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August 2019
Enjoy the Music.com Review Magazine

Is The Music BUSINESS Working Against Music Lovers
Do mastering engineers / music suffer at the hands of the lowest common denominator?
Editorial By Steven R. Rochlin

 

Is The Music BUSINESS Working Against Music Lovers

Average Dynamics / Headroom Of Recordings Over The Years

 

  Have been trying my best to make sense of the music BUSINESS, yet when you constantly read about mastering engineers being perplexed you know there's a problem. Furthermore, there's a voice inside of me saying you should, make that must, speak your truth. It's no secret that I read an abundance of industry inside information. This is not just high-end audio, it also pertains to musicians, recording studios, FOH / live performance personal, and mastering engineers (to name a few). What I find very interesting is that those who dare to speak up have many of the same concerns we audiophiles do! Loudness wars, proprietary (perceived money grab) MQA, plus there are many mastering engineers who seem not to be happy with the current status quo. When we combine this with a near total lack of educating the public about the benefits of Hi-Res Music, we're getting exactly what is expected and not what many music lovers desire imho.

 

Loudness Wars
Mastering engineers are not a fan of the ongoing loudness wars. Have not read a single word from a mastering engineer praising today's overly dynamically compressed sound within popular music. Besides the fact that it (dynamically) crushes their expertise in creating an engaging mix, dynamic compression tends to make music sound more homogenized. Instead of individual instruments and vocals having their own beautiful aural space within the mix, by using (too much) compression it tends to make everything seems to sound like a blob of audio sound. Don't blame the recording or mastering engineers, as this high dynamic compression is what the recording BUSINESS labels, and to some extent perhaps, the music streaming services, desire. So if you want to put blame on the loudness wars, look no further than the music BUSINESS for this problem. And then this same BUSINESS wants to be more than background noise, or do they?

 

Is The Music BUSINESS Working Against Music Lovers

 

Sure many of us also enjoy music 'in the background'. As such, this means everything just 'sounds the same' from song to song so as not to 'interrupt' your workflow. It also means you'll keep the background music on without much thought to the matter. Don't know about you, yet I prefer a more 'interactive' listening experience over background droning. This usually entails music that explores the dynamic range, not just ff to fff as many experience within today highly compressed music sound.

 

Is The Music BUSINESS Working Against Music Lovers

 

MQA
From what I have read, many independent audio engineers are not that impressed with MQA. These are from engineers 'in the trenches', and not the guys who live and/or die at the hands of their major record label work (paycheck). Some mastering engineers are saying MQA is just another money grab. Others do not like how this proprietary compression scheme changes the sound of their recording efforts (perhaps due to batch MQA encoding, when MQA in the very beginning stated each version would be approved by ????). Authentication? Seems that some mastering engineers might not be allowed, or are not privy to, personally authenticating final MQA files. And then there's some talk of MQA 2.0 where they reduced the noise during encoding or some such. It begs the question will earlier MQA files with this offending noise be re-encoded with MQA 2.0.

Of course those in the know see the play here, and imho it is not a positive thing yet am holding steady that Big Money Grab wins so MQA will be the format winner over longstanding proven lossless FLAC and the like. Apps such as that from Qobuz, a streaming music service that provides true lossless digital music, can easily be set to curtail bandwidth use at the choice of the music consumer via settings option. This provides music lovers a choice in sound quality from mp3 and the old 1980's CD standard of 16-bit/44.1kHz to upwards of lossless 24-bit/192kHz.

Yet again, am betting MQA may be around for some time as there's some seriously juicy money to be made. Key players have an interest in MQA (read into that as you so choose). So screw you music lovers to the future of decades old lossless 24-bit/192kHz sound quality, as some BUSINESS entities feel that you can't 'handle' that ol' lossless stuff bandwidth.

So yes, MQA is a solution seeking a problem. And yes, we music lovers may have to endure yet another proprietary compression scheme so that BUSINESS types can make (more) money. Meanwhile sound quality goes the way the music BUSINESS wants it to over musical artists' choice. How about working on 32-bit/384kHz lossless instead, just as video is going from 4k to 8k. For you smart readers out there, check out the bandwidth needed for 4k... and 8k. For 24-bit/96kHz, current Wi-Fi is fine as is 4G, yet when we go to 5G and Wi-Fi 6's massive bandwidth.... As an FYI, Wi-Fi is the primary medium for global Internet traffic, as more than 80% of traffic on the average smartphone is transferred via Wi-Fi.

 

Is The Music BUSINESS Working Against Music Lovers

 

Mastering Engineers
The role of the mastering engineer is changing, or is it? In the old days, a mastering engineer may also be the person who not only masters the music album, they could also be the same person who, for example, cuts the vinyl too. Mastering engineers and their clients also 'approved' various versions of said recording in concert with experienced record label employees. Today, it seems that mastering engineers are experiencing software substitutes. What I mean by that is instead of using a mastering engineer, there is software that may allow a lesser experienced / qualified person to 'master' their music. How this hooks into the MQA discussion above is something only you can decide.

Am not pointing fingers, ok maybe I am, yet DAW plugins and the like have forever changed the music BUSINESS. How capable do you feel commercially available software packages are via automation (batch) processing the wide variety of sound files versus hiring an experienced mastering engineer (human) to master the music?

 

Is The Music BUSINESS Working Against Music Lovers

 

Bottom Line
Seems to me the music BUSINESS is doing everything they can to remove the human factor in producing music. In some ways it is obvious to some within the industry, as this removal of humans eliminates costs while maximizing profits and payouts for the BUSINESS. Certain popular music of today (circa 2019) features a live performing singer, perhaps some pitch correction and vocoder tricks of course, to then record their voice to a backing track that is typically computer-based electric programming (for many pop recordings). Some could argue that, "Hey, it's what the kids want and we're here to give them what they are asking for." Or, as some might say "If it aint broke then don't fix it." The problem is my friends, it is broken imho.

Many truly talented musicians, recording and mastering engineers are not that impressed with today's BUSINESS side of the music industry. They are hearing their incredible efforts and love of music distilled down to a 'lowest common denominator'.

 

Food For Thought
Imagine if the band Queen only kept doing the same types of songs that worked on their previous album. What if the music BUSINESS crushed the dynamics of their songs too? Think about where Queen as a band would be today if they just kept doing yet another album that sounds like their previous one, and the one before that... while dynamics were crushed to a single-digital dB. For those in the music BUSINESS reading this, please stop with the droning loudness wars, please hire quality mastering engineers, and please stop 'aurally blindly' batch processing to lossy compress files. We don't need solutions looking for problems; we have real problems for many years you music BUSINESS types still have not chosen to fix.

Well Steven, you say, "if it aint broke don't fix it". That only works for lazy people without creative thought-process imho. Because it is hard for me to fathom that someone within the music BUSINESS doesn't truly care about music. It's just another SKU in your BUSINESS spreadsheet cycle and all that, right? Of course if you as an contracted employee of the music BUSINESS do not follow along, you may lose your job. Does that truly give someone who loves music and wants to bring something inspiring to the table a true choice in creatively achieving the best experience for the listener?

Personally, I highly admire and respect the many mastering engineers who are trying their very best to 'swim' within today's scope of the BUSINESS side of the industry. They seek to achieve the very best final mix and sound quality we hear in commercial music recordings. Yet if these mastering engineers find their efforts thwarted by the BUSINESS side of the music industry, how much longer until talented mastering engineers simply give up and seek other rewarding endeavors.

 

A Last Gripe
How much does the music BUSINESS value their very best product? Judging by the master tape fire fiasco in California that caused permanent damage to many great recordings, and then trying to hide the fact for many years... But hey, they have some CDs and vinyl LPs they can use as new 'master tapes', right? So let's ask ourselves this, what will the future of music be with high dynamic compression, lossy proprietary compressed digital sound files, etc? Am not sure I want to live in such an aurally crippled world, would you?

Thank goodness there are mastering engineers who are speaking out, and audiophiles who easily hear the difference and thus push the envelope of what is truly possible. Sadly, it seems to me that the past few generations of popular music aurally trains people to accept ever-lower sound quality standards. Eventually it all just becomes background noise.

 

 

How can we break out of this downward spiral by the music BUSINESS to better benefit and engage music lovers? Of course we're all still waiting for the BUSINESS to actually promote Hi-Res Music in a meaningful way. For now, few people truly know about higher quality music other than going from mp3 to vinyl LP, so we're basically waiting to see if / when a true effort by the major recording labels to promote Hi-Res Audio / Music. Perhaps this will happen when Apple goes Hi-Res?

 

 

As always, in the end what really matters is that you...

 

Enjoy the Music,

Steven R. Rochlin

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

     
 

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