Welcome to the first in a new series of debates. Each month we’ll ask two experts to argue a thorny sound-related topic. We hope you enjoy the discussion, and we’d love to hear your comments. So, does pop music need to be well recorded?
Ashley Norris, Editor of popjunkie argues NO:
A very long time ago I remember being at a friend’s house, jossticks burning, oil lamps set to the max listening to an album by a group of jazz-rockers called Brand X. After twenty minutes of funky noodles, intricate drum fills and squeaky keyboards the record finally hit the run out groove.
My friend, perhaps the most pretentious person I knew at the time, stroked his attempt at a beard and blurted out – ‘mmm that’s a really well recorded album.’
For me that said it all. No offence Brand X, I might even enjoy your jazz-lite excursions now, but back then it left me feeling cold. Perhaps more importantly my friend’s comments confirmed to me something that I was fast coming round to understanding that a great recording is a bit like authenticity, it matters a little in pop, but is a long way from being essential.
In the recipe that makes the perfect pop stew, a good recording is the seasoning not the main ingredient. For me things like passion, intelligence, humour, playfulness and most of all melody make pop music great.
Pop history is crammed with fantastic musical interludes that were badly recorded, sound tinny, sometimes even anaemic, but still manage to send chills down your spine.
Many of the 60s garage bands in the US were captured in four track mono glory complete with fuzz distortion – yet nearly half a century on they sound vital as ever. Similarly, I’d take much of 80s indie music, a great deal of which was recorded on primitive equipment, to the plastic but perfectly produced pap that clogged up the charts back then.
In writing off poorly recorded pop a great deal of non chart music from before about 1990 suddenly becomes off your radar.
Sure I am no musical Philistine. I think that one of the reasons why the first Sex Pistols album sounds so much better than the first one from The Clash is that it was recorded in a good studios and is helmed by a sympathetic producer. Also I can’t deny that the first Smiths album was a shadow of what it could have been thanks to some very sloppy recording. However these are the exceptions rather than the rule.
If you want contemporary evidence take the New York hipsters The Pains of Being Pure At Heart. The band’s second album, which features big name producers, has some stellar three minute tunes. However most of their fans think it a poor progression from a debut album that, in spite of being recorded in a studio they probably rented out for Doritos, sounds magnificent.
So I am off to give Brand X a second try now. I’ll pass on the josticks this time though…
Jason Kennedy, Hi-Fi journalist, argues YES
Why should pop music be recorded well, because it lasts longer that way. Take the most successful pop band of the last century, the Beatles, their recordings were as good as you could get in the sixties. As a result they remain almost as popular as they were in their heyday. In 2009 EMI remastered the entire Beatles back catalogue for this reason. Yet those remasters did not sound as good as the originals because they were hyped up in level (volume) and pushed slightly into the red (distorted) to give them a more modern sound.
This is about making music sound good on the radio. Since the sixties producers and engineers in the pop world have been trying to make their records stand-out on FM, this has largely been achieved by compressing the recording so that it sounds louder than other tracks. You can hear this effect in ad breaks on TV every day, it works, even if you hit the mute button when they come on. To compound the effect radio stations have been doing the same thing to make themselves jump out on the dial, so what you end up with is the hideously compressed sound of Radio 1 and the like.
But it’s a dying model. We now have alternatives, great music can be loaded onto iPods, found on net radio, listened to again and options like Spotify make it a real sonic adventure, we are no longer slaves to radio programming for our casual listening. We can choose what we want to hear and the better it sounds the more likely we are to listen to it.
There’s nothing wrong with giving records a specific sound in the way that Jack White does for instance, he loves the British invasion sound of the sixties and all of his projects from the White Stripes to the Raconteurs have a raw, pared back quality. It may not be high fidelity in the purest sense but it sounds good on an iPod and a big sound system if you play the CD or vinyl. The same is not true of MP3s, if you buy downloads rather than CDs there could come a time when you wonder what you were investing in. I recently spoke to a musician who was deeply unimpressed by the sound of his MP3 collection when played back on a revealing stereo system. He hoped I had some solution to making his MP3s sound better. Thus far none has appeared.
Distortion created by the musician is one thing but distortion produced in order to make a record have commercial appeal is another. Even Radio 4 that bastion of anti-pop demonstrated the difference between two versions of a Metallica track last year, revealing that the one mastered for Guitar Hero sounded less distorted than the one released on the album. Fans even complained that this band, renowned for its heavily compressed albums, had gone too far.
I can’t help but wonder if the downward spiral of sound quality in pop music over the last forty years has had something to do with the demise in sales over that period. I for one would rather listen to Beatles albums on vinyl the way that George Martin intended them to be heard, without the cynical interventions of record companies.