Why Do We Always Compromise Quality In the Name of Convenience?

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The following guest post comes from Brian M. Nohe, President of SMS Audio. 

Consumers want their music whenever, wherever and the digital age has given us the power to make that happen.  Consequently, digital audio keeps the music industry in a constant state of flux in which consumers have accepted trading sound to fulfill the now factor.

Every audio format, from analog to digital, has challenges with playing back music to be enjoyed again and again exactly as it was originally laid down inside the recording studio.  From scratches and hissing to skips and compression, people associate each format with some level of distortion of the music’s true original sound.

When audio began going the way of digital in the early 1980’s, it brought a wave of convenience to the consumer. However, that convenience came at a compromise.

Music lovers have unwittingly suffered a loss in the quality of the experience in exchange for this convenience.

Audio mastering is the art of creating a master recording from which copies can be made to bring music to market.  Knowing that likely everything you hear is a copy and often times a copy of a copy must make you curious about that original recording, right? If not, why go see your favorite band perform live?  That’s the promise of audio mastering – the intended experience.

Digitization of Sound

The analog-to-digital conversion did wonders for removing the grit – the noise or distortion associated with analog circuitry and devices – and has made it possible for audio to be easily stored, transmitted and, most recently, streamed.  While digital is the obvious choice for storage, it is a poor option for signal processing – converting the physical properties of sound into a programmed sequence of numbers.  With the advent of HD and rich delivery systems, the digital age also presents more choices.  Still, consumer demand currently reinforces convenience as a prime focus in the course of audio development.  It’s not necessarily a battle of quantity versus quality, but one of accessibility.

In this digital world, we have a plethora of devices and delivery methods that introduce a new slew of fragmenting sound culprits. Ever notice how music is delivered differently whether you’re listening from your smartphone, home audio system or streaming over the Internet or via Bluetooth? Or how about hearing the difference in a song you’ve downloaded after hearing it on the radio?  Adjusting your receiver or audio settings doesn’t always do the trick.  The varieties of devices now in market also present a variety of limitations and audio processing.

Music Matters : Quality + Convenience

This is not a new problem. As far back as the 1950’s, mastering engineers began to degrade music quality to prioritize marketability by mastering for maximum volume.  Music labels and producers assumed that the louder the music, the better, or the more likely it will be played and enjoyed by the listener.  Unfortunately, little has changed this perspective and this practice continues today.

People care about the music they love and they can have both: quality and convenience.  Even Apple seems to agree, rolling out its “Mastered for iTunes” program this year to help insure that artists and sound engineers release the music they intended.

Though as formats progress, mastering still depends on the accuracy of delivery – speakers or headphones and the listening environment.  Speakers can aim to deliver accurate sound and be developed for specific types of environments, such as outdoor listening or on-the-go.  Quality is then heavily dependent on many factors to include developing drivers and product forms that enhance the replication of the original recording. Our music industry’s record producers are the master ears that certify what is quality sound.

What bothers me about the challenges brought on by the digital age is that so many artists are fighting the access battle, when their attention should really be on the fight for quality.  Understandably, access impacts royalty fees, but how does a compromise in sound quality impact the artist?  This is still a mostly untapped dimension in digital audio and the artist and listener have much to gain by turning focus to the experience.

When technology and the industry align on this endeavor, they will redefine musical integrity with true-to-life sound.


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Image snapped by The Impulsive Buy (theimpulsivebuy.com), licensed under Attribution-ShareAlike 2.0 Generic (CC BY-SA 2.0).  Formatted while listening to the Bloody Beetroots. 

18 Responses

  1. Sean Beavan

    I am a fairly accomplished producer and mix engineer having worked with Nine Inch Nails, Marilyn Manson, No Doubt, Thrice, A Perfect Circle, Churchill, The Presets, Puscifer, Slayer etc.

    This article is surprising in the amount of incorrect or at least technically incomplete information; for example the digital to analog conversion did nothing to remove “the grit” from analog circuitry. If you digitally record an instrument running through analog circuitry you will record all the harmonic content of the instrument running through that circuitry. Digital recording helped to lower the noise floor because the digital format didn’t add noise like tape does during the output stage in the analog recording process. Converting analog tape 1/2 inch masters to digital compact discs eliminated the mechanical noises (scratches and pops) associated with vinyl records (grooves and needles make noises as well as play the intended music). This is the “grit” i assume he was talking about.

    As far as the mastering process goes it was not originally intended to “degrade” the original recording but to enhance it by evening out (not making it super loud) the volumes and eq of the songs (one song might be a little quiet. One song might be a little low end light, one song might be a little harsh or dull compared to the others). It was intended to make listening to an album more enjoyable and to make it apper to be a more cohesive whole.

    Mastering also helped to make sure the record as a whole fit in with other records of its genre o that when a song was played next to another song by a different artist it wouldn’t seem too dull or quiet. Usually those tweaks were subtle a half a db of eq here or there and volume tweaks with compression. Finally the mastering engineer was responsible for applying an eq curve over the whole record that prepared it for transfer to vinyl wherein the low end was cut so that the lathe would be able to cut small enough grooves to not throw the needle off the record when the bass or kick drum played (being analog the low end makes bigger deeper grooves than high end and too much makes the needle jump causing skips). When you played that record back on your turntable at home the signal traveled through the needle (mechanical vibration) which was converted to an analog electrical impulse which was sent through an eq circuit that reversed the original eq that was applied when the vinyl was cut. This eq added the low end back in so you could hear all the low end. That was the old mastering process. The advent of the “loudness wars” didn’t come into existence until much later in the digital age (mainly thanks to shuffle play on iTunes) when people started to notice that human beings think that louder sounds better and so bands and engineers sought out ways to make their records louder than the last guy. If your song comes on after a louder song the listener automatically feel that it is “weaker” sonically. This is a psychacoustic effect that has something to do with how humans perceive things. If they would just turn the weaker song up to the same decible level they would feel that the song is of equal quality (if they were both mixed well)

    But in shuffle play most people don’t do that, they just skip the “weaker” song, hence we have gotten to the point of actually distorting the original mixes to get maximum volume so that people will believe it sounds better. So in this case the digital era has led to intentionally degrading (enhancing?) The intended mix to achieve the short term goal of a stronger initial perception. Album listening didn’t have this consequence because the artist new the sequence of the songs the listener was going to hear and could maintain appropriate volumes and the concern was only the quality of the mixes.

    The beauty of the digital format is that subsequent copies degrade sonically very little and the convenience of playback without mechanical noise or skipping is so pleasing – remember 8 track or cassette? Hissing wooshing and fading out in the middle of the song to click over to the next track. Uuugh. It is also a wonder to be able to carry your entire musical library on your phone instead of a bumch of CDs cluttering up you front seat. No wonder people will trade a small amount of quality for convenience. Not really rocket science.

    Digital is an astoundingly terrible format for storage however contrary to the articles assertion. Properly recorded an analog tape recording will last for over thirty years. Digital files have a tendency to degrade after 5 years or less. I myself have played back mixes on my hard drives that were only 3 or 4 years old and have had the audio glitch or even start playing part of another file. The file pointers have a tendancy to corrupt (especially pc files in my experience). Unless you back up your hard drives at least every few years you are taking real risks. My Apple hard drives have had way less problems but it is only a matter of time and as formats change so quickly you may find your files backed up on an unsupported format in a few years time (remember Jazz and Zipp drives?)

    I do agree that quality hopefully will become something the consumer will be willing to pay for at some point. Maybe someone could make a portable playback device with a pristine audio circuit and not just the cheapest transistors know to man (Apple). What continues to be an important aspect of perceived quality is the strength of a great melody, an entertaining and sonically interesting arrangement and a mix that brings it all to life with space and dimension and clarity. The format is only a small part of that equation.

      • Jeff Robinson

        Paul, the iTunes concept is ridiculous. Square waves are square waves. It’s probably the concept of ‘anti-limiting’ the audio or achieving ‘anti-peak pressure’. No way in hell to make that work unless it seriously further destroys the audio. But that could be the point…

      • Sean Beavan

        Hey Paul, I enjoy the articles and am glad someone is doing what you are. The iTunes effort to end the “loudness wars” seems to me more about the technical issues that radio stations have dealt with forever. Different songs can be of equal levels on a decibel meter but one is apparently louder than the other. This has to do with the harmonic content of the tracks, instrumentation and emphasis on sub frequencies or midrange frequenies or high range frequencies. The human ear responds in a bell curve heavily weighted towards the frequencies which allow for clarity in speech ( @1 to 5khz). Add to that the idea that our brains don’t see and hear things as they actually are but how we perceive them or what we subconciously think of as important. The brain primarily acts as a filter ignoring the things that probably aren’t that important and concentrating on what probably is. Makes sense in the evolutionary scheme of things.
        Anyway, iTunes is just dealing with the fact that people are complaining that while listening to their streaming radio some songs seem quiet and some seem loud. If you play a song from the 80s it was mastered much quieter than the super saturated masters of today but even song to song volumes vary by small degrees. Radio stations deal with this by processing the out going signal with a hard limiter and various methods of equalization to help keep bass levels consistent as well and there is always an engineer who will listen and raise the level a bit or lower it to respond as a listener would in case the variation wasn’t fixed enough by the processing. Apple doesn’t want to hire humans to do this and so is demanding that all musicians and engineers and producers adopt their standards. It makes some sense because if the steams are customed tailored to each individual listener and there are millions of listeners there is no way economically to hire an individual to check levels like the engineer does for a radio station that broadcasts one stream to thousands of listeners. Maybe it is time for a standard to be set. I for one would welcome not having to saturate my mixes as much and be able to allow for more volume oriented dynamics in my mixes. I don’t know if Apples standards will ensure fidelity. Nothing they have done so far points in that direction. Their ideas usually point toward convenience and profit for them and servitude by the artist for little compensation. Let’s hope that in this instance they embrace quality.

        • cjhoffmn

          MFIT might provide some help – but Soundcheck might also change the way people believe masters need to be supplied. By applying some sort of normalization at the point of playback (instead of transmission), it might actually make apparent differences in volume less noticeable to the end users – making the RMS level of the track less relevant. That is – provided the process to normalize the tracks at playback doesn’t introduce its own unintended distortion…

          • Jeff Robinson

            ‘Normalization’ drastically changes the feel of a performance. In the analog domain, light compression during tracking is used to get the best average signal to tape to improve and make consistent the signal to noise ratio of the medium. One fader of tape open at a s/n of 68 db means you’re probably in the low 50 db range or worse if you had many faders open at once. From a mixing standpoint, anyone who has suffered through major level rides (either manual or automated) on a fader when working on a mix can appreciate this. From an engineering standpoint, the goal is typically to try and minimally affect the performance. In the digital domain, there is no purpose for normalization of any kind on a track-by-track basis. It doesn’t achieve the same thing as the analog domain. Also, the loudness wars are not the result of normalization.

  2. R.P.

    mastering for itunes is a joke, and the problem also lies in the devices most people are using to listen to music on a day to day basis. there’s no point in chasing after flac/lossless files if you’re wearing cheap earplugs.

  3. wallow-T

    Jus t in case I want to hear some high quality music during the day, I always keep a string quartet in my pocket. 🙂

    (The tradeoffs between sound quality and convenience go back to Thomas Edison at least. For the mass market, it seems that convenience always wins.)

  4. db

    I’m going to speak less about the technical points, and more to just point out that music should not be a luxury only enjoyed at the highest levels with the best equipment at specific times. Am I less of a music-lover because I use some lower quality formats because I do not have enough memory on my machines, or because I choose to put music on portable devices so I can listen to it on transit? Is it cheapening the music I listen to because I use it as an escape instead of a focus? As the author points out, live music is the ultimate experience, and I wholeheartedly agree. For me, part of that magic comes from sharing it with others at this temporary moment that will never happen again in the presence of these amazing artists who are sharing parts of their souls with us. How can that ever be fully captured??

  5. GGG

    Like everything in music, it’s a double edged sword. I’d love to listen to music exclusively on vinyl played through a $15K stereo system. Unfortunately, I can’t afford that, have nowhere to put it, and it’s not very portable. I’d also rather have my iPod and thousands of songs than carry around a book of CDs.

    • wallow-T

      … and I love my iPod for music anywhere. But in the car and home, when space allows, I generally go back to CD because lossy sound grates on me after a while, and I do keep an old Case Logic box of 15 current CDs near me much of the time.

      These all become personal tradeoffs; there are no correct answers.

      One of the unappreciated aspects of the LP era was that the same sound carrier was used by extravagant audiophiles with multi-thousand-dollar installations, and also by teenagers with a $20 record player from Sears with a penny to hold the tonearm down

      • GGG

        Yea, I’m sure if I had a car or stereo I’d use CDs as much as I plugged my iPod in. Unfortunately (from the music standpoint), I use public transportation and live in a shoebox in Manhattan, so my audio options are limited.

  6. Jughead

    Joe Sixpack, Cripsy McThug, and Nino Huevos do not care about quality. They want LOUD.

    The only piece of gear a mastering engineer really needs is a limiter.

  7. Wurd

    Music fans deserve better than the crappy compressed, un-credited bullshit that passes for music files today.

    It IS possible to have a low cost high quality listening experience and if you think it’s too expensive or difficult, you probably have a self-esteem problem.

    It’s a bummer that so many people think that higher quality sound automatically means an expensive hi-fi system and is thus totally impossible for the average consumer to even contemplate.

    If we can watch HD video streaming on our phones with hi resolution displays, why is it not possible for audio to also be high quality?
    Are people so accustomed to thinking that music is worthless that they think even their own enjoyment of music isn’t worth the expense of improving it?
    If you’re willing to pay 200 for a phone and 100 a month for data service, is it ridiculous to not dream of spending an extra $100 for better quality sound?

  8. bjkiwi

    “What continues to be an important aspect of perceived quality is the strength of a great melody, an entertaining and sonically interesting arrangement” … AMEN to that! .. I’ll add to that; ‘and the lyrics’.

    I make a living playing guitar and recording (live gigs and home based commercial studio) and I love the sound of my custom shop strat with lollar pickups thru my AC15 .. and my Adams and Genelecs etc etc…
    BUT, I’ve also got an ipod full of AACs that I play through my very average car speakers and when a track comes on that has the holy trinity of Melody, Rhythm and Lyric all concerns for quality go out the window and I’m grooving like a madman!

    Sure, the cinema and theatre are great .. but if it’s a great story with quality actors and top class direction, then I can enjoy it on the small screen as well

  9. Gimme FLAC

    I agree. Why do so many digital music stores skimp on the quality? If you’re going to charge me the same price as a physical CD, the least you could do is give the files to me in a lossless format.