The AudioFile: What's Really Killing Pop Music

What's really killing pop music?

In a Wall Street Journal article earlier this week titled “Are Techology Limits in MP3s and iPods Ruining Music?”, writer Lee Gomes worries that recording engineers are mixing music for listening on crappy iPod earbuds, and that iPods are somehow technically limiting the quality of pop music. Hogwarsh! Much of today’s music may sound crappy, but it’s not because of iPods or because recording engineers have completely lost their minds — leave that to the pop stars themselves.

In my fantasy world, every album is recorded and mixed to perfection, and people only listen to them on high-end headphones or audiophile-grade speakers. The reality is that sound quality on commercial recordings has always been a mixed bag, and more people are listening to music in compressed format through lousy earbuds or weak speakers — and the music is often coming off an iPod.

In his WSJ article Lee Gomes cites several producers and engineers who say they’re beginning to mix tracks to accommodate limitations inherent in compressed music. Oddly, he also appears to blame the iPod’s hardware for the lousy sound quality of low bit-rate MP3s, though I suspect he may have meant the included earbuds, not the player.

For example, says veteran Los Angeles studio owner Skip Saylor, high frequencies that might seem splendid on a CD might not sound as good as an MP3 file and so will get taken out of the mix. “The result might make you happy on an MP3, but it wouldn’t make you happy on a CD,” he says. “Am I glad I am doing this? No. But it’s the real world and so you make adjustments.”

This is not a trend in the industry. How do I know? Simple: Take any of your favorite bands and listen to their music at, say 96Kbps or 128Kbps, and you can clearly hear the highs are still in the mix — that’s what’s making that awful swirly whooshing sound around cymbal, snare drums, and vocals.

Saylor goes on to say, “What we’ve lost with this new era of massive compression and low fidelity are the records that sounds so good that you get lost in them. Dark Side of the Moon — records like that just aren’t being made today.”

I’ve got to disagree strongly here. Albums like the Red Hot Chili Peppers’ Blood Sugar Sex Magic have an impressive amount of production going on, and you really can get lost in it. More recently, Arcade Fire’s eponymously titled album is another example of excellent immersive production. Sounds like someone needs to revisit modern music under the influence of whatever they were on when they first heard Dark Side.

But it’s not the lo-fi movement or studio compression (to make songs more consistently loud, kind of like TV commercials) that’s keeping new albums from being great. Producers are taking over the music itself, promoting artists who ultimately have nothing to say (sorry, Britney), or trying to turn artists into something they’re not (Avril Lavigne’s punk act doesn’t fool anyone).

Meredith Brooks (singer of the late 1990’s hit “Bitch”) recounts her bizarre experience with a producer: “Let’s just say they tried all sorts of stuff to make me sound less polished. It was pretty weird. I remember thinking, ‘I spent all those years practicing to become a good musician and now they’re actually spending a bunch of money to make me sound like I never bothered.”

Gomes also writes:

“Even those who complain about MP3s say they own and enjoy iPods, and appreciate how they have made music so widely available. They just wish, they say, the device wasn’t setting the technical standard for how music gets made.

The iPod has nothing to do with it! Sure, the earbuds that come with it aren’t exactly audiophile-grade, but they’re a lot better than, say, what you get for free on an airplane. And you can easily upgrade to something that actually does sound really good (like Sennheiser’s PX-100 or Grado SR-60’s) for around $60.

It might make more sense to blame Apple for making the default iTunes setting for ripping CDs 128Kbps AAC format. But at least the company is slowly getting the picture and now offers 256Kbps files in the iTunes Plus Music Store. Part of the reason that’s happening is that storage limitations are disappearing, now that we’ve got 160GB iPods to fill up with better music, not just more of the crappy stuff.

Besides, iPods are being integrated into home stereos at a dizzying pace; just look at how many receivers now offer iPod compatibility. The same is true of car audio systems. As people hear low-quality music in these listening environments, they’ll start to get the urge to find better music.

But it sure isn’t a lack of high frequencies or dynamic range that’s killing pop music. Overproduction of undertalented (not to mention wasted) musicians who’d be better off as Gap models restaurant hostesses seems a far more likely cause.

(Image above courtesy of You’re in our thoughts, Britney.)