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Andy Huffer – Lights out for the Nightfly

Will I ever escape from the same, tired old playback material? Why, in fact, has this audio hegemony come to pass?

Conducting one of our regular speaker demonstrations recently, the thin tones of Donald Fagen singing through the air once more, I started to wonder: will I ever escape from the same, tired old playback material? Why, in fact, has this audio hegemony come to pass? We’ve all been there, we all know the tracks.

Shotgun cocked and ready, these fly into the air, as I shout “Pull!”: Jennifer Warnes, Somewhere Somebody; The Eagles, Hotel California (Live); Sting, Fields of Gold; Steely Dan, Cousin Dupree; Eric Clapton, Layla (Unplugged); Diana Krall, Temptation; AC/DC, Back in Black. I could go on. Thankfully, I won’t.

How did these songs gain entry to the showcase pantheon? What’s more, can they ever be toppled from their pedestals?

I think the overriding factor here is familiarity, given a kick-start by their hallowed “good production”. The first time I was ever made aware of this classification of “good production” was when Dad pointed it out as we listened to the Carpenters in 1980. (“Yeah, but they’re boring. Can I listen to Adam and the Ants, now?”)

Years of use as set-up tracks have engrained them in the collective consciousness, with their dynamic range, instrumentation and detail effectively creating an audio test-card, allowing a range of loudspeaker systems to be compared to a common reference point.

But this familiarity brings with it a degree of contempt. Aren’t those lyrics a little trite? Isn’t that arrangement a bit safe? Here comes that kick drum… The musical soul cries out for something emotionally engaging, however trashy the production.

Don’t get me wrong though – through a musical form of Stockholm Syndrome, or just creeping middle age, more of these albums have found their way into my own eclectic collection over the years. Not just as musical test-tone generators, but through genuine appreciation. I think my first was KD Lang’s Ingenue back in the mid-90s (ignoring the copy of Fagen’s The Nightfly, issued as standard to all sound engineers).

But is there room for a few more? I think the main problem lies in the much-debated Loudness Wars. Increasingly, I’ve often found myself loving a new record, then being crushingly disappointed as it sounds awful once cranked up on a PA system (the Haim album was the last one of these). There seems to be an optimum period in the 90s when productions had detail and guts but the waveform wasn’t packed into a neat rectangle. It’s getting harder to find that aforementioned “good production” these days.

Next time we conduct a speaker demo, then: can clients bring their own tracks to try out the system? As long as it’s not a low-res MP3 mixtape you’ve ripped off YouTube, you will be welcomed with open arms. ­You see – as I might explain it to my father – our demo tracks have lost their taste so let’s try another flavour.