In Session: Convenience Vs. Quality

Grammy-winning engineer Nathaniel Kunkel describes how we ended up with poor-quality delivery systems and how we can get back to having decent audio quality.
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I was recently at the CES show in Las Vegas participating in a panel titled “Convenience vs. Quality.” Panel moderator Bob Ludwig opened the discussion by reading an excerpt from an article by Michael Fremer, who noted that while there is widespread appreciation for fine food and wine, it is difficult to garner similar support for quality audio. In addition, there was an article in Rolling Stone titled “The Death of High Fidelity” by Robert Levine that stirred my thoughts on the subject.

Sadly, the mainstream media seems to have little interest in our deviation from quality audio delivery. While we can all agree that we seem to be going backward, knowing how we got here is a key component in figuring out how to get back to the beautiful.

When we talk about the degradation of commercial audio quality, we are principally talking about two things: overall loudness and a diminishing of dynamic range; and data compression schemes, such as MP3 or AAC encoding.

I remember when CD levels started getting elevated. The reason artists gave for the level increase was simple: when their CD was in a carousel changer, it was quieter than another disc. Admittedly, it was quieter than an overcompressed disc, but it was quieter nonetheless. That was not an upside for the artist. On the other hand, LPs did not let you switch quickly between programs, and listeners usually played a record side from beginning to end, so such level comparisons were uncommon. Level does not seem to matter so much on the radio, because broadcasters compress the music again anyway.

Data compression was a matter of convenience. When MP3s came on the scene, I was as horrified as I was excited. Although the first MP3s sounded dreadful, a typical song was only 3 MB in size. Small files made it easier to move audio across slow, 28.8 Kbps modems to the Internet. And, if you remember, the first iPod was only 5 GB. But things have changed. Cable modems or DSL with upwards of 5 Mbps are common, and soon we will have the bandwidth and storage to easily deliver and retain large quantities of CD-resolution files.

Consequently, some of the reasons we elevated levels and use data compression are less important to consumers today. Unfortunately, people are used to the sound of small, compressed files. In fact, most A&R departments won't approve a CD release that is dynamic and open. They seem to equate the sound of compression with the sound of a hit. It's not that they hate dynamic records, but rather that they've gotten used to compressed ones.

Let's revisit the food-and-wine analogy. People go to a good restaurant for the food, they buy a good wine for its taste, and they buy music because they like the song. They don't go to a restaurant because the waiter is always nice, or buy wine for a cool label, or purchase a song because it was mixed well. They might appreciate it when those things accompany the items they buy, but that is not why they put their money on the table.

Sometimes songs and audio quality are mutually exclusive. But they needn't be. Maybe it is time for all of us to start making dynamic records again, not only because we can, but because they sound really good. It certainly would be different from most of the stuff released today, and isn't that what makes something a hit?

Nathaniel Kunkel is a Grammy and Emmy Award — winning producer, engineer, and mixer who has worked with Sting, James Taylor, B.B. King, Insane Clown Posse, Lyle Lovett, and comedian Robin Williams.