The Music Man Behind The Curtain

These songs are by exactly the same band, but something is very different. It isn’t anything in their style that changed, but the sound on the older song just sounds…hollow. Pardon me if I failed at coming up with an adjective to describe what a very unmixed album sounds like on mediocre recording equipment.

There is a difference, while hardcore fans will argue the older song sounds more “true,” the newer song sounds more “clear.” Some people honestly prefer the grittiness of the under-produced sound and some prefer the more articulate and full sound of well-produced tracks.

I can’t stand listening to music with low production quality.

As an entitled, spoiled American citizen, I have high expectations for my music. It should sound clean, without infringing on the artists creativity. I can blame my society for this sense of entitlement, or I can embrace it.

The truth is, the technology exists to make recorded music sound better. By better, I mean to make it sound the way the artist intended without the characteristics of the recording equipment altering the harmonic balance. Very expensive audio equipment can let you have this effect without as much post-record mixing, but for lesser known groups without a big record label, they will probably be recording with less than preferred equipment. To see the difference that the hardware really makes, listen to the older song again, then listen to the one from last year.  I believe that Converge uses similar mixing techniques (very little pitch correction and quantization) throughout the years, but as they have become more highly acclaimed they have grown economically, and technology has advanced, therefore they recorded on better equipment. The result is Converge, the way they always wanted to sound.

While in a genre like metal, where the fans are more passionate and willing to ignore flaws in their music, in popular music the production quality is even more important. The leading (economically) artists of today have great voices (mostly), yet  backtracks use harmonizing backup singers, pitch correction, and electronic instruments, leaving nothing in the hands of the audio hardware or the artist themselves. The producer takes the recorded voices/instruments and then essentially builds the entire song himself in computer software. The only thing you hear that is the artists creation is their voice. Some artists got famous for their ability to do this (Daft Punk, Kanye) without being all that talented or creative musically.

Kanye is a clever rapper and a good producer, but doesn’t play instruments or sing. Just wanted to clarify because I know there are a lot of die-hard Kanye fans, I hate him because he is a moron not because his music is awful.

Those of us who are musically retarded don’t care if you are not as privileged and don’t have access to nice audio equipment, we don’t care if your recording engineer went to community college, to our untrained ears all we know is it sounds good or it sounds bad. Big producers have to take the part of the music that are easiest to understand – the beat and the vocals – and make them stand out from the track so they are noticed the most. That is how you mix music that you need musically retarded people to like, give the listener as few things to focus on at one time as possible so their brains can process the information being presented in the sound. It is unfulfilling harmonically and rhythmically bland, but it does play on the strengths of the music (usually only the artists voice) and the demands of the common listener (simple beat definition, singable melodies and lyrics).

I look to electronic music producers for examples of good mixing. These artists are not known for their performing talent or musical knowledge, but instead their ability to create music with a computer. There is a huge difference between recording mixing and electronic mixing, each requires a different set of skills, but I think the recording guys could learn a thing or two from the electronic guys.

A lot of people think electronic music producers are garbage because they don’t play instruments or have to know anything about music theory to do what they do. Sure, they don’t, but it is clear this guy knows something. Every single track is edited and filtered to sound exactly the way he wants, which is probably upwards of 50 different tracks. Every minute sound is perfectly balanced with the melody, and different tracks are the focal point at different times in the song. Even though there are no instruments being played, lots of different sounds work together to give the song depth. Its 100% predictable, it’s a magic 4 chord song, the lyrics are cliché and uninspired, but despite this the song is still interesting because of the incredible attention to detail.  Andrew Rayel is a great producer, regardless of how uncreative his music may be.

The man behind the curtain is as integral to music as the person playing the instrument. When you make an argument that ‘production quality’ is cheating or dishonest (pitch correction, quantization, harmonizing, vocal filters etc.), you’re not wrong, you’re just an asshole. The fact is there is no way around post-mixing recorded music if it is going to be distributed digitally. Even the simple task of combining the recorded tracks onto a single MP3 is mixing. That being said, I totally understand where you are coming from…

This is an example of a song that is absolutely over-produced. Aside from the song just being bad overall, the filters/time delay effects on the vocals are gimmicky and distracting. The synthesizer is mixed at a level that covers the harmonics of the guitars.  Why even bother having a real drummer when the main rhythm is electronically generated? This style of production is simply to have a gimmick so they can catch your attention, not to play off the strengths of the performers recorded tracks. Perhaps there is a conflict of creative interest between the band and their producer and this is the result.

I’ll end this post with a look at how production quality has evolved throughout the decades. Nothing will ever take away what the older artists contributed to the world of music, but I can’t help but imagine what it would have sounded like if they had been recorded and produced today. Usually I tell you to listen more carefully, but this time listen to the sound as a whole as it evolves with technology.

Pop:

70’s

80’s

90’s

now

Metal:

70’s

80’s

90’s

now

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