwood Mac and others. "Years ago, we might have checked the sound of a track on a Walkman, but no one believed that was the best it could sound. Today, young artists think MP3s are a high-quality medium and the iPod is state-of-the-art sound."

For example, says veteran Los Angeles studio owner Skip Saylor, high frequencies that might seem splendid on a CD might not sound as good as an MP3 file and so will get taken out of the mix. "The result might make you happy on an MP3, but it wouldn't make you happy on a CD," he says. "Am I glad I am doing this? No. But it's the real world and so you make adjustments."

"Ten years ago, music was warmer; it was rich and thick, with more tones and more 'real power.' But newer records are more brittle and bright. They have what I call 'implied power.' It's all done with delays and reverbs and compression to fool your brain."
All these engineers tend to be audiophiles, the sort who would fuss over a track to make it perfect. But they're beginning to wonder if they should bother.

...engineers experience some nostalgia about earlier technologies. Says Mr. Saylor, "What we've lost with this new era of massive compression and low fidelity are the records that sounds so good that you get lost in them. "Dark Side of the Moon" -- records like that just aren't being made today."

This is so flipping sad and pathetic. And it's short sighted. Who's to say that the MP3 format and iPods aren't going to go the way of the Betamax in a few years?

As all of the reissued Beatles albums and especially the ones that were remixed (Love, the Anthology Series and Yellow Submarine) have proven, if you shoot for the highest possible sound quality at the source, no matter the popular media of the day, your audio can sound rich, warm and timeless decades after it was recorded and the artists are long gone. That was the LAW at Abbey Road studios in the 1960s.

Conversely, certain CDs, when they were first issued in the 80s and not fixed up in any way, had pops and cracks on them because some producers in the 60s and 70s knew that the vinyl LP turntable and needle based format would cover up noises and imperfections. On CDs those same 'inaudible imperfections' are loud as day.

This proved to be short sighted, so why are we doing it all over again? Come on you lazy fuckers, don't cater to the lowest possible denominator!


Barbara (aka Layla) said...

Wow, this is sad. I mean, I love my MP3s, but its just wrong to produce to only that format.

Its sad to think that music at its best can only be heard by one person at a time via headphones. I miss the days of lying on the floor with my friends listening to Pink Floyd, Led Zeppelin, The Beatles...over and over on a great sound system.

harmolodic said...

I hate to say it, but mp3's are cheapening music. This article proves it. It's why I won't pay for downloads -- why bother? The sound is crummy, and I can buy a used 45 for the same price that sounds more natural to my ears (and digitize it too if I feel like it). I'd rather spend $30 on a high-end vinyl LP and get the full experience at home. I'm listening to McCartney's "Memory Almost Full" LP right now, and it feels like I'm hearing it for the first time. I mean, I've got the CD and I ripped it to my iRiver, but I'm hearing subtle nuances in Paul's bass and much more natural space and warmth from this LP than I will ever get from my mp3 player.

This may be a rough time for recorded music, but all hope is not yet lost -- the very fact that we can still buy new releases on LPs says a lot. We could just barely do that in the early '90s until Pearl Jam and Nirvana made it fashionable again.

Isorski said...

I buy MP3s and AACs and all that iTunes crap. It's nice to have all my music - more than 12,000 songs - on one device. But I still have my 500 LPs and agree that in many cases they sound better than even CDs - it depends on the band and how the music was recorded in the first place.

Neil Young back in the mid 80s said that the 80s would be known as the dark ages of recording history because digital music is really just technology tricking your ears into thinking you are hearing music. Those 1s and 0s are an imitation of the real deal. I think he was on to something there.

The trouble is, younger folks don't know the difference. I played an LP for my 10 year old and he thought it was pretty interesting but I don't see the younger generations migrating back to vinyl any time soon.

harmolodic said...

Oh, but they have been migrating! At least in the UK they have:

VoxMoose said...

I find Neil Young's comment a little strange. There is nothing intrinsically more "real" about grooves on a record versus 1s and 0s. They are both representing amplitude variations translated to voltages that push speakers which push air which push your eardrum. What is so special about grooves exactly? Good memories listening to them as a youth would be a perfectly good answer -- but we can't expect today's youth to share in that nostalgia. They have their own version of that.

The problem is that those 80s CDs were all created with no remixing from the analog sources which were originally produced with LPs in mind. LPs are a noisy format which could mask imperfections in the mix -- CDs just brought those imperfections right out in the open. Once they were remastered, the mixes largely represented a closer version of the music the artist intended.

The problem isn't digital per se. It's lossy lo-fi digital formats like the mp3 becoming the cultural standard. Its like if AM radio made a comeback and everyone was mixing to match that low bandwidth.