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September 23, 2008

Filed under: music»recording»production

Unnatural Selections

Buying an MP3 player for the first time has made me think a bit more about the weirdness of contemporary popular music.

I used to rail about MP3, but writing the Audiofile articles for Ars opened my eyes on a lot on the realities of the technology. I've also mellowed out on sound quality when it became obvious that MP3 was a disruptive technology for individual musicians, and as I thought more about the ecological impact of CDs. I'm still not very keen on buying MP3s directly, so I'm trying out the Zune music subscription, and so far I like it quite a bit. I find it's helpful to think about it as a paid replacement for Pandora, one with lots of extra features and offline capability, instead of as a "rental" system.

But as I go through the honeymoon period with the hardware, I'm listening to a lot more music. I'm listening to it a lot more closely, trying to keep my "producer's ear" in practice (as much as it ever was). And when you do that, the surreality of modern recordings is really fascinating.

For example, I was talking to a friend a while back about recording tricks, and I mentioned the standard technique of using a sidechained compressor on drum tracks to make the snare "pop" more or tame boominess. Most people are aware of compression in general terms, as part of the mastering step--the prevalence of Loudness Wars articles makes sure of that. But I don't think most listeners are aware that individual tracks are also compressed, and that the compression can be triggered by other, separate tracks--or that this is, in fact, a special effect that's part of the modern rock sound.

To the average person, this kind of production is transparent, because it sounds "natural" to us now. We think of that as the way music would sound--under great conditions, granted, but still plausible. But when you start to break apart the processing that's done on even stripped-down productions, and you consider how that compares to, say, a person standing in a room with a band, it starts to form a bizarre picture. Take the following list:

  • The guitars and half the drums may be tied together in one "room" or acoustic space by a reverb.
  • Bass and kick-drum usually don't get reverb because it muddies the mix, so they're in another "room," one that's acoustically dead.
  • Vocals get yet another reverb setting, usually, depending on the effect the engineer's looking for.
  • Drum levels are compressed, often separately, in a way that sometimes--but not always--mimics the response of the human ear to loud sounds. Other tracks, however, are not compressed with the same psychoacoustic triggers. It's like some things are "loud" without actually being higher in the mix.
  • Even simple guitar parts are often double- or triple-tracked, and they're recorded with mikes right up next to the cabinet, as if the listener had their ear right in front of the speakers.
  • Simultaneously, the listener is also directly "in front" of the vocalist, who is also standing (in the stereo field) probably in front of the drums.
  • None of these elements cast any kind of acoustic shadow, or block any of the others from being heard.
It's a profoundly unreal set of manipulations, perversely designed to make music that sounds more real to the listener. It's so good, in fact, that it sounds more real than the real thing. Audio pundits often complain about the glossy perfection of music production, but there's another way to think about it, and that is that all of this production is intended to flatter the listener with the powers of omniscience. The reason producers work so hard to eradicate mistakes is that the audience will be able to hear everything in a way that no physical person ever could.

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