I recently discovered this funky old trunk/case that apparently belonged to a music lover back in the late 80s/early 90s (I’m now using it to store condenser microphones). This unknown person stored a collection of rock, hair metal and grunge: music that is clearly out of fashion. The stylistic differences involve far more than hair-dos or high pitched vocals, though. The biggest difference (to me at least) is the radically different sounding audio contained on those seemingly ancient CDs; I essentially discovered an audio production time capsule.
Across the board, those CDs contain music that is of overall lower levels with overall less mix density, but it's the radically-different EQ balances that really grabbed me. Sounding like a holdover of the RIAA curve for vinyl, the bottom end was far more understated than our modern “normal” -- all tight and punchy, without that sustained “one note bass” syndrome we often flirt with today. Meanwhile, the top end was much brighter -- lots more 8 kHz-plus on guitars, drums and even vocals. The ‘verb -- oh my, the verb! There’s so much wetness from those large halls and plates and so much high end boost on those reverb returns: snare drums wetter than Seattle and as big as Washington state!
Judging from these two-decades-old examples, our modern mix priorities have been reversed. Take the role of today's big kicks and quiet hats and flip it -- hats and rides used to dominate the beat. The giant, super crispy, super ‘verby snare of yesteryear has become the smaller, drier and focused snare of today. Take the ‘verb and delay off that 90s vocal, replace it with the EQ filters and auto-tuning technology, and you have 2011. Of course I'm speaking in overall aggregate and many productions of both today and 20 years ago don't fit these stereotypical summarizations, yet these overall generational differences are astounding.
This all leads me to the fact that there are no audio absolutes. There is no ideal mix that can stand the test of time. Our work is a product of our environment and the age in which we live. Constantly influenced by our peers, trends and perceptions, we mix to our ever-changing market. Therefore, our mixes morph over time. So that perfectly-wonderful mix you made this morning may be stale (and/or even amusing) in a decade or two. Heck, that mix may be outdated in a month if you boldly ride the razor's edge of style-driven DAW production.
Still, and like it or not, staying informed enough to “sound current” remains the name of the game for the working audio engineer ... all while hoping you don't get type-cast because you did.
Rob Tavaglione is the owner of Catalyst Recording in Charlotte.