There's been a lot of talk about Volume Wars in music production - everyone wants their music to be louder than everyone else's. Naturally, my opinion has always fallen in line with those who despise this trend . . . I need dynamics in order for the music to sound real to me, to say nothing of how much I hate the destructive and abhorrent side effects super-limiting can create.
At the same time, it's interesting to watch what's happening these days. As has always been the case, those who "consume" music are rarely listening on stellar playback devices. I love my iPod - and it gets used constantly on the road, at the gym, even to play endless background music in the living room. But it's no secret that MP3's aren't anyone's idea of high fidelity.
But there's more to it than a move toward compressed formats. Two days ago, I endured seven hours of airplane confinement. My trusty iPod made the trip with me. I receive a ton of CDs each month from people hoping for coverage in this magazine. I usually dump quite a few on my 'Pod to do some listening. This time I also loaded up a bunch of older favorites, albums from the '70s, '80s, and '90s.
Even given the aurally hostile listening situation - MP3's on iPod with earbuds, sitting in a people-packed jet airliner - there was a noticeable difference as I switched among the 4,000 or so older and newer songs I had loaded. I'm not talking about the Digital Versus Analog issue - let's not go there. Rather, there was an amazing difference in the dynamics, the arrangements, the musicianship, and the sound.
Whatever the root of the sonic difference, here's my point (yes, I have one): The world has been seduced by changing sonic values. The "smiley curve" hi-fi EQ has become the norm - booming bass and ice-shard highs, scooped middle, no dynamics. Things don't sound like what they are anymore.
When I hear the drums on an older recording, they sound like drums. On many modern recordings, that's no longer the case. In fact, on many modern recordings you can't even hear the kick drum or the bass guitar through earbuds - all that "boom" simply vanishes. On older tunes, everything was audible. We're not talking about musical/stylistic choices here, we're talking about production values.
Who do you blame? Technology? Nope, everyone wants to blame the gear, but that ain't the source. Consumers? No again. MP3? Sorry. Here's the crux: We only have ourselves to blame. As engineers and producers, we're responsible for knowing how things are supposed to sound, and to make them sound that way. When instead we follow the hype and the trends, a flushing sound and swirling downward spiral commence.
It's time for us as engineers, producers, and musicians to realize that we determine how the recordings sound - especially as many of us live and work in the indie world, and aren't beholden to major labels and other self-proclaimed "taste-makers." Things aren't always 100% under our control, but we can certainly make suggestions, and more important, educate those we work with.
I don't want to come off as some ivory tower whiner or an old "I remember when. . ." guy, nor am I averse to modern music - there's a lot of it I like very much. But I think it's become too easy to sublimate our responsibility to the music, the art, and the consumers. I believe it's up to us to make the difference.