Is Better Best?

Although I've discussed quality in past Final Mix columns, I haven't talked about whether quality matters in recorded media. At the core of this question

Although I've discussed quality in past “Final Mix” columns, I haven't talked about whether quality matters in recorded media. At the core of this question is the delivery system for the final product: from wax cylinders and discs to wire recording, vinyl LPs, 8-track tape, and cassettes, each medium has imposed severe limitations on recorded signals, primarily in terms of frequency response and dynamic range. No matter how good the fidelity of the product that came from the studio, mastering degraded it to accommodate the medium.

On the consumer's end, things were worse. Put simply, most people listened on crappy systems, including small, poor-quality, badly placed loudspeakers; amplifiers with high distortion and no headroom; turntables with wow, flutter, and misaligned tracking; and so on. For many years, music was heard mostly on inferior types of car radios; then Sony brought out the Walkman, and everyone was listening on tiny headphones.

Today, the general quality of audio equipment is light-years beyond those old systems, though lousy equipment still abounds. Radio stations have long broadcast in stereo, TV is becoming digital, and DVD is capable of delivering high-resolution audio.

But even as reproduction got better, data compression came into play to counter the improvement. This problem is not new, either: the RIAA curve for LPs, NAB curve for tape, and Dolby noise reduction were early methods of compensating for limitations in delivery media that, while maximizing fidelity within the media's raw capabilities, nonetheless introduced degradation. Then came digital audio, whose data-rate challenges sparked MP3, Dolby Digital, and other forms of lossy compression.

Some of this newer stuff doesn't sound too bad, especially when you compare it with cassettes, but it is lossy, and there is an audible difference between master and compressed audio. With personal stereo gone to MP3 players, we are a step beyond the original cassette Walkman; yet we are still listening to crap when compared with a high-resolution recording played on a decent sound system. Then there are video games, which even now often offer 11 kHz sampled sound with virtually no dynamic range. Even a good sound system can't help them much.

Which brings us back to the question of whether quality matters. From a relative standpoint, the answer would be “yes.” Engineers and producers have long used Auratones, Yamaha NS-10s, car stereos, boom boxes, and other consumer references to ensure their mixes would sound their best given the limitations of the likely playback systems. I knew of a studio that had a brickwall limiter and a low-power FM transmitter so that a producer could go to his car and hear how the broadcast chain would mangle the mix.

The flip side of the coin was that absolute quality — the best a mix could possibly sound under the optimal circumstances — was compromised. High-quality recordings hold up better than inferior recordings when compressed and played back on bad systems, but MP3s are often improved by high-frequency contouring before encoding, and heavy gain maximization makes things sound bigger on the radio and on personal stereos. So mastering still degrades the product for the sake of the delivery medium.

If playback scenarios are so bleak, does quality matter in an absolute sense? It would be easy to answer “no,” and, under deadline pressure, this sometimes is the answer. But that doesn't make me happy, and being happy with the sound is the best reason for being in the business; the money and hours certainly aren't as compelling. What's more, the beauty of recorded media is that it can be around for a while, and — who knows? — playback quality could improve.

So, let's be clear: in my view, absolute quality is important simply because I care and because some people, some time, may be able to appreciate the difference. In the real world of production, though, the goal is to deliver the best sound possible under the circumstances — specifically, the user's expected delivery system. The closer we can bring the latter to the former, the happier everyone will be. The rest of the time, it's just another less-than-perfect aspect of reality that we must live with.