I think the hardware end of the playback chain is way ahead of the production end. We’ve got incredible quality DACs from a variety of high-end companies. Just pick your price range and you can get a really good unit for less than $300 dollars like the Meridian Explorer or AudioQuest DragonFly or splurge and get a state-of-the-art unit like my favorite the Benchmark DAC2 for around $2000. The specs on these units are amazing and far exceed the demands that most music productions will ever make on them.
I spoke to John Siau and Rory Rall at Benchmark the other day about the AHB2 Power Amplifier, which has just now being made available (I’m hoping to get one for review soon). This $3000 power amplifier can approach 130 dB according to their website giving it the ability to match the dynamic range of real high-resolution recordings. The power to handle rim shots, orchestral tuttis and instantaneous instrumental or vocal amplitude changes is finally within our reach. Hook a couple of JBL M2 Reference Monitors (if it’s possible…I still have to check on the digital crossovers etc on the Crown amps that are used with the M2s) to the tail end of the new Benchmark AHB2 and the entire playback chain is multiples better than the best sound we’ve ever had. Unfortunately, music production has been moving in the other direction.
If you haven’t downloaded and listened to the examples of the “Mosaic” track by Laurence Juber with the 5 different mastering levels applied, please do so and let me know if you hear the differences. Then think about this…all of the fancy tools for tweaking and compressing dynamics etc. are ALL processes that could be applied at the point of music delivery. They don’t have to be “baked” into the file. Yep, the age of personalizing your music to match your preferences AND your listening environment is upon us…if the labels will go along. And I doubt that they will for reasons that I’ll talk about at another time.
A reader’s comment about mastering and the need to adjust the dynamic range based on the typical listening environment made some very good points. But it was based on the assumption that a mastering engineer has to create a single “one size fits all” version for delivery on a CD or download site. That’s not the case anymore.
Figure 1 – A multiband mastering compressor made by Izotope. This type of signal processor can be automated and built into a file player.
The power of the DSP processors in a music server or SmartPhone could actually perform whatever level of “mastering” you want as part of a realtime process. If you listening at home using HTC Connect in full high-res to connect your HTC M8 HKE Sprint Phone to your high-end system you could choose no compression or light mastering. If you’re on a plane or riding the subway, ramp up the “loudness” wheel on the player app and the dynamics will be tailored to the noisier environment. Who needs a mastering engineer when most of the processing can be stored as metadata and used only when desired or necessary?
Of course, this would mean that the secrets that the mastering folks use while working on the latest hit record would have to be recorded and provided in some sort of standard protocol which the player’s could use to recreate the adjustments in real time. It’s not crazy hard to make the technology work. What’s going to be difficult is changing the minds of the entrenched mastering folks, the artists and the label executives.
They aren’t going to allow it to happen…yet.