Technological evolution is progressive. A technology isn’t born and used to its full potential on the same day. Quite often in fact the there are years between the development of a technology and the realization of its full potential. Digital music technology is no different.
It’s pretty common to think that music of the past sounds better than music of today, both in terms of the actual music, and the actual sound of the music. The general argument is that the newer digital sound has lost much of the human touches that music of the past, whether those touches be the unquantitized performances on a real instrument, or the custom tube preamps used to master the mix. For the purposes of this article I want to talk more about the production aspect than the performance, as musicianship in digital music is a whole other can of worms.
I used to be of the analog is better school of thought. While I am still pretty young, when I first started working in studios, I was cutting reel to reel tape, and adjusting knobs and faders. I can remember quite a few sessions from that time and make no mistake there was something about the old analog set-ups. But were they actually better. In hindsight I’d say no.
There is no denying that there is a lot to be said about the human quality added to music when things couldn’t be reduced down to precise zeros and ones. If you have a knob that goes from -32db to 0db finding -12.3db in the analog was a sheer impossibility. But who cared about precision. Move the fader! With the advent of digital however that precise fader movement is required to avoid digital clipping, while maintaining a strong presence in the mix. In fact with digital, slight errors are so much more transparent, precision is the new art.
Don’t get me wrong, there were/are some really precise engineers that work in analog. If some of them are reading this, I am your friend. Know that you are a very unique breed, and if all engineers were like you we wouldn’t be where we are today. Well actually we probably would. But it’s not your fault, it is the industry’s.
Now when I say industry I mean the guy’s in suits who think music is all about sales. The ones who develop marketing strategies to sell just about anything to everybody to maximize profit, but omit the actual making of music from these strategies. The Wizards of Oz who have convinced the masses they really know what their doing. They’ve filtered their money making schemes to the masses in the form of myths run off by their underling A&R’s.
Perhaps the biggest myth is the loudness factor in making a song radio ready. The thought is that the louder a song is the better it sounds. And so, in order a song to be ready for the radio its loudness must be maximized.
Now to do this a trend was started to push the audible envelope to the max. All types of compressors and limiters were used to really fill the sound. Fill is actually the perfect wording for this because the mechanisms used would literally fill up the audio space. There’s a great article here with some images to help this all make sense. The long and short of it is that performance nuances have been sacrificed to make songs louder. An analogy would be juice manufacturers saying, “the sweeter the juice the better it tastes,” and to account for this they start releasing syrup as juice. Sure it tastes sweet, but it doesn’t taste like anything else.
Hiphop production can share some of the blame in this, because generally speaking, hiphop production threw many of the old mixing conventions out the window. Suddenly the kick was the most important instrument, and it just so happens that the kick can easily be the loudest instrument in a mix. Even worse, the distortion that comes from turning something up too much, on a hiphop kick can be the perfect formula. With hiphop, the distortion from clipping (when an audio signal extends beyond the decible range it is clipped and plataued at the top of the range causing distortion) became an effect, no longer a problem.
Now if you go back to older hiphop, I’d say from the early 90’s and back you’ll notice that despite this hiphop distortion (think Public Enemy), albums were still far more quiet than they are now. Well that returns us to the issue of digital. You see the old analog machines had a certain threshold before they started clipping which was under the 0db limit (as low as -20db). Engineers were mixing with lower levels, and then turning up the final mix. With the advent of digital however, that coushin between 0db no longer exists. You can literally turn anything up to the max (0db) in the digital realm. The problem is, this leaves no room for the processing of any effects or track summing (when multiple tracks like drums and bass are combined). So as soon as you do anything to a track, you end up with distortion. And if the track was already distorted… you get the picture.
Think about the producer who wants his productions to sound as loud as possible, so they compresses the kick and bass as much as possible. This causes the speakers to buzz a little, but hey, that’s the trend now. The producer gives his distorted tracks to an engineer, who too often is seen as a paid hand not a part of the creative process (not the engineer’s fault). The engineer wants to turn it down, but the producer keeps saying turn it up, going so far as pushing the fader on the kick themselves. More distortion. But it’s loud. And loud is what the A&R’s want.
What does this mean for the listener? Generally speaking, it means loud mush. Music is all about the mixing of dynamics, but when everything is just loud there are no dynamics. You can see it in the waveforms of songs today. They look like rectangles, with no up and down movement at all. By cultivating a generation of mush producers, dynamic production is becoming a lost art. Well it was.
One of the other things that has happened, particularly in hiphop has been the rise of beatmakers. Where before you needed to buy a bunch of equipment and know how to make them all work together to be a producer, these days you can basically by a production set-up in a box. So now everyone is making ‘beats.’ The problem with this has been that while you can make a beat out of a box, producing a song takes a little more than that. Unfortunately, instant gratification has many of these beatmakers stopping at the beat. Even worse there are a million stories of one of these beatmakers selling their stuff to such and such hot artist and becoming the next big producer. So now you have a bunch of beatmakers setting standards based on little knowledge about their field.
In this market, the relativity of skill has rendered the word almost meaningless. Almost. But there are producers like myself who have taken the slow road to digital, really trying to master it as an artform and utilize its functionality to create brilliant music. And slowly but surely music is being released with an added quality that is instantly distinguishable from the out-the-box production solutions. We’re working with dynamic ranges instead of mushing them together and the result is a digital music with the sonic warmth of old.
For me the rosetta stone of this type of production can be found in DJ Quik’s latest release “Trauma.” On this album, Quik really pushed the envelope of what is possible in the digital realm. Anyone who is serious about production should pick up this album and use it for their AB checks. Outside of the hiphop genre is Stevie Wonder’s recent album “A Time to Love” is on par with “Trauma” with it’s use of digital. Both of these examples are loud, but little is sacrificed in the dynamics of the music lending to an amazing listening experience.
It should be noted that none of these albums were produced out of the box. In fact they utilized some of the latest greatest packages out there, and yes these are expensive. Quality production quite simply isn’t an out of the box thing. It takes investment both of money and time. You have to really understand the concepts in the digital world before you can really exploit the potential.
Stay on the lookout for my own project which will hopefully see the light of day sometime this year. The project is completely recorded, but due to the care being taken to mix, is slightly delayed in its release. But at the end of the day I believe on all levels it will live up to the standards set by its title – “The Catalyst.”
“I run any console, I’m an engineer / And I drink imported beer while I’m lookin for the gear”