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May 6, 2009

Is studio recording killing music?

There was a discussion titled 'Is studio recording killing music?' at the B&W site (The speaker company, not the car company, silly). I had to post. Couldn't resist. Pasted below:

broken chain1. Problem #1 is ignorance.

There is no longer a tradition of quality recording technique handed down from seasoned veterans to their assistants, who then pass them on to their assistants. That chain is broken.
I myself made a bunch of shitty sounding records before I decided to seek professional help. Most people don’t even realize how bad their stuff sounds.

The newfangled recording schools serve no purpose in that matter. I have 5 assistants at my studios, all freshly graduated from various schools. All great people with lots of energy and all musically and technically useless at this point, except for the one who has been with me for 4 years and has worked very hard at listening to everything with a critical mind. People no longer have the time to listen to anything carefully.

2. The new recording tools and techniques are not helping.

Digital recording is a beautifully accurate thus incredibly unforgiving way to record music. We get no love from the media we use to capture the performance. Tape used to round off edges, provide a lovely kind of non-compression kind of compression, and generated a certain ‘tone’ that required less post production love.
pro tools screen shotAlso, the new fixer tools, like timing and tuning systems have made a lot of musicians appear better than they are, and have opened the business of music to people who should really have stayed in the fashion business.

Also, the piecemeal recording techniques consisting of overdubbing every musician one after the other instead of all musicians playing together, have made the process incredibly tedious and sometimes boring. The fire is gone in most recordings. The reason for this is that most studios lack the equipment to do a truly successful live session because of problem #3 below. Lots of musicians have also come expect to under-perform and ‘fix it later’ and have lost the pressure of studio recording. Ask yourself how well you perform in your job without external pressure and draw your conclusions.

3. Budgets have dropped insanely.

There is no time to make good records, unless they are a work of love. How many works of love can a skilled professional take on for free before they have to take on another job to support the said works of love
100 dollar bill cut in halfNever underestimate this problem. Think of it this way: Singer walks in. Mic is put up, singer performs, sound is ok. Two options:
a/ old school: ‘Let’s try another mic. Mhh. No, let’s try another. Ok nothing we have fits this guy. Let’s rent something. Break and come back in an hour.’
b. new school. ‘ok.that’s all right. Do we have anything else? Nope, that’s our best mic and we have three lead vocals to track today, let’s move on.’

4. Stupidity.

The shift of the industry from a monetized art form to a commodity business, complete with projections, growth expectations and end of quarter trepidations, have brought people at the helm of the business with financial savvy but zero music production knowledge. As in every human endeavor, ignorance + pressure to perform have generated much fear-driven decisions to be taken everyday.

loud signal waveformLike, for example but hardly limited to, the loudness wars. It is fascinating to watch a six_months_to_a_year_long painstaking process, with very minute decisions made by committee, through much scrutinization and negotiations, been single-handedly destroyed and crushed to a pancake on the very last day-by the guy (The mastering engineer) who works on the record for ONE day, usually by himself. Usually because he can’t afford to loose the gig to someone else, who will heed the terrified A&R execs ludicrous requests.

It’s trickled down to mixers now. The record is ruined at the mix level. The mastering guys now complain that they have nothing left to do. The whole process belongs in a Monty Python sketch.

5. Last, and least: lowered expectations.

This is the most easily solved problem. You don’t know a really, really, really good red wine until you’ve tasted one. Then, some people have the ability to retain the memory of that wine and pass judgement on subsequent bottles, based on that first experience. Some people just don't, but without that first great bottle no taste can formed no matter how apt you are at tasting wine.

red wineOur current problem is that convenience has killed quality. Most people haven't experienced great sounding music before. My most recurrent comment when I play a finished record to my clients is invariably ‘Wow, I can hear everything’. It’s like clockwork. I always tell my artists ‘listen to your record right now, in my room, uncompressed, un mastered, unpressed, unsoiled, this is the best it’ll ever sound. Enjoy this and learn to preserve this feeling for as long as possible when you leave this room’.

Most understand, some don’t. Some care, some don’t. But they are aware. They tend to come back to listen to their stuff raw. Gives me hope.

- Fab