It might come as surprise but as I pointed out the other day, there is no standard for fidelity or specifications for music like there is for film mixes. Not that the film standard is perfect but at least they’ve made an effort. Of course, it makes sense in the world of film because everyone goes to theaters to see movies and the filmmakers want a uniform experience everywhere. You can thank a number of organizations and companies for injecting some sense into a world of sound that was hit or miss for decades. Dolby, THX, SMPTE, and the MPAA have all contributed in one-way or another. But music is still operating without any standards or certifications.
An individual mixing engineer and producer have no constraints on the final output of their work. The fidelity is theirs to adopt or abandon. The guys at the record companies are looking for uniformity…they want hits…but as long as the record meets the expectations of the band and the A&R people, it’s good to go. That’s what we get.
And then we play it back in the widest possible variety of playback systems. There’s high-end speakers down to ear buds.
If a recording engineer wants to push their mixes 18 dB above reference level, then they can…without consequences. If the resultant sound sucks because of the distortion or the sheer pain that it causes during playback, the people behind it (the label, producer, engineers and artists) can just say, “That’s the way that we like it”. There no recourse. Unfortunately, this situation is the norm rather than the exception.
It’s not unlike the struggle to define high-resolution. If the major labels accept a standard the actually means you and I can count on reasonable fidelity when a project is advertised as HRA, then most of their catalog wouldn’t be available on the new crop of high-resolution digital music sites. Anything and everything goes in the creation or a piece of music. High or Low Resolution doesn’t really matter.
I imagine a certification process that would define the minimum quality of the equipment used to mix and master music projects. Guys like Bob Hodas (room tuning expert to professionals and consumers) would have to come an “pink” each and every studio to ensure that the frequency response was flat from perhaps 20-30 Hz to 40 kHz (for high-resolution projects) or 20 kHz for standard resolution releases. There would be a reference level just like the film guys have 85 dB SPL.
There should be real and measurable dynamic range levels. If a record is hammered and lacks any dynamic range, then it should be identified as such. This is the type of information that will be included in the HRA Database that I’m working on (coming soon, I hope). But why not establish the guidelines for the people doing the work. And then push real hard to get consumers to audition recording with more dynamics and vote with their dollars?
This is the perfect thing for the Producers and Engineers Wing of NARAS (the Grammy People) to get behind. They’ve issued guidelines and papers previously. It makes perfect sense…but they won’t do it. Unfortunately, the Grammy folks are celebrity driven and I’m not talking about the artists. Their membership includes celebrity audio engineers and mixers…talented people that have risen to the top of their craft by delivering the current state of affairs. These very same engineers produce the recordings that you hear on the radio and download from iTunes. They’re content with the status quo.