Recording Formats - who really cares? A commentary on tomorrow’s music.
I’ll start this semi-rant by stating that there is as much (if not more) great content being created right now than any other phase of popular recorded music (the past 70 years). The advent of the computer has brought more accessibility to quality recording gear on the supply side and more accessibility to content via iTunes and Napster (etc.) on the demand side. I suggest the problem is one of growing pains, but if the consumer doesn’t take this opportunity to voice his opinion soon, the options will become limited.
Currently there are legislative battles between copyright holders and consumers. Record companies have sued end users for copyright abuse. There are battles regarding the legality of duplicating purchased music for your own enjoyment on multiple devices that you own. There are new outlets like internet radio that may be facing changing royalty fees to the point of limiting their ability to exist. All this is good in that artists must be fairly compensated for their work. And it is good on the side that these new growth areas are maturing. But it is scary on the side that a wonderful opportunity to expand the supply of creative, inspired music may be choked.
I want to take a step back a few years to the precursor of today’s state of affair. I spent the late 80’s and much of the 90’s playing bass for artists on Arista and CBS records. I experienced firsthand how the label process works. There is a good side as they demand your best. And they do work hard to help you become your best. This was the era that the radio single was ruling the day. Album sales were diminishing. The emphasis on a release was solely focused on one or two songs. The rest of the album was in truth filler for the main purpose, the single. Radio on the other hand was becoming increasingly tougher to break. Don’t let me misstate…the game was exciting and thrilling but it was fully feast or famine. There was not a culture of development toward greater rewards. The one bright spot, as a musician, was the advent of the ADAT (Alesis) and other technology which brought recording to the artist level…the project studio (more on this later).
Continuing on… the radio war transitioned to the mastering house in the 90’s. Mastering is a wonderful art. In fact, one of America’s finest offering to the arts (bold statement huh!). It is by definition the “mothering” of format transfer (ok…that is my definition). Its origins go back to the limitations of the vinyl groove verses the magnetic recording tape. It is now the final sonic sculpting phase to most recording projects. What happened in the 90’s was a story of impact. The mastering houses were no longer saddled by the limitations of vinyl. The dynamic range of the CD allowed hotter levels. These tracks hit the radio compressors hotter than material mastered to previous standards. They sounded hotter, bigger, got more impact, and the race was one. Record companies started influencing mastering house efforts in the race for the most competitive radio single. The result today is music with less dynamics and sonic richness.
The result today is music with less dynamics and sonic richness.
In the last ten years, recording platforms have transition to the digital age. Sampling rates, bits, resolution, dithering are the replacements of tape heads, tape width, tape speed and the like. I suggest that digital recording technology is now mature. Great analog recordings are wonderful. But there is no reason a fully digital recording should be any less wonderful.
Perspective from the artist side: on the local level we have now gone through the phase of the locally produced independent released CD being a viable product. The CD itself has less perceived value. Consumers do not think of record stores and CD’s for product, rather they download singles. Also, there is increasingly little chance of breaking into tight radio playlists from the local level. This is important, because it is in this foundation that the future great artists are forming.
The bright side may be that an artist can control their own publishing and promotion in ways never before possible. They can promote via MySpace.com and other avenues to gain fans across geographic boundaries. I would hope that independent internet and satellite radio can support this (reference the above mentioned legislative battles) emerging independent surge.
…Back to the demand side. Don’t you want more options on the quality of content? Don’t you want projects with complete visions as well as great singles? Don’t you want content that is mastered specifically for various file formats? If we are soon to download all of our content: I want to be able to select not only great stereo masters in full resolution, I want to be able to select mastered material for MP3 or other lower resolution formats. Also, I want more masters created for true surround. A radio mix does not equate to an audiophile worthy experience or even a good low resolution MP3 listen. Each format has different production needs, different amounts of compression and dynamic range. The advances in residential audio and consumer products should be rewarded by the advances in audio recording technologies.
The advances in residential audio and consumer products should be rewarded by the advances in audio recording technologies.
However, I suggest that demand is currently leading supply. Home theater enthusiasts are craving art that is developed for the surround environment start to finish: the arrangements, recording, mixing and mastering phases. But, how can the artist take the financial risk to do so, when their work can be so easily duplicated and their rewards lessened?
This is how: speak up! I am not typically an advocate type. But in this case, the timing is now. Respectful letters to the channel (Best Buy, iTunes, etc) requesting more format options both higher and lower resolutions should be sent. In the same regard, respectful letters to the major record companies should be sent. NARAS (National Academy of Recording Arts and Sciences) has a fully armed advocacy division. You can use: Advocacy Action @ GRAMMY.com to voice your demands to congress.
The dollar should be the loudest voice of all. If the music distribution channel accepts that there is a demand for content with various file resolutions, the artists will step up and supply. On the local level, there could be new avenues for artists to reach people and create strong roots again. On the record label side, they could validate their presence by funding and promoting the production of content in multiple file sizes and surround capabilities. This is not a new concept. There was a time when masters where produced not only for vinyl but cassette, 8-track and the almost mythical quadraphonic (see we have progressed some!).
The voice of radio could then remain strong and viable as the record companies would have other means to promote product sales. Singles have their place for sure, but the possibilities for surround broadcasts and other exciting programming would only broaden. There are tremendously skilled recording engineers and mastering engineers who would treasure spending their days creating appropriate masters for the consumer. AES (The Audio Engineering Society) really does promote recording, mix and mastering standards that help create better music. And maybe this is idealistic thinking, but as the new technologies get better defined I would hope that the copyright concerns do as well.
The burden is now on the consumer. The previous music distribution channels have changed. The products we use to listen to music are changing. How we spend our music dollar is crucial. Expressing our voice to our favorite music outlet and the labels of our favorite artists is vital. Supporting new music and writing these artists requesting more format options is our role. Certainly, we should have disposable content but we should also have content worthy of our most demanding listening moments. This is the reward we can have and it is possible in the very near future.
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I believe there are some lossless download sites, Music Giants [musicgiants.com] comes to mind. I have as yet to buy an music there, to try moving it from my computer, through the router, and onto my server.
I don't see doom and gloom in the industry. Like you, I see some really good things going on. I spend time on a message board, Siamusic.net, and the young people there from all over the world are a vibrant and musical bunch. The amount of music they listen to is stunning! They download and share files endlessly. But they do buy a lot of music, too. They also attend a lot of concerts to support bands in that fashion. I think music is alive and well. Not always in the fashion I would like, DVD-A downloads for everyone, but that's life........
Great comments on my "rant". Noting the audiophile formats that do exist, my premise is that the CD is a dying format to be replaced by downloads. Sooner than later, a majority of people will get their content through downlaods and many will have dedicated servers for entertainment content.
The different needs to mix and master material for higher resolution are nowhere near the $$$ demands of other audiophile formats. Already mastering houses are compensating for the ultra-compressed material trend by using what are called "stems": these are submixes taken off the final mix that have separated rhythm section, vocal, harmony instruments, etc. The mastering engineer then remixes these stems as part of the mastering process. This allows the proper carressing of each segment without damaging other portions of the sonic content. It is not that great of an additional expense to create masters for high-resolution downloads...the market (demand) would simply have to have a voice.
This is different than the needs of the existing audiophile formats...
All this being said...Yup I am an idealist :-)
Back to the demand side. Don’t you want more options on the quality of content? Don’t you want projects with complete visions as well as great singles? Don’t you want content that is mastered specifically for various file formats?
Sure, that'd be just swell. Except that as Westcott notes;
Unfortunately, we (audiophiles) are in the minority and the content providers know it. They and every other segment of the music industry is very aware of who is spending money on what...
Which means that for those of us who appreciate good quality content we'll end up paying through the nose (if at all). Eventually content providors'll ditch producing decent quality content altogether.
...our input has already been weighed and measured, and has been found wanting.
I seen it too.
We are at an interesting time in the music business. The laws of supply and demand are at odds. It is time that artists, mix/mastering engineers and record companies move closer to the demands of the consumers. Recording and playback technology keeps getting better, but it's scary to think the wonderful opportunity to expand the supply of creative, inspired music may be choked because of legislative battles between copyright holders and consumers. This article explores this topic and offers suggestions you the consumer can take to prevent losing our rights of choice for demand of higher quality music media.
Discuss "Recording Formats - who really cares? A commentary on tomorrowâ€™s music." here. Read the article [audioholics.com].
Unfortunately, we (audiophiles) are in the minority and the content providers know it. They and every other segment of the music industry is very aware of who is spending money on what and unfortunately, the majority of music listeners are quite content with compressed versions of their favorite music via MP3 on their HTIB.
We have voted with our dollars and you can see the results. DVD Audio and SACD sales are but a small portion of the dwindling music sales via disc. Content providers are unwilling to remaster music and we are unwilling to change our life long acquired music tastes just to hear high quality music recordings.
Whats worse, radio claims new HD capabilities but in reality, it still sounds like garbage. Satellite was a last chance at change but went the same route of cable and satellite video companies, more stations with less quality in the ever present struggle for more revenue generation.
To add salt to the wounds, it will soon be impossible to listen to what HD audio formats do become available via the movie industry without HDCP (HDMI for now) compliant AV equipment. Gone will be the day when your AV receiver could handle audio switching\processing duty, independent of the video source. Can you say, "more money to keep current hardware?"
I applaud your efforts but our input has already been weighed and measured, and has been found wanting.