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Could Today’s Recording Techniques Be the Problem With The Audiophile Hobby?

by Jerry Del Colliano September 17, 2021

One lesson I learned in music school is to never, ever even insinuate that you are making fun of two specific bands with the recording professors. Band number one was easy to love, which was Earth, Wind & Fire, who are to this day one of the best pop groups, with stunning instrumental production, gorgeous recording, techniques and mainstream appeal. The second was Hollywood super-band Toto, which I now have a healthy appreciation for as a Yacht Rock fan later in life. However, anyone who has ever actually listened to the absurdly poor lyrics of their iconic “Africa” song (As sure as Kilimanjaro rises like Olympus above the Serengeti, I seek to cure what's deep inside, frightened of this thing that I've become) can see how a smart-ass college kid who thinks he or she is the next Quincy Jones could crack a joke or two. That would be a mistake on par with making light of anything Tori Amos has ever done in her musical career to your redhead girlfriend back in the 90’s. Both are catastrophic mistakes … take it from me.

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In school, we learned the basics of recording in a real studio, with real-world recording projects live from the era of grunge, the start of West Coast rap, and with the Compact Disc alive and well. We had in-class and well-into-the-night access to a $1,000,000 128-channel SSL console, two Studer A-800 two-inch analog tape machines, large-format JBL house monitors, and all of the other accoutrements that one would expect of a professional recording studio in the mid-1990s. While Snoop, Dr. Dre (long before he and Jimmy Iovine would donate close to $70,000,000 to USC) and Suge Knight ruled the mean streets of South Central Los Angeles with an iron fist, these were still times when music recording was taught a very specific way. The old-school way. Much like you don’t get in your car and floor it to get to the grocery store, the art and science of recording was supposed to show the same respect and restraint. Each of those 128 channels had so many knobs and sliders (and automation, which was pretty slick in the day), so it was tempting to fuss with things. Much like a professional chef aggressively seasons his food with salt, you were inclined to season your recordings with higher and higher levels. And that would get you a failing grade with near 100 percent certainty.

The concept that was taught, when learning to make a recording, was to “respect the dynamic window.” What the professors meant by this was that not every recording could or should be balls to the wall in terms of loudness. Take the time to listen to, say, Pink Floyd’s The Wall, a perfect example of what we would someday aspire to. There are moments in that concept record when you can hear birds chirping, violins gently playing. There are also moments in the record with war effects, sounds of marching troops, bombs exploding, and plenty of fantastic rock and roll songs in between. While we weren’t expected to make ageless works of art while in college, we were meant to understand the dynamic window and how to make recordings that could do it all – be they be bombastic or beautifully gentle. That would get you a far better grade.

Today, nearly 30 years later, modern recording is very, very different in mainstream music. Today’s popular music doesn’t often show due respect for the dynamic window. Innovations like Pro Tools, digital recording, Auto-Tune and streaming formats, paired with genres like hip-hop, electronic, K-pop, and so many others produce a very different, very ADHD-centric sound, designed with the hopes of catching someone’s attention in a world where entire generations have a hard time paying attention to anything. Things have changed.

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For audiophiles in simpler times, it was relaxing and luxurious to sit down and listen to an album from start to finish, with the lights dimmed and perhaps a nice Scotch poured. Today, music is more consumable as part of a very fast-paced life. Think back a decade or two, to the early days of the Apple iPod, with those iconic ads with the white ear buds. Not only were they killing off hearing for countless millennials because of in-ear volumes that were in many cases too loud, but they also brought the portability of music to a large collection to our increasingly fast-paced lives in ways that Sony couldn’t have dreamed of with their game-changing Walkman.

There is an argument to be made that MTV changed the music business forever, in that it wasn’t just how you played that mattered – it was how you looked, too. Assuming she lived past 27, like so many other rock stars of a long-ago era, a somewhat aged Janis Joplin wouldn’t have gotten airtime over a young Madonna back in the early 1980s. A pretty well put-together Tina Turner could get attention on MTV in the ‘80s (once Sony helped Michael Jackson break through the color barrier in the very early days of Music Television), where less sexy artists didn’t get as much coverage. You didn’t have to be gorgeous to be a star on MTV, as the likes of Cyndi Lauper (how about Captain Lou Albano in her videos from the WWF) and Tom Petty proved, but if you happened to look like Simon Le Bon from Duran Duran, it didn’t hurt. This was the era of Miami Vice, where both the look and the sound mattered. These were still good times for those of us who loved music. If you didn’t think Dire Straits, Genesis or (solo) Peter Gabriel were a bunch of lookers, they had animated videos that kept us engaged, as well as heading to both Sam Goody and the stereo store.

Today, things are different, and it has hurt the audiophile hobby. Younger listeners aren’t as patient when they are sitting down to music. Music is part of your commute. Music is part of your workout. Music is part of your studying. Music can be part of every element of your life, but is it part of your lifestyle? Does it help you relax? Do younger listeners take the time to slow down to appreciate the art? Do they slow down to listen to the craft that went into the recording process? And from an audiophile perspective, is it worth it for many of these listeners to invest in the state of the art (or even higher than average) quality audio gear, when you can bark orders at a $79 Amazon speaker and have a cheap (or free) streaming service give you access to any and damn near every recording ever made? If you could bark at your robot waiter to bring you any type or genre of food from your new virtual refrigerator, would you appreciate a carefully and lovingly prepared meal, or would you be jaded? I think any of us can be jaded.

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Take Time, Enjoy the Art of Music

enjoy musicIt is no secret that I have my issues with vinyl and its so-called resurgence, but that is often misunderstood. My issue with vinyl is when audiophiles sell a nearly 100-year-old audio playback format, with half of the dynamic range of a 30-plus-year-old Compact Disc (HD files are even better), paired with a ton of physical distortion because of the vibrations of the stylus in the grooves of a record. The format isn’t the state of the art for the audiophile hobby. I don’t want to hear a record with 65 dB of dynamic range on a pair of Focal Grand Utopia BEs on a pile of Pass Labs (or more likely Naim) amps when I could be hearing master-tape quality from an HD file or an HD stream that is 24/96 resolution. With that said, perhaps the lesson of vinyl is different? Perhaps it is time to slow down? Perhaps it is time to forget the shuffle button? Perhaps it is time to step back and look at the art of music as just that … art.

And with that perspective, let listening to music as a hobby help address the drama, tempo and anxiety that plagues so many of today’s youth.

You don’t have to spend a fortune on an audio system. You certainly don’t have to spend a fortune on a music collection (the cost of one CD or LP per month gets you everything), but what you might need to do is what my professors suggested – take the time to respect the dynamic window, the craft of recording, and the art of music, because the benefits are deeper than many non-audiophiles understand.

 

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