The sorry state of audio production

A few weeks ago I went to see a digital remastered version of the old Ealing comedy film Whisky Galore. The problem with the remaster became immediately apparent. The music accompanying the film titles was loud like a Cillit Bang commercial. The reason for this was over use of compression on the soundtrack. It evens out the mix bringing every component to the same level so there is no ‘natural’ ebb and flow in the volume and it all sounds a lot harsher to the human ear. Advertisements do it deliberately to create soundtracks which involuntarily arrest the attention of an audience; I suspect that on the Whisky Galore sound track it was used without the same level of intent.

Part of the problem with this is technological in nature. Digital equipment in general reduces noise put on recordings, but also has a lower dynamic range (how low and high a frequency it can convey to the listener). By the time that it reaches the end user, it is likely to be listened to through the limited capabilities of Apple iPod/iPhone earbuds. The experience is sufficiently poor that there is a healthy market in headphones to try and compensate like Beats by Dr. Dre.

By comparison, good-quality analogue electronics equipment is expensive to purchase and maintain in tip-top condition. Tape heads need aligning, variable components need fine tuning. This means that you had products that were over-engineered to assure satisfactory performance and product designs that oozed quality.
Revox B77 MK II
Even the analogue engineering involved in the products is as much an art as a science.  Anologue engineers would leave college and then start their real education working alongside more senior professionals in industry.

Sound engineers at recording studios had a similar time-served career; starting off as runners and tape operators working under a more experienced engineer. People I knew who recorded records talked about looking for a recording studio with old equipment and an engineer who knew how to use it (preferably with a rock music background, which was considered more suitable for the kind of electronic music they produced). Pretty much the main canon of house music was created using equipment with an analogue audio stage – sometimes misusing the equipment to get distinctive sounds.

Now  techniques and their use which were learned over time in a contextual environment have become a clickable option on audio software. The software tries to compensate for the lack of physical interaction that it offers the engineer with faux analogue controls (look at the volume bar on your iTunes Player and see how it apes late-1970s hi-fi amplifiers.)

All of this technology helped democratise sound engineering from bedroom studios to podcasters, but it has also meant that you have engineers which don’t exercise discretion about how they use effects; for instance think about the way Antares Auto-Tune was used from the late 1990s with Cher’s I Believe through to T-Pain and the cast of Glee.