By Rob Tavaglione
“I don't buy CDs anymore. There aren't any good bands today.”
“I'm not paying that much for their concert tickets. They won't sound nearly as good as they do on the radio.”
“That just sounds like a bunch of noise to me. Music today ain't what it used to be.”
These overheard opinions are harsh, but with the music industry in rapid decline they give me concern. CD sales are falling year after year, royalties from downloads are not enough to make up the difference and both artists and labels are trying to figure out what the next business model is. It's time for us engineers/producers to be more involved in a proactive solution. Perhaps we should take a hard look at our responsibility in this decline and seek positive changes.
Is there any possibility that our modern production methods have played a role in the public distaste for new music? I'm no expert and I'm not pointing fingers; it's just that I often make things sound less hi-fi than they could — for commercial acceptance — and I'm afraid to buck the norm for fear of being deemed irrelevant. Sound familiar?
Psychoacoustics tell us that the human brain can ignore highly repetitive sounds, sounds like the tick tock of the clock or the whir of the washing machine. If not completely ignorable, we easily shift these sonic patterns away from our conscious thought to a position of “listen when variation grabs our attention.” Yet we routinely quantize to the grid, eliminating the delightful push-pull of normal human rhythm. Sure, we create a tempo map for songs with sectional variation, but the tempo remains static in each musical passage. Is this practice actually making good drummers as sonically relevant as my clothes dryer?
Thanks to tuning tools we now routinely pitch correct vocals, sometimes a mere word, often across entire performances, all to make them radio friendly. This may help amateurs who struggle with pitch control, but does it de-humanize and de-legitimatize vocalists who can sing well? Does pitch perfection remove the interesting and emotive soul from a performance? Does auto-tuning send subtle cues to the brain saying, “This is not an important vocal performance: you do not need to listen intently”?
Thanks to affordable hardware and software we now have dozens of good quality compressor/limiter varieties in a virtually unlimited number. Dynamics are easily tamed, beaten into submission, and sometimes entirely removed, all in the name of creating density that we perceive as commercially competitive. Honestly, when was the last time you intently listened to an entire modern production? Are your ears fatigued after two songs? Probably not quite, but your mind is. Are missing dynamics the reason why we say “Bands today only have one or two good songs on a CD”?
Too often, a typical modern rock recording session goes as follows: drummer lays parts down to a click, bass player overdubs to drum parts only (possibly scratch instruments too), instruments are individually overdubbed, and vocals are overdubbed after all instrumental tracks. We engineers all know how methodical and tedious this is; can you only imagine how boring and unfamiliar this is to bands and ensembles? If we take all the fun out of recording songs, can there be any fun actually IN the song? Is assembled and fabricated joy any match for the fulfillment of knocking out a great take with your mates?
Let me reiterate that these practices are employed in my studio too, and I do not claim to be above the fray; I'm only a mid-level guy with mid-level quality and minimal impact on the status quo. I'm hoping that you folks at the top, who do have influence and the means to exercise it, can look harder at your work and passionately pass on answers to the people high on the charts and at the labels.
At risk here is our very livelihood and relevance. After all, computers now come bundled with pro-quality recording programs and most any teenage hobbyist can nearly match the sonic status quo with minimal investment. If we do not lead and persuade (dare I say coerce) the “next” music industry and the public to meaningful, entertaining and essential recordings, we will certainly find ourselves as glorified hobbyists. I'm still earning a living, but —much like a newspaper publisher — I'm wondering if the world still values my work and will continue to be willing to pay for it.
Rob Tavaglione has owned/operated Catalyst Recording in Charlotte NC since 1995. He welcomes your comments firstname.lastname@example.org.