Yesterday afternoon, I had a visitor to the studio. Rory and I have been friends for a very long time. He’s a musician, producer, consultant, licensing expert, and closely associated with the work that DTS Entertainment did years ago when the DVD-Audio format came out. Rory was involved in the remixing of numerous DTS Entertainment releases including “Night at the Opera” from Queen, probably the biggest production done for the new DVD-Audio format back in 2000. He’s still working with DTS as they begin to assemble and promote programming for the Headphones X technology. I wanted him to hear some of my surround music mixes.
He and I chatted about a variety of topics while we waited for his associate to show up. Topic included High-Resolution Audio, surround mixing, headphones, and the increase in recordings that have huge distortion issues. I know it’s not a new topic but he shared some perspectives that I found amazing…and not in a good way.
While I was driving to the university on Tuesday, the local country music station was featuring the new release by Florida Georgia Line called “Anything Goes”. The album was produced by Joey Moi (Nickelback, Jake Owen) and released on Republic Records. The title is actually pretty telling in terms of the fidelity of this recording. Rory was able to shed some like on the dynamics and processing that was used on this new album. And the news wasn’t good.
He told me that the mixing engineer told the assistant engineer at the mixing studio to “put tape over the VU meters”. Apparently, the mixer wasn’t interested in any of the science or engineering behind making recordings, he’s all about the “feel” and the “sound” that he magically creates. And in this case the sound is 18 dB over reference level, flat as a pancake, and distorted beyond recognition. Am I surprised? No. The loudness wars still rule the airwaves. The only qualifier that counts is whether you have the loudest record. The actual quality of the sound doesn’t matter.
This parallels the debacle associated with Metallica’s “Death Magnetic” release, a project that HRA panelist/engineer Andrew Scheps defended during the AES panel. The album was heavily criticized for having excessive distortion (Andrew put the level at +8 dB over the reference standard) using a process called peak limiting, which can smash any transient into submission resulting a uniform dynamic level throughout the album. It’s a common practice in pop/rock music and has even found its way into jazz productions. According to a Wiki article, “MusicRadar and Rolling Stone attribute a quote to the album’s mastering engineer Ted Jensen in which he claims that ‘mixes were already brick-walled before they arrived’ for mastering.”
So the process of reducing dynamics has drifted upstream and is a standard part of the mixing process. Sure dynamic processors can be used creatively…but this new approach is quite troubling.
The label and production team defended the album’s sound and the album received 5 Grammy nominations.
The commercial music business has absolutely not interest in making recordings with great fidelity. They are content to release recordings with excessive distortion, flat dynamics, pinched frequency response, and buried vocals.
This situation is not going to go away anytime soon. Just when you hoped the “loudness wars” were waning…we get the “benefits” of too much peak limiting, poor level judgment, and deaf engineers crippled by the demands of the managers and labels. In a world full of technology that holds so much sonic potential, it’s unfortunate that we’re forced to accept what the labels deem is sonically right. Whoever asked that tape be put on the VU meters should be forced to listen to their work product…that might change their approach.