Podcast: Is Studio Recording Killing Music?

Martyn Ware

Sparked on by a love of classic record producers such as Phil Spector, Joe Meek, and Sam Phillips, Bowers & Wilkins got together a panel of musical experts to see what they had to tell us about music and sound reproduction. Producers, musicians, and people at the very heart of the music industry, we asked them what exactly it is a producer does – and why modern music on CD doesn’t always sound as good as it could.

At the head of the table, and chairing the meeting was Martyn Ware, a sound pioneer and member of Heaven 17 and the Human League, who also has an impressive collection of production credits including the massive-selling Introducing the Hardline According to Terence Trent D’Arby

Steve Levine is well known in the music industry for producing hit albums for the likes of Culture Club and Westworld. But he was also the engineer on early Clash recordings, and has presented an excellent BBC Radio 2 show on the art of record production.

KK has produced music from the likes of Tim Booth and Natalie Imbruglia, and worked on film scores by such big names as Society of Sound Fellow James Newton Howard’s soundtrack for Collateral. He’s also recorded an album of children’s music with Sophie Barker of Zero 7 – which is much loved by parents and toddlers.

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Simon Gogerly is a renowned mix engineer, who has worked on a number of Hip-Hop and R&B remixes for artists such as Missy Elliot, Busta Rhymes, Lil’ Kim, Rakim, Mase, Jamiroquai and Simply Red. He also won a Grammy at the 2006 Grammy Awards for his work on U2′s album “How To Dismantle An Atomic Bomb”.

Jim Irvin is the former singer with the band Furniture, and is now a songwriter signed to Warner Chappell. He’s also a journalist, and is a regular contributor to Mojo and Word magazines.

Steve Sasse is Head of A&R at Atlantic Records, and is therefore involved heavily in the partnering of musicians with producers. He has worked with Paolo Nutini, James Blunt, Leftfield, Razorlight and the Propellerheads.

What is a producer?

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The role of the record producer equates closely to that of a film director – albeit with original connotations of actually producing the finished product, records. It is their job to get the best out of the musicians/actors and make the creative vision these people have into something that the rest of us can enjoy.

Steve Levine explains how it works: “When a songwriter or a band say ‘how can we make it like this?’ You’re then trying to interpret their wish, their dream or aspiration”.

It also appears as though the relationship between artists and producers have changed in recent years, and whereas once an artist had no concept of a production and was simply given a producer, so there’s much more of a two-way relationship, especially as many emerging artists have already laid down tracks at home using Pro Tools and even Garage Band.

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KK claims that the producer maybe isn’t the magical figure he once was: “The studio is not this big mystery that it used to be. And there isn’t this kind of dogma and mystique surrounding how to record anymore.

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Steve Sasse of Atlantic Records agrees, and says that when a band has already had some experience of recording, and has developed their own ‘sound’ he tries to encourage them to keep that sound with their debut ‘professional’ recordings, and find a producer who facilitates that. “James Blunt has an affinity to that kind of west coast American tradition,” he said. “And found a producer in Tom Rothrock that gave him that sound and you know, whether you like him or loath him, I think he has sort of achieved what he wanted to.”

It’s almost as though producers are doing their own A&R, and getting involved with new artists early on and taking that completed sound to the record label. Surely that can only be a good thing for the quality of the music we have to look forward to, but what about that other important matter: sound quality.

Sound quality in the modern age

Compression is an important, and controversial topic in modern music production, especially as far as people concerned about sound quality is concerned: how much influence does a producer have on the sound quality of modern music.

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With recent debates over the boosted loudness of albums by Metallica and Lily Allen, mastering engineer Simon Gogerly was obviously well placed to discuss how mastering a record effects the quality of the sound the listener gets out of a hi-fi at the other end of the process!

The loudness wars seem to be affecting more and more artists, with Gogerly explaining how an increasing number of artists are coming back to him saying how they love the mix, but it isn’t as loud as some CDs they have, for example.

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“Because things are getting mastered so hot and compressed and limited so much, people are expecting to hear that when you are mixing their stuff as well. So it is colouring how you can mix something. I mean I personally am not such a big fan because you know it kind of, the reduction of the dynamic range of the track is just squashing out a lot of the space, that it’s nice to have in a track.”
This arms race towards loudness, as KK called it, seems to be taking priority over sound quality in a lot of modern masters, and seems to be a sticking point for the recording industry, when it comes to making great sounding releases. Steven Sasse explained how the record companies felt about it, and why it was prevalent: “It is a fear thing I think,” he says. “A band or a label or manager does not want their track to come on the radio and sound quieter than the track that was just on before it.”
However, while compression is a by-word for bad sound nowadays, Steve Levine pointed out to us that it was actually originally a very useful tool for producers, and some of the world’s finest music benefited from compression, including Phil Spector’s Wall of Sound and the Motown sound.
“Berry Gordy would specifically listen to his mixes in his office,” Steve explained. “He would have them cut on to an acetate and he would play them through a transistor radio to hear how they would sound on a radio and would then use mastering compressors in those days to make sure that they sounded as powerful as they would on radio. That is one of the big differences between certain CD reissues and your recollection of them in the vinyl world, they actually sound different because the engineers and producers who originally cut the records had a totally different approach, primarily because they could not get the level on the physical vinyl disk of the day.”

But today things are different, and the loudness war is resulting in albums where every track is produced like a radio friendly single, and it can be very fatiguing.

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The latest Metallica album was a good case in point, and sparked off lots of debate, especially as the version available for download in the video game Guitar Hero was less compressed and therefore sounded better than the CD release!

And it’s not only heavy metal acts who strive for loudness, as Steve Levine explains, “One good example is Snow Patrol. I cannot listen to two tracks in a row from them. It is so loud and so in your face that my ears get fatigued by the time the first verse is coming of the next song. It is just too much.”

But it’s not all bad news, as artists such as Mercury Music Prize winning Elbow made a conscious effort not to use these kind of mastering techniques, and it resulted in a top quality album that also sounds great on a quality hi-fi system.

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As the band itself say, if you want to hear it louder, then turn your system up a bit. We couldn’t agree more.

51 Comments

  • Fab says:

    As a music producer myself, I’d like to chime in. That problem, like all problems that seem to not solve themselves easily is a combination of multiple problems.

    1/ Problem #1 is ignorance. There is no longer a tradition of quality recording technique handed down from seasoned veteran to their assistants, who then pass them on to their assistants. That chain is broken.
    I myself made a bunch of shitty sounding records before I decided to seek professional help. Most people don’t even realize how bad their stuff sounds.
    The newfangled recording schools serve no purpose in that matter. I have 6 assistants at my studios, all freshly graduated from various schools. All great people with lots of energy and all musically and technically useless at this point, except for the one who has been with me for 4 years and has worked very hard at listening to everything with a critical mind. People no longer have the time to listen to anything carefully.

    2/ The new recording tools and techniques are not helping.
    Digital recording is a beautifully accurate thus incredibly unforgiving way to record music. We get no love from the media we use to capture the performance. Tape used to round off edges, provide a lovely kind of non-compression kind of compression, and generated a certain ‘tone’ that required less post production love.
    Also, the new fixer tools, like timing and tuning systems have made a lot musicians appear better than they are, and have opened the business of music to people who should really have stayed int he fashion business.
    Also, the piecemeal recording techniques consisting of overdubbing every musician one after the other instaed of all musicians playing together, have made the process incredibly tedious and sometimes boring. The fire is gone in most recordings. The reason for this is that most studios lack the equipment to do a truly successful live session because of problem #3 below.
    Lots of musicians have also come expect to underperform and ‘fix it later’ and have lost the pressure of studio recording.
    Ask yourself how well you perform in your job without external pressure.

    3/ Budgets have dropped insanely.
    There is no time to make good records, unless they are a work of love. How many works of love can a skilled professional take on for free before they have to take on another job to support the said works of love
    Never underestimate this problem. Think of it this way: Singer walks in. Mike is put up, singer performs, sound is ok. Two options:
    a/ old school: ‘Let’s try another mike. Mhh. No, let’s try another. Ok nothing we have fits this guy. Let’s rent something. Break and come back in an hour.’
    b. new school. ‘ok.that’s all right. Do we have anything else? Nope, that’s our best mike and we have three lead to track today, let’s move on.’

    4/ Stupidity.
    The shift of the industry from a monetized art from to a commodity business, complete with projections, expectations and end of quarter trepidations, have brought people at the helm of the business with financial savvy but zero music production knowledge. As in every human endeavor, ignorance + pressure to perform have generated much fear driven decisions to be taken everyday. Like, for example but hardly limited to, the loudness war.It is fascinating to watch a six months to a year long painstaking process, with very minute decisions made by committee thru much scrutinization and negotiations, been singlehandedly destroyed and crushed to a pancake on the very last day-by the guy (The mastering engineer)who works on the record for ONE day, usually by himself. Usually because he can’t afford to loose the gig to someone else who will heed the terrified A&R execs ludicrous requests.
    It’s trickled down to mixers now. The record is ruined at the mix level. The mastering guys now complain that they have nothing left to do. The whole process belongs in a Monty Python sketch.

    5/ Last, and least: lowered expectations.
    This is the most easily solved problem. You don’t know a really, really good red wine until you’ve tasted one. Then some people have the ability to retain the memory of that wine and pass judgement on subsequent bottle based on that experience. Some people just don’, but without that first great bottle no taste can formed no matter how apt you are at tasting wine.
    Out current problem is that convenience has killed quality. Most people haven;t experienced great sounding music before.My most recurrent comment when I play a finished record to my clients is invariably ‘Wow, I can hear everything’. It’s clockwork. I always tell my artist ‘listen to your record right now, in my room, uncompressed, un mastered, unpressed, unsoiled, this is the best it’ll ever sound. Enjoy this and learn to preserve this feeling for as long as possible when you leave this room’. Most understand, some don’t. Some care, some don’t. But they are aware. They tend to come back to listen to their stuff raw. Gives me hope.

    Sorry about the long post, I thought another insider viewpoint might be of interest to this forum.

    I welcome comments @ fab@fluxstudios.net

    Ciao

    Fab

  • Jake Purches says:

    Thank you Fab, I think you have summed it all up. It seems it is even more in B&W’s interest to publish well recorded music. By the way the B&W tradition of recording music goes back to the late 1980s and most of that is on the MELT 2000 label now when B&W was under different ownership. There is a large back catalogue (I have quite a lot) and it still sounds great. Some are even on Vinyl too.
    Its just a shame that we have to move heaven and earth to get good recordings now. However the new SACD recordings from Genesis sounded pretty good to me, because the originals were awful.

  • Florian says:

    Im 15 and i got a Zeppelin last year and i was impressed of the Sound. I didn’t know how good Loosless Music Sounds against MP3s.Yesterday i was at my dealer in Vienna and i listened to B&W 804S once with a Rotel amp and with a Classé amp. I didn’t know that you can hear the difference between two amps.Now i started to save money to buy two 804S and a Rotel amp (the classé is to expensive for me) because i don’t like my Stereo any more.

  • DLF says:

    Loving Phil Spector can be fatal. If you were you, I’d just love his WORK.

  • David Barbarulo says:

    I own a Mastering Studio in Italy.
    The main thing we observe daily is less “care” in making records than before. What I mean is that 80% of the moovement is low budget and probably 90% of that stuff is realized in wrong monitoring environment by “not so much skilled” professionals. That kind of products (in numbers) would be impossible 15 years ago, so the music is growing in the studio. On the other hand, during some teaching in schools I found that 99% of young people from 13 to 19 are using as main reproduction system youtube (with integrated PC speakers or sound cards)… so they don’t feel the need to download anymore music since the source is available 24 hours a day and is most of the times related to the video.
    No one of them seems to care about differences in sound quality or feel the need of better reproduction systems for that kind of source.
    We did an experiment, moving that audience in the studio in small groups, offering them the opportunity to listen to the music as is (we use as main monitoring Nautilus 802s paired with Velodyne subs). We noticed 100% of exciting impressions but we felt like that’s a thing out of theyr business and culture. The world of young listeners is mooving too fast to let them sit down in a “good listening position” and enjoy music. Theyr attention seems to be limited in 40 seconds without the video. If the music is played from a computer all the listeners naturally are facing the screen (80degrees out of axis from speakers…we turn it off and they look disoriented, we send the screenshot on a centered screen and all the audience turns in the right position).
    So Is Studio Recording Killing The Music?
    (in terms of sales) My answer is no. Is a matter of format. My feeling is that a large number of consumers today are “looking” at the music that without video is a partial experience.

    DB

  • SeeHear says:

    Music isn’t dead, music appreciation is changing. I love music and can play anything… On my stereo. I am blessed to count among my friends some very talented professional musicians. Ironically, they are not interested in what I consider high-end stereo equipment. It’s not that they don’t appreciate it; it’s that they liken it to a newspaper of super expensive polished and bound paper. It’s still just music – do you care if the newspaper is printed on bright bond paper or regular newsprint? From their perspective, the expensive paper buys them nothing – they still hear the music, just like we still read the news. That said, I, who in more than 40 years on this planet have only learned to play the most basic chords and riffs, value the sound quality almost as much as I value the music. I can happily listen to my car stereo because I am not concentrating on the music as much as I am concentrating on arriving safely. At home, I listen to my music primarily through a nice pair of headphones (Sennheiser, usually) unless no one else is home and I can play at “realistic” volume levels. My thought is that most kids today have never heard a “good” system and are satisfied to hear the song – the message – regardless of how wrinkled or unevenly toned the paper, err, playback system is. My friends, most of whom can not fathom why I put such effort and money, have no problem hearing the difference; they simply don’t value it enough to make the effort or pay the expense themselves. Long ago, I gave up trying to “convert” people. I am still an audio evangelist, just no longer of the Mormon-knock-on-your-door-early-on-Saturday-morning type, lol (No offense to the Mormons intended). With regard to the original topic, I think people fail to acknowledge what is produced in the studio as art. It may not be art you like, but it is an art form just the same. Just as in the art world, you have impressionists, abstract painters, and those who strive for photo-realism.
    I like most kinds of music but I prefer my music in HIGH FIDELITY. I have recordings on various media of music I love but can only listen to “casually” because I find it hard to listen past the recording shortcomings. Similarly, i will see bands live multiple times that I won’t buy a record of – unless it’s live. Chris Botti comes to mind: His live performances on PBS in HD are great! The band is killing, the music is served and it looks and sounds great. However, i find his studio recordings too perfect, boring, actually. I never appreciated him until I caught a live performance on PBS. I now have all of his performance blu rays and would happily drop the $100+ that seeing him at the Blue Note costs.

  • Glenn Selby says:

    While I agree with much of what has been said, I think there always needs to be a balanced approach to recroding msuic no matter the genere or studio… home or facility. There are general basics of recording techniques that should be followed, even if just a guideline. A “free for all” approach will only result in confusion and unfinished projects. Do your homework, be prepared, and if you can avoid it, never make anyone paly your music cold. My 2 cents.

    There’s a great article on the complete recording process at http://studiorecordingsolutions.com/the-recording-process-a-z.html.

  • Edward_A says:

    This is such a useful forum.

    Most of the kids today have NO idea what music should sound like, and this has made me think.

    I’m not really sure what *I* think music should sound like any more.

    In days gone by … vinyl days… I *thought* I knew what music should sound like. I’m a kid of the 80′s, so Levine, H-17 et al are heros of yesteryear. Back then I had a decent-ish hi-fi set up that gave a good sound (to me) – clear, dynamic, and my Thorens TD-whatever was the muts-nuts as far as I was concerned.

    Then CD came along (I leapfrogged Cassette!) and my budget increased to a farily decent Arcam CD player and a series of new amps and speakers. My frustrations grew behind the scenes with my music/audio and I didn’t know why.

    Then along came downloadable music from OD2 – super-compressed (sonically and in data terms), and a load of others. At about the same time came the 1st ipod, then the nano…and it’s been pretty much down-hill from there…music has become just a background, hardly listened to, few changes in my equipment because , I concluded, the source material was so universally bad. Yes there were flashes in the pan that made me think that there was still hope, but these were CDs mastered/produced/recorded with the volume set to 11 (AC/DC albums!!) that appeared to be good, and I guess they were in terms of Signal-to-Noise, but still dynamically challenged. The odd Clapton track was OK, the odd small-scale release (Pinetop perkins etc), but the “charts” stuff had all become dull-dull-dull (apologies!)

    Much the same for the PC playback too. Crap soundcards, poor software etc etc.

    Then I discovered the Cantatis Overture192 product on Amazon and bought one, more out of idle curiosity (and perhaps too much cash!) and stuck it in my PC. Downloaded a few albums from B&W, Linn and HDTracks and W-O-W !! The life has come back into music. 192kHz sample rate, huge dynamic range that makes my old CD player seem muffled. So, it got me thinking that maybe some of the old CDs could sound better, so I ripped a couple of oldies using ExactAudioCopy and let them rip – W-O-W again.

    So, please answer this – all you experts…is music mastered to match the crap reproduction equipment (poor CD players, poor soundcards) or are CDs mastered to be “good” in their own right ??? Are 24-bit files always going to be better than 16-bit CDs (they seem to be)?? There’s loads of misleading info on this topic, and I, for one, remain puzzled.

    Help….I’ve nearly managed to restore my faith in 2-channel stereo, especially with some of the “stdio master” files that are now (becoming) available.

    Ed.

  • Dentferschert says:

    Jeremih Imma Star (Everywhere We Are) *With Lyrics*

  • Mike says:

    Nice article but a shame to not credit me for the use of my Simon Gogerly photo :-(
    http://recordproduction.smugmug.com/Music/Record-Producers/Simon-Gogerly

  • Paddy says:

    You need, microphone(s), xlr cords, a sound board, a comptuer program that will allow recording, and a way to get your signal from the board to the comptuer (USB device).You can get away with one mic and record everything separate and combine in the program, a bad mic can make a good recording sound bad. You can get a Shure SM58 for $100. You can get a small Behringer sound board for under $200. Some of the Behringer boards are coming with a USB adapter for your comptuer. If not you can buy one for under $100. Cake walk makes some decent recording programs for affordable prices. The best way to do it is on a Mac comptuer with a pro logic program. Be sure to pad the walls and ceiling in the room where you record. You don’t want sound bouncing around. You want a nice clean sound.Go to Musician’s Friend and spend the money on a good home recording book. Every little thing makes a difference from mic placement to effects.

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