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01/01/2004 @ 09:15 PM: The men in the 3-piece suits with cigars hanging out of their mouths sitting in the top offices of the giant record company buildings in L.A., New York, and Nashville (imagine the typical record executive stereotype) need to stop setting the standards by which us recording engineers must follow.

Most of my CD purchases of late are titles I never owned but always wanted. On occasion I'll buy something new, as I did two days ago. And like virtually all of the recent major label CDs I've bought in the last two years, this one sounded like shit. It wasn't the fault of the producer or engineer on the project (I'm a big fan of the work of both), but rather the mastering engineer--and he was probably just following specs laid out by people who don't know better. For the laymen, the mastering engineer is the person who takes the mixes of the recorded songs and finalizes them, applying effects and tweaking each piece so that it sounds its individual best as well as uniform with its album counterparts. More and more record companies are demanding to hear the mastered CD as it will sound on radio or in other compressed broadcasts (which in most cases is of limited quality). The result is massive digital distortion and CDs that are more compressed than ever, removing dynamics and pleasant subtleties. Why exactly do CDs need to be so damn loud, anyway?

When the computer revolution really started to affect the music industry (the mid-to-late 90s), mastering engineers seemed to be exploiting the best of all worlds; a "warmth" was still present in most recordings, yet the dynamic range of digital recording and CDs was truly coming alive. Nowadays I am hearing excessive emphasis on "subs" and low-mids, thin and crunchy highs (especially vocals), and compression that sucks the life out of drums and offers minimal volume range in music that should have it.

I can't help but recall an experience with a studio client almost a couple years back now... The band was being led by their management to a major label recording contract--almost. The potential hit their manager was pushing was, in his words, "too long, too different in the bridge, and the chorus doesn't happen until over a minute into the song." (A "hit" by today's standards is typically about three minutes long, should have its hooky chorus occur about 30 seconds in, and is approximately structured: Verse, Chorus, Verse, Chorus, Bridge, double-Chorus.) The final version of the song my client eventually recorded--with a different producer--reduced it to nothing more than average. That's not to say brevity should be ignored; most young songwriters I encounter need to trim their songs. But that was not the case with this particular song. Why not take a chance and think outside the box just a little? I guarantee it would have shown better results. (That band, by the way, is still seeking a recording contract--and also new management.)

The record industry is regularly complaining that illegal downloads are to blame for the sharp decline in CD sales. I instead offer a different opinion (one which I have heard and read from countless others). Traditionally, in business, when quality goes down and prices go up, sales go down. This is indeed the case with popular music in the early-21st Century. Yes, downloading has likely had an impact on the buying habits of some. Only slightly, though. Create a product--that takes risks, that has had adequate development (A&R), that is of true sonic quality--and see what results are rendered. Some of us are tired of being spoon-fed mediocre crap; we'd like for the "big guys" to assume we have half a brain.

Here ends the rant.

thumbnail 001thumbnail 002thumbnail 003thumbnail 004Photo Chronology: 1996 to Today
thumbnail 005thumbnail 006thumbnail 007thumbnail 008Please feel free to peruse these memories from the AT photo archives.

Andrew Thomas