Written By: John Luongo
Published in Headphone.Guru on June 2, 2015
“Does high end gear have a place with low end music and producers?”
“High End gear -vs- Low end producers and artists”
As someone who values the preservation of the recording process to maintain the integrity of the final product, I am constantly evaluating great music to bring to the attention of the public. This is the lifeblood of our industry while offering a pipeline and crystal ball into tomorrow. As a record producer / mixer, who loves this business and all those who are involved in it, I feel a sincere commitment to do all I can to enhance the quality and excellence of anything that passes through me. I look at the final presentation of my music much in the same way as an author scouring a manuscript “just once more” before passing it in to his or her editor or publisher prior to publication. Long ago, I realized that if you want your music to be heard in a specific way, then it is imperative that you make the recording and capture the sound you want the public to hear or you will be sorely disappointed.
To that end, I always kept my recordings with me for as long as the process would allow until I passed them in to the label as “FINISHED MASTERS”. As time went on, I became more aware of the circumstances that surrounded the music business when it came to sound. I discovered that once the album or track leaves you, there is no further influence or power you have over them or the manner in which audience that will listen to your music for the very first time! At that point in time, you come to the cold reality that the finished master is no more then what you made it into. No more or no less. You’re no longer able to jump up and down at the A&R meetings to get people excited. You cannot show your enthusiasm for the song you produced or the great mix you just did by telling everyone a story about it or showing them where the song just explodes and how wonderfully it builds into that chorus. You come to the reality that (Sigh) it’s time you let your baby go and that’s it!
If what you hoped to achieve is not in the music you have just presented, then it does not exist. Nor will it transfer to anyone listening to it in your absence. You are now faced with the stark reality that that it’s all about the impact that recording makes once it’s out of your hands or the first impressions the music makes on a consumer hearing it without a promotion person or radio programmer to hype it for you! That is one pretty scary feeling! Not unlike putting your best efforts into raising a child and then watching your child leave home for college or to start a new life because you no longer have as much influence in the outcome. You just hope that you did everything in your power to put your best advice and efforts into them. That feeling is a feeling that drives the best of the best in this industry keeping them humble, hungry and on their toes at all times. They continually learn and hone their craft to a new and higher bar of excellence. This drive is what benefits artists and the consumers equally.
Now why am I taking this time to give you background on my fears explaining the production process to you all? The reason that I’ve said all of this is because I’ve noticed a slippage in the overall quality of the music coming out as a whole. This is of great concern to me and others like me who value our business with the expectations that consumers and audiophiles have for it. The expectations of consistency of quality, which, we as an industry, must maintain to survive and thrive beyond the next generation is a prerequisite which has not been taken too seriously.
Why has this happened to our business? Well there are many reasons. A key one emerged around a trend toward home produced, mixed and mastered projects, that, while at times extremely successful, pale by comparison to the best efforts of true producers and engineers in a real studio. The business has fallen short in both the sonic areas and of the artistic performances that I and audiophiles are used to. Auto-tune has become the new vocal coach of a generation of artists gone astray! This is not to say that ALL recordings done in the box (referring to music that is done using a Pro-tools or equivalent recording program which the project then never leaves that recording entity from production and mix to sometimes mastering) are all bad. Fact is that there are many talented producers, engineers and mixers who can certainly take the home recording platform utilizing their great knowledge, talent and focused efforts in their capable hands to turn out very strong, competitive projects. However, these instances are truly becoming fewer and farer between.
My point, which I’m taking the back roads to make, is that as a high end user and audiophile of the Ninth Degree, are you getting what you paid for when you purchased the product that you are listening to? You’ve invested in that perfect system with headphones only to hear low-fi music by inferior and many times incapable but very lucky producers, mixers and artists? This is truly where we’re now at in our industry. There are certainly genres of music that lean toward and cater more to the audiophile then others. For one, Country Music has seen some of the biggest and best increases in their sonic excellence and productions fueled by the mass exodus and fleeing of the best producers, mixers and engineers from the East Coast and West Coast who have flocked to Nashville.
The reason for this is that the music business’s focus on excellence has shrunk a degree due to the massive popularity of Rap and Hip Hop which took center stage in the eyes of bottom line bean counters at the labels. Then along came the EDM and Dance Productions which have allowed singers with little or no talent who use Auto Tune and programmed sounds to create songs with hardly any regard to overall production or longevity of the music they are creating. The issue is not the creativity of these next-generation individuals but the fact they are limited in their recording and sound knowledge as most of them have no heroes and role models in music whose careers span over 4 years and as creative themselves, they have not even scratched the surface as it relates to the depth of sounds and lyrical content that makes a song into a classic and timeless piece. Don’t get me wrong, there are many DJ Producers and artists in other categories who have made amazing songs and sounds and I applaud them for their efforts but they are the exceptions. Not the rule. The difference is like an individual listening to Stairway to Heaven compared to the Archie’s “Sugar Sugar”. Both may have sold millions, however, which would you listen to on your top end system over and over hearing new parts and moments with every new listening session?
Why has the music business allowed this to happen? Let me see, I record a Hip Hop or EDM Dance record for $20,000 and sell 2 – 3 million with a no name producer, an engineer named FIG (that no one knows and does everything in his place from recording and programming to playing the keys and mixing it complete with the ever present Auto-tune), it is passed on to a Street Team to promote for $5,000 and posted as a free download on the internet to a hard core fan base the purchases anything this artist releases with little or no effort required or truthfully any real quality criterion for buying music.
Now let’s compare this with the costs of recording a fully blown studio album where you need to have per diems, rooms for a month (or more), a car service on standby, a top end producer who costs well over $50,000 per track ( some even $150,000 per track) for the 12 track album they are recording, the artist’s advances and it’s a budget that may amount to around another $250,000 at the very low end to $1,000,000+. Oh, we forgot the marketing to get a record top 20 today which on a real hit is about $750,000+. As well as the in-house and independent promotion people you must put on to assist the record to be exposed. You could have an all-in figure of more than $2,500,000 that you put out there to sell about 1.2 million albums. 6 million if you are truly lucky! Hmmmn, I think I see why the music business seemed to scrap the quest for excellence over the quest for low risk/high profit margin projects. In the case of a failure, a lower costing disaster.
Now there are great records that are made that do not require the budgets or the infrastructure of the scenario which I just made, but the fact is that there is less money being spread around today. That means that everyone is pulling their belts. In many instances the first thing to go is the high cost of professional studio productions. The costs of which varies from $150 per hour to over $350 per hour just for the room. This is not considering the costs for a producer, engineer and musicians who all have separately negotiated deals. What this means is the new technology used to make these recordings is not of the same high caliber of the past or the equpiment used by the top producers and engineers. There was outboard gear used that cost tens of thousand of dollars to bring out the warmth and true essence of vocals and instruments. It made them full, round, so smooth you thought you were in the room with them. They were so complimentary to the ear of the listener that imbibed themselves in a mix. They could hear to the back of the room where a song was recorded as they were immersed in sound imagining a visual that was conjured up using the subtle placement of the instruments. The rich round reverbs and delays achieved only with units that could only be housed in or rented by a studio running into tens of thousands. It was expensive. The technology advances took a piece of gear costing $10,000 and knocked it down to a few grand in a year or two after its initial introduction. Ugh the cost of being a studio owner.
Indeed, there was some pieces of gear that thank God remained irreplacavle and in fact when Up In Value over time. An old unit called a Fairchild; which was used as a stereo compressor limiter to achieve a rich tube sound on vocals costs upwards of $25,000. If you can even find one. That is why you will not find that on many recordings today. Today they use digital plug-ins and synthetic recreations of the reverbs and delays and while they are close, they are certainly not the same regardless of what anyone writing the algorithms tells you. This results ultimately in a decrease in the listening experience for those of you who love rich lush, powerful and accurate recreation of it.
So, with all that said, is really worth your while to spend a ton of money upgrading your system just to listen to inferior music on it? The answer is a resounding YES! Because there are some wonderful albums and songs that are still being made by great artists who will not defer to inferior industry standards, but opt to maintain their own. They won’t or can’t discard their past to make a few more dollars in their pocket they were able to keep from the advance by cutting corners. There are still great songs in the Jazz, Country and R&B areas of music as well as the Symphonic and Dance music so keep searching and you will discover them. While it is harder to find a piece of new music to listen to for your discerning standards, there are still those loyal and dedicated individuals, like myself, who are proud of what we do and will not accept less regardless of the final compensation. You see, we all realize that it’s about leaving a legacy which were all too well aware of and understanding that your worst efforts follow you and determine who you are a lot more then your best ones do!
There are some wonderful albums that showcase sound such as the new Josh Groban album, Stages where he sings the Show-tunes from Broadway, Ed Sheeran if you like more down home soulful vocals, Imagine Dragons and Coldplay all captured in great studio productions. Additionally, there are always those great classic bands and artists of the past that have recorded such wonderful music and a tapestry of sound that the better the reproduction you have the more you listen to them and hear that which you did not realize happened but on the 10th listen. Topographic Oceans by Yes and Miles Davis offer you a peek into souls and sounds that are well worth your time and money. There are even some artists and songs that have come out today and show glimpses of being audiophile worthy such as Mumford and Sons, Bruno Mars, Taylor Swift, Calvin Harris, Sam Smith, Adele, John Legend and more.
So stay optimistic and know that the music is there for you to listen to while you wait for the best which is yet to come and allowing you to turn the page and listen to the next generation of great songwriters and artists that are guided by the steady hand of new producers and engineers who love the art form and will do all they can to enhance it.
I see a trend where people who once mixed and mastered their music all themselves are now just nudging the envelope of the past and finding the benefit of sending their music out to professional mastering labs to give it that finished sound and feel. You see, while you can’t polish a turd as my history professor once told me, you can take a potential gem and turn it into a real jewel with the correct mix and mastering.
Just remember that the majority of the consumers listening to music are listening to it as low fidelity MP3s and that greatly impacts the listening experience for everyone. Artists can get away with this for the moment since the actual productions of so many new songs is done to such a low standard while many have the DIY mentality of doing it all themselves on inferior gear with very little ability to afford the best quality outboard gear that would enhance their final product. This generation has seen the quality producer and musicians brought to the brink of extinction due to shrinking budgets, low revenues for music and the least talented executive and A&R pools in our industry’s history. This means that we have a lot to go until the music is worthy of your time and the expensive layouts you are making.
Always buy the best music seeking the best system that you can to reproduce it. Music is like a fine dinner and one cannot judge every meal by one bad experience. So my advise to you is make the jump to the next level and enjoy that which heightens your experience and brings you the joy and passionate that your love of music releases within you. Things will get better over time as there are enough of us out there that want to maintain the high standards that we were brought up with and pass that love on to future generations who deserve more. Besides, if we all stop purchasing the best quality sound equipment possible, there is no more reason for the artists to make better music or the best manufacturers to keep seeking better and better gear to reproduce the highest quality sound spectrum and soon once that bar is lowered. I guarantee that it will never be raised again because complacency and accepting less are impossible habits to break!