By Gavin Lurssen.
My colleague, Chris Athens of Sterling Sound in New York City, recently said, "The race is no longer to see who can make the loudest CD; it's about knowing when to stop." It's a great point that should not be understated, which is why I'm repeating it here as I set out to beat a dead horse that always deserves beating. I'm talking about "The Level Wars."
The topic is often hashed out by this industry in forums, panels, conferences and elsewhere, but I believe that it's important to keep the conversation alive. Every discussion about the level wars is a discussion about maintaining, even raising, standards in the face of spectacular technological innovation.
In the recent past, around the dawn of what we now call the Information Age, when music leaped from analog to digital delivery, it truly became just another pliable commodity. This is an obvious point that also deserves repeating; for me, it defines the context within which we do our daily work.
Let's not kid ourselves: Music has always been for sale; what changed was the stream of possibility--the myriad ways music could be made available for consumption.
Today, music is everywhere and in every thing; consumers expect no less. Except for a handful of die-hard audiophiles, gone are the days of records cut to lacquer from analog tape and enjoyed in a fairly controlled signal-to-noise ratio environment. Now, thanks to the laptop, iPod, iPhone, PDA and--name your favorite handheld device here--music moves with us as we move. (To say nothing of multiple CD changers, ubiquitous television, downloadable movies, videogames, portable DVD and CD players, etc.)
Few people would argue that the technological innovation we've seen recently is a bad thing, but throw into the mix the fact that a defining characteristic of this Information Age is ease of delivery, and as a result, "quantity over quality" (or, as Frank Filipetti said, "convenience over quality") and the fact that consumers viscerally expect all music that they hear--new media or old--to be mastered in some fashion, create new challenges.
Put another way: Portable music and new media, say hello to the loud CD (aka the loud download).
As we all know, the loud CD predates "portable music"--truly, it begins with the loud LP record--but today, engineers are competing with every other "noise" being thrown at consumers, as well as a visceral expectation that has become the norm after years of pushing levels of transferred audio.
I recently took part in a panel in which one of the participants raised the notion that we're subject to satisfying our clients, and so, one could argue that we've figured out going loud is sometimes the quick fix clients are looking for. Maybe true. But perhaps that's also obvious: we serve the needs of our clients.
So what is my point? It has something to do with an awareness of balance and range. There's a discussion to be had about the effect of audio distortion on the brain as you reach digital zero and start flat-topping the waveforms. (We saw studies on the subject when the CD format first arrived--and again to a lesser degree when some recent high-resolution audio formats were introduced.) Suffice it to say, there is an acceptable audio range for consumers, and it has a high and a low side. I hope it is a discussion that stays alive, especially amongst my compatriots and colleagues.
As new media outlets become ubiquitous, we find ourselves competing with a lot of noise, and yet I see trends that make me optimistic about our role in the chain. In recent years, many of the Grammy-winning albums have not been on the overcooked side of the audio spectrum.
I also see a push by a handful of committed producers, engineers, artists and A&R people, in an effort to inject quality into the listening experience by not overcooking the audio. Let's hope that as the formats stabilize, we'll all participate in setting and maintaining the right standards as this new technology century takes shape.
Grammy-winning mastering engineer Gavin Lurssen is the owner and chief engineer of Lurssen Mastering in Los Angeles.