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March 2, 2008

Filed under: music»recording»production

Why Records DO Sound All the Same

There's a little-watched video on Maroon Five's YouTube channel which documents the torturous, tedious process of crafting an instantly forgettable mainstream radio hit. It's fourteen minutes of elegantly dishevelled chaps sitting in leather sofas, playing $15,000 vintage guitars next to $200,000 studio consoles, staring at notepads and endlessly discussing how little they like the track (called Makes Me Wonder), and how it doesn't have a chorus. Even edited down, the tedium is mind-boggling as they play the same lame riff over and over and over again. At one point, singer Adam Levine says: "I'm sick of trying to engineer songs to be hits." But that's exactly he proceeds to do.

...from Tom "Music Thing" Bramwell's article in Word Magazine.

Every year someone writes an article along these lines--between digital technology, aggressive mastering, and the monolithic industry control of radio, they say, music's all shot to hell and we're all going to die. I mean no disrespect to Tom, who (as always in these articles) raises a lot of points I happen to agree with. But you're preaching to the choir, friends.

A lot of this is just disguised fervor for the good old days of analog, when making music was hard and expensive. That can be safely discounted. For the rest, which basically laments that "commercial" sound, what's there to say? I personally doubt that cheap earbuds are going to end the trend, and frankly high-def sound formats show no sign of taking off. Compression and pop mastering are here to stay.

But look at it this way: The Shins made Chutes Too Narrow in 2003, and no-one would call that a "polished"-sounding record. After Garden State, everyone may well be sick of the album, but the point remains that people are still making music without a stereotypical studio sound. I can name three or four without even trying hard. They're not on the radio, though, and they're not going to be.

In the meantime, berating the music that is on the radio when it's commercial-sounding is a lot like burning yourself on the stove and then getting angry at it for being hot. What did you expect? That's what it's for. If you don't like it, quit sticking your hands in the flames.

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