The world is full of products that promise to make our music better. But will clients or audiences notice the difference?
There's a metre long HDMI cable for sale on BestBuy.com which, among its many boasts, claims to offer "a Dielectric-bias System that reduces distortion”. The specification list on the back of its box goes on to describe the impressive "HD polyethylene composition optimised to ensure critical signal-pair geometry”. Sounds like a pretty nifty purchase, and it can be yours for the bargain price of just $1095.95. More than a thousand dollars for a three-foot telly cable might seem a bit steep, until you go on to read that the manufacturers have been good enough to ensure that "All signal conductors are controlled for digital-audio direction”. To sweeten the deal even further, the price includes a five-year warranty and free shipping. Bonus.
On the other side of the wide and vast bullshit aisle, I was interested to read recently about an experiment where, in a blind test, a group of audiophiles and hi-fi enthusiasts couldn't tell the difference between music played on a system connected up using expensive branded audio cables and the same system that was wired up using four twisted coat hangers soldered to the speakers.
When I try to think about studio monitoring (to pick just one example) I enter a sort of unengaged stupor, where I find myself struggling to know or care about the size of my tweeters, and how, and indeed if, any of it affects my music. Like you, I'm always striving to make my music sound as good as it possibly can, but at the same time, I'm haunted by the memory of how many times my work has ended up on TV, sometimes heard by millions of viewers, having first been mixed and mastered on my laptop on a train using whatever small earphones I could find in the bottom of my backpack.
For a long time my own rule of thumb has been that if my clients don't care about a particular part of my work process, then neither should I. Of course it has to sound great and express all of the musical nuance, impact and potential of my compositions, but I'm just never sure that I'm better equipped at delivering that using a 27-inch computer screen or a 32-inch one. Should I be investing in three gigabytes of new drum loops or eight?
The huge range of investments offered to the media composer is bewildering. The soundware and virtual instrument market is vibrant, and there are loads of amazing choices in all sorts of bespoke areas. But similarly, I never know how much money I'm 'supposed' to spend on anything, and the thought of it all leaves me with the same kind of decisional paralysis I feel in the washing-powder aisle of a supermarket.
Spitfire Audio, a British company whose sample libraries I admire greatly, have recently released Hans Zimmer Percussion. It is, of course, wonderful, but sold to us as featuring drum sounds recorded using a combination of some 96 microphones. I read that and felt like a kind of primitive knuckle-dragging audio Neanderthal, who only last week discovered the secrets of fire, walking upright and multitrack recording. Is there perhaps a user somewhere cursing his decision to invest in a percussion sound library last year where they only used 94 mics to record the bongos?
Perfection is unknowable, and we are all only ever just trying to stick our heads above the trench of mediocrity. So, ultimately, it's probably only ever about what works for you, what gets you work and what you can afford. Everything else is just packaging.