As we enter the second era of the prevalence of “the single” -- with the advent of music streaming as the preferred means of music consumption and the social-network swapped “playlist” as the vehicle of that consumption -- the relevance of the CD rapidly diminishes. In particular, this obvious trend makes me realize how much I will miss the compilation CD.
The aforementioned playlist will nicely replace the comp CD for insight into national trends of style and shifts in production methodology, but it’s the local comp CD that I find particularly useful to modern-minded engineers and producers. For those of you with broader production realms -- those who generally produce for national and international consumption -- there may be no local element to your work or success. Yet for many others, working with local and regional musicians is our bread and butter. Many studios and engineers now court and acquire business from all around the globe (this is increasingly prevalent amongst mastering engineers), but a local scene presence is still a useful, if not necessary, ingredient for post-recession survival and success.
I occasionally get to mix and/or master such local comp CDs, which are a treasure trove of valuable information. One might think that a lot of production work all sounds the same today, with the omnipresence of quantizing, pitch correcting and sound replacement; yet, quite to the contrary, the width of diversity out there is staggering. The sheer number of styles and subgenres that peacefully coexist, with each one taking only a small slice of market share in the big picture, is so much higher than ever before. The profoundly different audio balances and tonal diversity, even when comparing co-patriots within a single narrow genre, is surprisingly varied.
Some folks are pumping up bottom end like you wouldn't believe, unrestrained by vinyl groove limitations or tape saturation. Others have top end sizzle and a lean bottom that requires diving for EQ controls in comparison. And mids? Don't even get me started -- they're all over the place!
But everybody has slamming mix levels, right? Nope, not even close. Some superstars have volume and clarity that you'd guess was 2 dB hotter at peak than everybody else (which is, of course, impossible with zero dBFS being the limit). Conversely, some masters are all dense and dynamic range reduced, but with max peaks at only -6 dB FS! Are such engineers trying to match average levels with traditionally less dense productions? Are they trying to not overload consumer DACs on playback? Are they relying on the “average level matching” often used by streaming distributors and broadcasters? Curious, isn't it? Rarely, I even see songs that peak at zero but are entirely dynamic and wildly unrestrained -- who would’ve thunk it!
Even though careful inspection of the audio on these comp CDs with real-time spectrum analyzers, precise meters and polarity reversal may raise more questions than answers, the study of such variety and diversity is an important aspect of modern audio awareness. (You’d be shocked at the amount of phase cancellation often found in reverb returns and multiple miked instruments.)
While you still have the chance, check out a local comp, using the sounds contained within to stay informed and relevant of your place in your own audio scene.
Rob Tavaglione owns and operates Catalyst Recording in Charlotte.