We'll Get It Wrong In The Mix

I wrote this article, originally published in Music Connection magazine, back in 1985 after becoming increasingly disgusted with and alarmed by the deteriorating sonic quality of new releases from familiar artists. Little did I realize then that 1985 was a 'golden age' of good sound compared to what most pop and rock recordings sound like in 2008! I remain grateful to editor Bud Scoppa for giving me the platform to spout a then unpopular view in a magazine read by Los Angeles engineers, artists and music business executives.

When The Absolute Sound's Harry Pearson announced he was looking for a new popular music editor, I applied for the job by sending him this article. He liked it enough to give me the job. That gave me an ideal platform from which to advocate saving the vinyl record and extolling its unique set of virtues, sonic and otherwise.

Watching the LP section at the huge Tower Records on Sunset shrink by the week, never did I imagine that in 2008 the LP would be back and Tower would be gone. —Michael Fremer, 1/15/08

The sound on Prince's new album is so bad, the music seems to be coming from deep inside a gigantic nasal passage which has been exiled to the two-dimensional space heretofore reserved for criminals on the planet Krypton. [Rococo metaphor, Fremer—Ed.] Prince himself sounds like a massive head cold had prevented him from attending the recording session, so he phoned his vocals in.

Cymbals, bells, drums and other percussive instruments have no 'air' surrounding them. They've devoid of the rich overtones one would hear live. And they seem to filter through a glaze of high frequency 'haze' that envelops everything in the upper octaves.

Prince appears to be a man who does and gets what he wants. Why he wants his fans to experience the aural equivalent of staring into a pair of Boeing 747 landing lights is beyond me. (But then, so is showing up at the Academy Awards looking like the Queen of Sheba.)

It's unfair to single out Prince, though, because the latest releases from UB40, Bryan Ferry, Sting, XTC, Don Henley, the Talking Heads, Bob Dylan, Miles Davis, Jules Shear, and many other artists all suffer from similar sonic ills. Previous efforts, some a decade or more old, simply sound more like music.

The newer releases tend to be unbearably bright, with instruments not maintaining any natural sense of timbre. Everything seems to be coming from a two-dimensional curtain hung directly between the speakers. Instruments seem to be sticking out of small individual boxes like the comedians on the set of the old Laugh In TV show.

For music lovers, it's not very funny. Why has the sound slipped so badly? For one thing, despite the current 'high tech' revolution in the recording studio—the automated mixing consoles, the digital recorders, the processors and the like—recorded music is more an art than a science and obviously too many of today's engineers and mixdown artists want to paint with a dayglo palette on a surface of black velvet.

Styles of sound come and go as arbitrarily and capriciously as high fashion. In the late Fifties, with the advent of stereo, engineers went for maximum separation, placing instruments far left, far right, and in the 'phantom' center channel. Today's mixes try to give a more realistic spread through the soundfield. The early stereo mixes sounded foolish by comparison.

What seems to be 'in' this audio-fashion season are bleach-white, ice-cold, screaming high frequencies, tacked onto the tops of voices, acoustic guitars, cymbals, high hats and every other instrument unfortunate enough to radiate energy in the upper octaves. The result? Any sense of the chest cavity's resonance gets lost. Indeed, the larynx is transformed from vibrating flaps of skin to strips of aluminum foil.

Acoustic guitars, as recorded today, are totally percussive instruments—six strings in space struck with a pick—the resulting 'ticking' sound being recorded, while the offending resonant wooden body, with its troublesome harmonic overtones, is sonically stripped away and discarded. Compared to George Martin's work with the Beatles, most of today's attempts to record the acoustic guitar are pathetic.

Below the upper-octave tizz, in today's sonic fashion, the all important midrange— where most of the music occurs and the area where human hearing is most sensitive— gets totally 'sucked out,' revealing 'tight bass' at the bottom. The sound bears no resemblance to the stringed instrument or vibrating instrument that produced it; it's just 'tight bass.' You get 'higher highs' and 'lower lows' today but nothing that remotely resembles the sound of the instrument that generated those frequencies.

Judging by many of today's instruments, most younger engineers have suffered serious upper-octave hearing losses—either from live concerts or from overly loud mixing sessions —so they 'dial in' what they no longer hear correctly'and those of us who have protected our ears, meanwhile, suffer. Listen to Jules Shear's latest EMI release. Sweet songs totally sabotaged by a production team that must be verging on total deafness.

Many of today's young engineers have never really heard live, unamplified music. It's not uncommon for an engineer to 'mike' a drum kit and then without ever listening to it live, run into the control room to hear what it sounds like through the monitors—his goal not being to reproduce the sound of the drum kit, but rather to emulate the 'drum sound' achieved by a fellow engineer whose work he admires. In his effort at one-upsmanship, he goes one step brighter or 'crisper.' The current high-frequency 'inflation' has reached ludicrous heights.

Some of today's engineers seem to feel that if you've got the option of processing a track, do it! And do it so the processor itself is audible. Sort of like people who get the very distinctive 'Dr. Diamond' nose job. The attitude is, what good is it if people can't tell you've had one? So today's recordings are limited, compressed, gated, and equalized until there's hardly a natural sound left.

Then there's the biggest hype job of the Eighties—digital recording and mixdown. [We were wondering when you'd get to this part, Fremer. —Ed.]. Almost everything said about it in the press is either a ridiculous simplification or a downright lie. Digital mixdown, even of analog recordings, is the way to go (we're told), so that subsequent generations needed to master cassettes, compact discs, and record stampers won't lose quality. This, of course, begs the question of whether the initial digital processing degraded the master tape. One record that doesn't beg the question (Test 1 Digital: How Accurate? on Wilson Audio) puts a 30 i.p.s. half-inch two-track analog master tape directly on vinyl on Side One, and through a Soundstream digital processor/recorder on Side Two. The Soundstream unit 'samples' the music 50,000 times a second versus the lower industry standard of 44,100 times a second, so if the Soundstream system degrades the signal, the standardized digital processor will be even worse.

Comparing the two sides reveals that the digital processor does indeed degrade the master. Compared to the unprocessed Side One, Side Two loses all sense of three-dimensional space and 'air: it's blurred and softened in the midrange and bright on top. You can hear the same 'sonic signature' on any digitally mastered analog recording. Check out Tears for Fears' The Hurting. Better yet, copare a regular Japanese pressing of Cyndi Lauper's Girls Just Want to Have Fun album with extra-cost Japanese digitally remastered copy. On a high-resolution system, the digital version is harsh, flat, and artificial-sounding.

The trend now is to go all-digital. Does it sound better than analog? That's a value judgment. Does it sound different? Yes! You can tell an analog recording, with all its problems, instantly. The bass will be rolled off, you may hear hiss, there are a variety of distortions cauase by the older system as well, but there are many positive attributes, too. There's a wonderful sense of spaciousness and three-dimensionality. On a good playback system, the soundfield extends to the left and right of the speakers and there is great front-to-back depth on a good recording. Cymbals and other percussive instruments have all the sweetness of the real thing (as long as the engineer hasn't fallen into the high-frequency race).

You can also tell a digital recording with all its problems instantly. There is no three-dimensionality. Everything seems to come from a cluttered space an inch in front of the speakers. It's clinical, hard, and glary. It's suffocatingly dry. On the other hand, there's no background hiss, and there is a definition in the bass that analog recording simply can't capture.

No matter the hype, digital recording is far from perfect. And it is not necessarily superior to analog. It's just different. There's a trade-off involved. Every time a digital problem is exposed, the digital proponents (manufacturers of digital recorders, studio owners who have sunk a fortuneinto the stuff, and record companies cashing in on the hype) blame 'old analog recording techniques' and the like, but the proof is in the listening.

Newer digital releases by artists like Stevie Wonder (Hotter than July), Paul McCartney (Tug of War), Bryan Ferry (Boys and Girls), Bob Dylan (Infidels), XTC (Big Express), and the Talking Heads (Little Creatures) all share the aforementioned digital negatives to varying degrees. Compared to previous analog recordings, these new digital releases are sonic disasters. Compare Avalon to Boys and Girls. Same engineering team, mostly the same studios, yet Bryan Ferry's voice has neverbeen as poorly recorded as on Boys and Girls, and the problems are the inherent problems of digital recording: thin, gritty, metallic, and almost unlistenable (even for a fan of 13 years).

In fairness to digital recording, it should be noted that many newer analog recordings, like UB40's Geffery Morgan, are also hard, bright, and less than three-dimensional, probably due to the engineering choices described earlier on, and, sadly, partly due to the desire on the part of some analog studios to sound 'just as good' as the newer digitally equipped ones.

Regardless of recording technique—analog or digital—music should be served by technology, not vice-versa. When a sonic standard is accepted because because of the technology involved instead of how it serves the music, the cause—and it is a cause—of accurately recording music suffers.

Today's unnaturally bright, harsh, two-dimensional over-processed recordings are a quantum leap backward in the history of recorded sound. It's time for the current generation of engineers and producers to take a step back from what they are doing and do some serious listening to music—live and recorded—to see where we've come and where we're going.And then—go back to producing musical-sounding recordings: analog, digital or whatever the future brings.

Oh yeah: Records still sound much better than Compact Discs'played on the best CD players (they don't all sound the same either). In fact, if any'reader takes issue with that, I'd be delighted to stage a sonic showdown. May the best format win!