Your Ears Can Deceive You

Is the sound quality of mp3 good enough? Has the iPod ruined the ears of a generation of music listeners? Or is the recurring argument of declining audio fidelity simply lazy journalism? All this and more awaits…

Ear To The Ground

Peter Kirn at CDM wrote a fairly extensive response to an article in the New York Times regarding the role of technology in modern music consumption. The NYT article pointed at a few of the usual suspects in this debate – dodgy mp3s, iPod earbuds – and claimed that audio development is lagging behind video.

Peter’s article is worth a read, as he explores the flaws in such arguments; as producers are well aware, there have been huge advances in music technology (for production and consumers) over the past few years. But for consumers, convenience almost always trumps quality – as long as the quality is perceived as ‘good enough’.

What Is Sound Quality?

This, of course, is where the issues really arise – what is ‘good enough’ for one listener may well be intolerable for another. Robert Pirsig’s debate on the nature and definition of ‘quality’ comes to mind here; but it’s not just a case of subjectivity between different people.

In fact, the same person can hear differences in audio quality depending on their expectations. It is remarkable the extent to which we can bend the information our senses are sending us, such that it conforms to what our brain expects to be sent.

This is one of the points illustrated in the AES Audio Myths Workshop; every producer (hands up) has experienced the phenomenon of tweaking an EQ on a channel to perfection, only to find later on that they were tweaking the EQ for a different channel, or the EQ was actually bypassed the whole time…

These issues tie in to a variety of areas, such as gear acquisition syndrome amongst producers and audiophiles alike. There is a law of diminishing returns in music equipment; but there are also a lot of companies with a vested interest in playing up the benefits of ridiculously overpriced gear. Monster Cable would be an extreme example of this sort of snake oil salesplay (check out some of their very dubious business practices here). Audiophiles in blind testing couldn’t tell the difference between Monster cable (costing hundreds of dollars) and a coat hanger.

Gear Doesn’t Make The Music

From one of the best music production forum threads ever, Yep has a few things to say about the relationship between gear and performance:

And contrary to popular theory, most of the singers on the charts are actually quite good singers (even if they were hired for their looks). Yes, Christina Aguilera comps 100 takes, and yes, it’s auto-tuned, but that’s to perfect an already great performance. People point to stuff like that as evidence that singing on modern pop records is all studio trickery but then ignore that their favorite technical metal band comps 100 takes of guitars and layers six tracks of every part and so on (or whatever).

Watch Pink’s performance from the grammys, or any of the live shows on cable TV or whatever: sure, the songs might be kind of dumb, and yes, these people are often selected for their looks and not just for their talent, and yes, they enjoy the benefit of a million-dollar processing (and probably auto-tune), but if you took them offstage and immediately handed the same handheld live mic to your average garage-band singer it would be an embarrassment.

the reason I did all the stuff at the beginning about trusting your gear is exactly to put a stop to all the mental excuse-making that holds people back. When I encourage you to stick your best mic in front of your best speaker and try to get a reasonably accurate-sounding recording of your favorite CD (which you can, I guarantee), that’s a nice way of saying that the mic is not the problem.

There is a lot of ego-protecting that goes on in these kinds of discussions: pros with million-dollar studios watching their business evaporate lash out that the cheap gear revolution and call mackie mixers “shit on a stick” or whatever, and amateurs who have maxed out the credit cards on fancy preamps smugly join them. Budget amateurs, meanwhile (often the same who are quick to deride expensiver gear as placebo-effect waste of money) lament that pop stars are just hired for their looks and made to sound good with fancy machines.

According to Yep, if you can point a microphone at your speakers and record Miles Davis’ ‘Kind of Blue’, and then if you play the recording back through your DAW and it still sounds good, then you can stop worrying if your gear is good enough and just get on with making your music.

Remember, people listening to your songs don’t care how it was made. If it sounds good, it is good.


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