Recording budgets have been getting lower for some time. Are the technical standards we've come to expect from records being eroded too?
Venerable US weekly news magazine Businessweek was launched back in 1929, literally weeks before the worst stock-market crash in history. Like a lot of weekly news mags, it stumbled as it was overtaken this century by 24/7 Internet news. But it got a lift in 2009 — in the midst of the biggest recession since the Great Depression, ironically enough — by the financial media empire Bloomberg LLP, who bought it and renamed it Bloomberg BusinessWeek.
So it was surprising, in early September, to see a particularly egregious mistake in one of the magazine's headlines. They reported that the US Federal Reserve were holding a crucial meeting in Jackson Hold, Wyoming — rather than Jackson Hole, which is, of course, the proper spelling. But even that eye-grabber was surpassed less than a week later when the somewhat erratic mayor of Newark, New Jersey took out a full-page ad in a local political publication urging readers to "Re-Elect President Barak Obama.” Unfortunately, he left out the 'c' in the President's first name. Yeah, that's kind of a biggie in an election year.
I've noticed that these kinds of blunders are on the increase. I attribute it to the fact that journalism has been under pressure to cut costs, which has led to substantial layoffs in newsrooms, with publishers pulling more output from fewer, overworked ink-stained wretches. This phenomenon has affected other vocations, as well, and in some cases with fatal results, such as commuter airline pilots putting in 16-hour days, leading to the 2009 distaster in Buffalo, New York. But it made me wonder: are we experiencing something like this in music recording? Is the technical quality of music being undermined by poor training, pressure to constantly be releasing product, over-reliance on black-box presets, and an economic climate in the music industry that has lowered the bar for what's considered 'good enough?'
I checked with a cohort that's better positioned to encounter more music in a clinical environment than anyone else: mastering engineers. The consensus suggests that there are cracks developing in music's engine rooms. "I have to say yes, there is a larger number of technical mistakes being made,” reports Jose Blanco, who has mastered records for artists including Collective Soul and Inner Circle. He believes that while some of the errors are attributable to budgets, he's nonetheless experienced the problem at all levels. "Even [some] projects being done in large facilities have the same technical faults,” he adds.
Emily Lazar, who has mastered Arcade Fire and Foo Fighters, offers a short laundry-list of sonic solecisms, including stems that sound nothing like the stereo mix, with missing instrumentation and vocals, and leaving vocals in an instrumental version or vice versa. "Not sure if this is due to incompetent, amateurish engineering, or a lack of focus in a world where we are constantly bombarded with texts, email and crazy requests,” she adds.
Other mastering engineers concur, to one extent or another. Some point out that the subtle rough edges of music made four or five decades ago, such as tape saturation, or when you could hear Aretha Franklin fry the capsule on 'Respect', have their own digital equivalents. "Defects are in the eye or ear of the beholder,” says Scott Hull, who's mastered for Laurie Anderson and Dave Matthews. "Even grossly misused Auto-Tune has become nearly a standard for vocal pop music.” But, Hull adds, these tools are creating artistic and technical templates for musicians who might assume, and not without reason, that this is how it's done. And they lead to a mind-set that expects tools to boost productivity rather than creativity. Labels and artists, he says, "will rarely pay our premiums to ensure the highest quality. It's often left to the engineer to decide: 'Am I going to put two hours of my own time into checking the product because I know it's the right thing to do, even if the client won't pay for the time?' And who also will claim it doesn't matter when played back as an MP3?” The fact that a leading mastering engineer has to ask that is itself an indication of systemic illness. And an instantaneous global distribution system reinforces the malady by providing immediate gratification. A million YouTube hits is not the equivalent of a million sold records, but in these lean years a million of anything seems satisfying, especially if it shows up faster than a cheque.
However, dodgy-sounding records are creating some pushback. The Recording Academy and the Consumer Electronics Association are funding an online initiative that aims to educate consumers about the options for high-resolution music. Labels such as AIX, Chesky and Linn are building catalogues of high-res music files, some of which exceed even Red Book specs.
Scott Hull's caution is well founded: there will be records whose success is predicated, to some extent, on wearing bad sound like a flag. But a three-decades-plus baseline of sonic quality is proving not to be much of a bulwark against the erosion of these standards. In a way, it's actually reasonable to expect that consumers who have become accustomed to getting music for free or for next to nothing might have lowered their own quality standards. When your brand-new $1000 (in, say, 1985 dollars) colour television broke, you would get it fixed. When your $200 flat-screen model crashes, you toss it and buy another. Cheap goods from China engendered a deeply seated attitude of disposability. Badly made music can do the same. So before it goes out of the door, take the time to give it another technical once-over. And I'll do the same with my spelling.