Walking into a serious audio store these days is like entering a time machine. All the talk is about room-filling high-fidelity sound. The gear is new, but the conversations are much like those your father and grandfather had when they went shopping for hi-fi.
Outside the store, meanwhile, most people under 25 are getting their music from cheap ear buds, tiny laptop speakers and compact sound files that have had much of the music’s sonic juices squeezed out of them. Convenience has brought about a low-fi revolution in the way we hear music.
So what’s a record producer to do? Keep on recording music to sound great on conventional stereo systems, or tweak things to get as much as possible from a speaker as big as your fingernail?
It’s not an entirely new question. When AM radio play was essential to selling records, some musicians and producers trimmed their mixes in line with the limited capacity of pocket transistor or car radios.
“AM radio was all we had,” says Buck Owens, a country star from the fifties and sixties, explaining to a British documentary film team how he made the most of that limitation while recording. “When a guy hits the bass, and it takes up 40 per cent on the VU meter, it means you’ve got 60 per cent left for everything else. So I said, ‘Get that bass out of there, I don’t want that.’” The Beatles and others followed suit, draining the bass from their mixes so that everything else would leap out of the radio.
Even well into the age of FM and stereo, record companies were concerned about making music fit the smallest outlet. Daniel Lanois, who has produced career-changing albums for Bob Dylan, U2 and Neil Young, recalls a pivotal discussion he had with record executives in Toronto in the seventies.
“They said to me, ‘The little speakers do not reproduce bass. Therefore, don’t put bass in your work,’” Lanois says. “And when I heard that piece of advice, I decided to leave the country. Because I do not buy into the idea that you should make your work small to accommodate a small playback system. It’s an absurdity, it’s dishonest, it’s infantile, it’s stupid.”
These days, the small playback system has two elements: little speakers, and compressed sound files like MP3s or ACCs (the latter is the standard on iPods), from which elements of the music deemed to be inaudible to most people have been stripped out. The MP3 files circulating on the Internet come in many degrees of compression, but the most common is about 11 times smaller than a CD-quality recording.
The problem with high-level compression is that removing supposedly inessential things can affect the overall sound, and add in things that weren’t present in the original recording. You can get weird pre-echoes on sudden sharp sounds, and a bright “sizzle” on everything in the upper range. Run a very compressed file through a tinny laptop speaker, and you’re far away from the sound and maybe the feeling of the original studio mix. But that’s no reason for producers to stop aiming for great sound, says Lanois.
“I’ve always been of the opinion that once you get it right, musically, if you have your centre and lyrics and riffs and bottom end in order, you can bring that to any kind of playback system, whether it’s a bud in your ear or a massive PA at a festival,” he says. “If you get great bass on your work, the level of harmonics that exist relative to the fundamental frequency is such that they will resonate through even a bud or AM radio. If you listen to a Bob Marley record on the tiniest earbuds, it will still make you dance, still make you cry, still make you to want to change something about your life.”
Okay, but when a producer’s actually in the studio or mixing suite, isn’t it at least tempting to see what’s going to happen when the music hits the bud?
“I listen to my mixes on my computer,” says Bob Rock, who has made dozens of albums with the likes of Metallica, Michael Bublé and Ron Sexsmith. “It’s a great perspective to have. It’s a small system, and it’s kind of quiet. If I can’t hear the bass and the kick drum on my Mac, I know there’s definitely not enough.”
Jon Siddall, a CBC Vancouver music producer who recorded many Canadian performers (including Buck 65, the Weakerthans and Tegan and Sara) for the late-night TV show ZeD, says he and his colleagues constantly checked their studio results on a small TV speaker. “But really and truly, when I’m doing a mix or recording, I go for gold. I want what sounds good on a proper monitor.”
Michael Philip Wojewoda, a Toronto-based producer who has made numerous albums with performers such as Barenaked Ladies, Anvil and Kevin Hearn, says: “Generally, the only adjustments I make for playback are with low frequencies. Sometimes I’ll make sure that the bass sounds contain some upper partials, so at least their melodies can be heard on smaller speakers. I still feel that one should maintain the highest quality of signal path before the regrettable conversion to AAC or MP3.”
Time may be on the side of those who don’t let the little speaker change their methods too much. When the Beatles’ early recordings were remastered a few years ago, great effort went into trying to boost the tracks’ anemic AM-radio bass. What seemed a smart move in the early sixties didn’t sound so good a half-century later.
Better earbuds are coming on the market, and iPod storage capacities are much greater now than when the most reductive MP3 format was standardized 20 years ago. People may start to realize that they can get better sound with less compression and no loss of convenience. They may insist on better-quality sound files, even if those take up more room on the hard drive. That’s assuming they haven’t become so used to the “sizzle” of skimpy MP3s that they expect and want to hear it, the way some people expect all pop voices to be smoothed out with pitch-correction software.
“It’s so hard to know how listening habits will change,” says Siddall. “I’m waiting for a full hard swing of the pendulum in the other direction. I’m waiting for somebody to start a 24-bit craze” – a reference to the high-resolution audio standard used by most producers and bands while in studio. Hi-res versions of some albums are already for sale, at a premium, though if demand were to grow sharply, the price would drop. “And when that craze happens,” Siddall says, “you’re going to be really glad that your sound recording and mix were made to the best possibility.”