Ben Goldacre writes the fantastic column Bad Science, in which he takes journalists to task for reporting poorly researched conclusions. I wonder if he’d consider expanding his field to include bad audio technology writing. He might start with Lee Gomes’s article in the Wall Street Journal, Are Technology Limits In MP3s and iPods Ruining Pop Music?
The article rehashes so many clichés and myths, I’m surprised anyone took it seriously. Yet a quick look about the ‘Net shows popular sites like Coolfer and BoingBoing linking the article with no mention of its flaws. And its flaws bear discussing. Given the WSJ’s authority, their argument that MP3s and iPods are ruining pop music could affect thousands of independent artists who depend on the technologies for promotion.
Myths and Clichés
I’ll address a few of the article’s specific flaws before discussing their significance. First, this quote:
Those who work behind-the-mic in the music industry — producers, engineers, mixers and the like — say they increasingly assume their recordings will be heard as MP3s on an iPod music player. That combination is thus becoming the “reference platform” used as a test of how a track should sound.
This blanket statement is misleading because, at most, it’s true in only a handful of cases. Some engineers might use the iPod/Mp3 combination as their only reference platform. But it’s disingenuous to imply the format is becoming “the reference platform.” Remember that virtually all pop music passes the ears of a mixing engineer, a producer, and a mastering engineer, before release. The idea that all three would work with the album through nothing but earbuds is just silly.
But because both compressed music and the iPod’s relatively low-quality earbuds have many limitations, music producers fret that they are engineering music to a technical lowest common denominator. The result, many say, is music that is loud but harsh and flat, and thus not enjoyable for long periods of time.
Forget the unsubstantiated blanket attribution to “many.” This passage not only attempts to rewrite history, it contradicts the article’s premise!
Modern pop music may sound harsh, but it sounded that way before iPods and MP3s. What’s The Story Morning Glory, from 1995, and Californication, from 1999, are generally offered as definitive examples of the loud, harsh, flat sound. (Though check out The Arctic Monkeys’ Whatever People Say I Am, That’s What I’m Not for a great example released in the age of iPods.) The “modern pop sound” has little to do with MP3 compression, or any particular playback device, or even an engineer’s considerations thereof.
In fact, loud pop music sounds just as abrasive when heard on an iPod, the supposed reference platform. Didn’t the article just finish claiming that engineers now mix songs to sound best on the iPod?
The process of boosting volume, though, tends to eliminate a track’s distinct highs and lows. As a result, contemporary pop music has a characteristic sound
Brickwall limiting and mix compression, standard ways to boost volume, certainly affect the sound of a track, but not by “eliminating” distinct high or low frequencies and dynamics. Attenuating, perhaps, but not eliminating. Even the most egregious in-your-face mastering job still yields music. And while Californication may have been truly crushed, it has a beat, great melodies, and will induce ear bleeding with the tweeter cranked.
As for the characteristic sound, the same could be said of Merseybeat, disco, hair metal ballads, or any of the hundreds of genres through which pop has evolved. It’s those characteristic sounds that put the pop in pop music!
Why do I care?
Notwithstanding the title, Mr. Gomes’s article actually strives to make an insidious point, namely that music doesn’t sound as good as it used to, and this is the fault of ignorant recording artists and mixing engineers, and their MP3s.
I take issue with this for the obvious reason: I’m a recording artist and a mixing engineer! But I also feel strongly about his argument because, as I said above, the article rehashes some common myths and falsehoods, and popular acceptance of these myths serves to hurt independent artists.
Average listeners and consumers of music will conclude one of 3 things if they take the article seriously. That:
1) MP3s and iPods are bad.
2) Audio engineers and modern artists are deliberately destroying music, and this is bad.
3) Things aren’t the same as they used to be, and this is also somehow bad.
The first two are ludicrous. The third is subjective, and at best open for debate. But all 3 foster the false notion that the technologies indies now depend on for promotion are, in reality, hurting music.
Are MP3s and iPods bad? MP3 compression and iPod players are tools, and as such are neither good nor bad. They can be misused like all tools, of course, but then the blame for any “bad” they cause should lie with the (mis)user, not the technology.
Assuming you’re an indie artist, consider how you’d respond to a fan demanding you offer WAV files on your web site because MP3s have destroyed music, or a fan who refuses to buy a CD because you obviously didn’t mix it with her iPod in mind. Those are the messages, ridiculous as they appear, that the WSJ addresses to regular, non-tech-savvy readers.
Are audio engineers and modern artists deliberately destroying music? Sure, some might be. Artists, and creative people in general, often act unconventionally. Heck, Ry Cooder mastered his last album with iTunes software, so the idea of producing an album that only sounds good on an iPod isn’t so far fetched.
In fact, counter-intuitive approaches like these are a hallmark of pop! The art and science of pop music production progress exactly because of such deliberate acts of destruction. And the discipline as a whole grows as we keep the techniques that work, and throw out or recycle the rest.
Will we add “mixing an mp3 on an iPod” to our future arsenal? I doubt it, though it’s too early to say for sure. More importantly, though, I wouldn’t never lament the possibility just because I don’t personally like the sound. And I’d certainly never write off the whole format because it doesn’t conform to my understanding of convention.
Things aren’t the same as they used to be: But any discussion of pop culture which ignores the fleeting nature of trends is absurd. Change is a constant, in pop music especially, and anyone who tells you otherwise has bought into the oldest cliché in pop culture: Ageism.
“Kids these days don’t know what REAL rock sounds like.”
“Old rockers wouldn’t know a phat beat if it dropped on their balding heads.”
If either of these describes your opinion, for some perspective dig out a copy of The Ronettes’ Be My Baby. The track is heralded as the perfection of Phil Spector’s Wall Of Sound, but after a good critical listen, I expect you’ll reach the same conclusion as most people: By modern standards, it sounds like crap. Quiet, constricted, thin.
And well it should. Specter mixed the track to sound good in a car, in mono, BROADCAST OVER A.M. RADIO!
This raises two obvious questions. First, if Be My Baby only sounds good through mono car speakers, how did it ever become a hit? Second, if Phil Spector could generate hits with such a narrowly focussed listening audience in mind, who are we to judge modern producers trying the same approach?
I don’t know the answer to the first question, though I suspect hit songs ultimately depend far more on quality writing, performance, and promotion than on production. The second question is rhetorical.
I’ll note, however, that while I dislike Spector’s work, my opinion on the matter is, as Steve Martin pointed out, a bit like dancing about architecture. And despite the impressive resume of an aging producer who declares pop music harsh, flat, and dead, his opinion amounts to the same thing.
Unfortunately, people disregard this, and take him seriously when he assigns blame to MP3s and iPods.
These misconceptions affect listeners’ acceptance of a technology, and by extension, artists’ options for promotion. But the artists themselves, especially those who self-record and produce, also need to be wary of the claims in Mr. Gomes’s article.
Amateurs, in any field, learn from the wisdom of professionals as much as through hands-on experience. Because most people conclude from the WSJ article that compromised sound is a fact of life, some could decide that it’s now pointless to record and mix the best possible track.
Let me repeat a message I’ve shared before: You should always mix for your listeners. But unless you are absolutely certain that all your listeners have iPods, and listen through earbuds, you’d be a fool not to check your mix through other systems before releasing it.
There are few truths so important to an indie artist as “you only get one chance to make a first impression.” Or in the case of musicians, two first impressions: Songwriting and recording both need to impress, at least insofar as the recording must support the song.
So believe, if you wish, that MP3’s quality shortcomings will hide your music’s flaws. But don’t automatically assume that’s the only way your music will ever be heard.
The Wall Street Journal is widely read and respected, and its authors have the power to shape public perception. Even if we allow that Mr. Gomes wrote his article with the best intentions, he still advances myths that do no good lodged in our collective consciousness.
I don’t know if modern pop music has been ruined. I don’t even know if such a thing is possible by any objective standard. But I do know that MP3s and iPods have given independent artists valuable control over how they distribute and promote their music. And I’m certain that by telling people these technologies have had a negative effect, The Wall Street Journal has done a disservice to thousands of indie musicians and engineers.